How is the arts sector working on protecting women from sexual harassment?
By Deborah Cornelious
In September 2020, three years after India’s arts and culture sector had its first #MeToo moment, renowned classical musicans Ramakant Gundecha and Akhilesh Gundecha were accused of sexual harassment.
For Delhi-based arts scholar Arshiya Sethi, who had been a friend of the brothers, it felt, she says, like a mirror shattering. As an emergency response, Dr. Sethi put together ‘Arts and the Law: What they don’t teach you in Arts School.’ Co-produced by Kri Foundation and the Visual Arts Gallery, India Habitat Centre, New Delhi, the series is an online audio-visual documentation of conversations designed to answer the specific needs of the sector. The series has now evolved, in partnership with other collaborators including performer Paramita Saha and dancer-lawyer Somabha Bandopadhyay, into the growing online resource centre Unmute.
What did MeToo accomplish?
That MeToo allegations shook the arts world, forcing many prominent organisations to face the reality of senior people being accused of acts ranging from the inappropriate to the prosecutable, is without doubt. That a number of people so accused stepped down from their positions, or were made to, is also a matter of record. But as the Gundecha brothers incident showed, there is is still much that is lurking undiscovered, and sexual harassment and abuse is by no means a solved problem for the sector.
The reality of the arts and culture world in India is that it is mostly an unorganised sector, with enterprises being run on charisma, passion, will doggedness and networking. Workers in the sector face many issues, as a result — uncertain employment, lack of benefits, limited career growth prospects — which may explain why their vulnerability to sexual predators does not get enough or sustained attention.
“This world has so many inter-connections within itself and therefore, interdependence that most survivors are hesitant about speaking up,” says Darshana Davé, Institutional Projects Manager at the India Foundation for the Arts. “And we make demi-gods out of mere mortals. Who can go against such a demi-god and dare speak up against them regarding sexual harassment without support of those around them? The fact that those accused are often powerful and have even countersued the survivors for defamation has a profound chilling effect too.”
Nevertheless, some, like Dr. Sethi and her collaborators, are determined to do their bit, in the best way they can, to bring about change.
Dancer-actor Sanjukta Wagh, co-founder of the Mumbai-based interdisciplinary initiative, Beej, says that while the discourse might have receded in the media, important conversations are certainly taking place, and the creation of safe spaces is happening, even if only in spurts and in pockets.
But is there a concrete movement? “Who do we talk to in terms of policy?” Wagh asks. “There are institutions, but what about groups of people working together, or freelancing? They are not recognised by any institutions so what rights do they have? These conversations haven’t been had.” So, with Beej, she is organising them herself. In January earlier this year, she organised ‘Breaking the Culture of Silence,’ an online workshop addressing the ethical and legal conversations on patriarchy, misogyny and sexual harassment in art pedagogy and practice. During the lockdown she also honed the performance piece, ‘Nayika Interrupted: Exploring consent in Kathak’ which she had premiered as a work-in-progress at the ‘Gendered Academic Cultures & Sexual Harassment in the Academia’: #MeToo & Beyond’ seminar in March 2019.
Some initiatives have been working on the issue for a while, and others have stepped up too.
For instance the Women in Cinema Collective, which aims to build safe, non-discriminatory and professional workspaces for women in Indian cinema through advocacy and policy change, has created a free resource guide that includes information on prevention of sexual harassment. The collective which includes members of the Malayalam cinema fraternity like actors Rima Kallingal, Padmapriya Janakiraman, Parvathy; scriptwriter Deedi Damodaran; directors Anjali Menon and Geetu Mohandas was founded in 2017 as a response to the abduction and assault of a Malayalam actor.
Women for Theatre – an informal collective of women theatre practitioners comprising of members such as thespian Gargi Bharadwaj, historian Anita Cherian, theatre practitioners like Supriya Shukla and Mallika Taneja – has been working towards the creation of safe and equal spaces in theatre since 2018 through support for the MeToo movement and the organisation of regular meet-ups to discuss the advancement of safe spaces. In the same vein, there was ‘Performing Gender — Women in Contemporary Indian Theatre’ with MAP (Museum of Art & Photography) and BIC (Bangalore International Centre) brought together women theatre-makers to discuss, among other topics, whether Indian theatre provides a space for the representation of women’s concerns and aspirations. And In July, BIC, with NWMI (Network of Women in Media, India) and Centre for Policy Research, hosted a deep dive into the Tarun Tejpal verdict.
Last year, the Shaili Chopra-founded website SheThePeople organised the first six-day feminist poetry festival with spoken word performers like Jasmine Khurana, Sushruti Tripathi, Helly Shah, Priya Malik and more. Kolkata-based Arts Forward (helmed by Paramita Saha) has entered the fray by conducting conversations around consent through collaborations with Sethi’s Kri Foundation to expand the voice of their ‘Art and Law’ series; the collective will soon be part of ‘Design, Decide, Democracy,’ conceived by Goethe-Institut to understand the notions of a democratic society.
The dating site, Tinder, has an ongoing series of conversations, ‘Let’s Talk Consent,’ which, among other things, engages with viewers through collaborations with artists, including an ongoing series on Instagram by artist Indu Harikumar. And Mallika Taneja, a Delhi-based theatre artist, recently released an interactive play on Zoom delving into the complexities of sexual violence. Later this year, Chennai-based non-profit Prajnya Trust, which works for gender equality, conducts its annual 16-day campaign against gender violence.
Miles to go
India’s #MeToo movement has not been as successful as one would hope. But the fault is not with the women who named names. Equally, it is not with those who haven’t; we know there are many reasons why it is very difficult to stand up and make accusations of this nature, not least of these the experiences of those who have and the often negligible or non-existent repercussions for their harassers. The industry must reform itself, set up systems, reassure women that these systems will be followed, that there will be consequences for workplace harassment.
Meanwhile, creating safe spaces after the event isn’t ideal, but it’s a start. “Dissent need not be a shout,” Wagh says. “It has to start with a murmur. This is years and years of conditioning that won’t vanish in a year or two. But I certainly feel the younger generation has a vocabulary that I didn’t have at their age.”