#MeToo in Carnatic music - Why there's such silence on the caste dynamics that rule the Sabhas

Carnatic and Bharatnatyam's cultural worlds are hit by two paradoxes. Sexual harassment vs a veil of hypocrisy based on caste and piety.

 |  4-minute read |   23-10-2018
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Even as the #MeToo movement has become a rolling juggernaut in the Indian media circuit, the Carnatic music fraternity stands shamefaced with women naming at least 12 male musicians and Bharatanatyam dancers and accusing several other Sabha secretaries of sexual harassment.

While initially the accusations were muted, subdued, not directly naming the perpetrators, musician Chinmayi Sripada’s tweet opened not a can, but a barrel of worms.

Doyens of the Chennai cultural arena were confronted with serious charges including groping, demanding sexual favours, sending inappropriate messages — reportedly even to a high-school girl.

While speaking to some of the survivors of sexual abuse (some were reportedly abused as early as two decades ago), DailyO got an idea of the apparent power play by the perpetrators owing to patriarchy and caste.

A survivor said, on condition of anonymity, that the upper caste men ruling the Sabhas got away with apparent abuses of power and harassment by seemingly hiding behind their Vibhuti pattais (the holy ash smeared on the forehead by Shaivite men) and Naamams (mark on the forehead worn by Vaishnavite men). “They think their poonool (sacred thread) can exonerate them and they can have their way with any and every woman of their choice. They talk and sing about bhakti after such base actions,” she said in a conversation with the author.

music-academy-copy_102318052509.jpgMusic Academy, the first Sabha to institute an internal complaints committee. (Photo: Music Academy)

Every name on the list put out by Chinmayi Sripada is that of men from affluent or upwardly mobile castes and classes of society.

For generations, upper caste men, especially Brahmins, have been associated with knowledge, piety, dignified and honourable behaviour. So, the initial reaction of the fraternity and the rasikas was of shock and utter disbelief – for instance, at a social gathering, a veteran connoisseur remarked, as I witnessed, “Harikatha (religious discourse) exponent like T N Seshagopalan wouldn't debase himself by such actions.” The operative phrases were “Harikatha” and “wouldn’t debase himself”.

A young aspiring dancer says that she was actually told to sleep with one of the sabha organisers for her to be able to perform. “He told me that he is doing me a favour because he is a Brahmin and I am not. He said that Devadasi dancers were prostituted to Brahmin patrons for generations, and that it would enhance and elevate me as I am from a socially lower class. I was 17 at that time,” she recounts.

She hasn’t performed in the cultural circuit of Chennai at the popular Margazhi season since.

It has been five years since the incident and she has now lost hope of justice. “The Brahmin circuit in performing arts in Chennai is a very close-knit network. When I rebuked him, he spread the word that I was no good,” she says.

Indeed, singer T M Krishna was the only one who did not express shock, but regret. 

Ace vocalist Sudha Raghunathan acknowledges that women have been telling stories of their experiences for years now, in many different platforms for years now, and also urges others to speak out.

However, she warns that the platform must be used judiciously to only seek justice. 

"It is time that we stamp out the perpetrators completely. However, a word of caution that in case of any false accusations, we would be doing more harm than good. While there has to be a complete clean-up and purging of the Carnatic institution, absolute care must be taken that the redressal system does not convict even one innocent. We must also be cognisant of the fact that the allegations do not come at a time when there is a reformation on the side of the accused. As a society, we need to support the ones who are on the path of reformation. Such delayed allegations will only ruin careers and become recipes for disaster, with talent taking backstage and social anxiety and depressions setting in. This is something we need to be cautious about," she told the author. 

Lack of redressal forums

Under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, any professional organisation with more than 10 employees is required to establish an internal complaints committee to hear complaints of sexual harassment. The Act includes the sabhas in its gambit. 

However, none of the sabhas — barring Music Academy — has such committees in place.

Even in the case of Music Academy, the committee was constituted only after the then-secretary, Pappu Venugopala Rao, was named on Raya Sarkar's widely reported sexual harassers list. 

While the artistes in their open letter have requested “sabhas and cultural organisations all over the world to recognise this issue and put forward proactive structural measures to address such claims and prevent future incidents”, it remains to be seen how effective the redressal mechanism is in a world dominated by men who have constantly asserted their power that comes out of a sense of entitlement born from patriarchy and caste.

Also read: How I discovered Karnatik music is caged by caste

Writer

Rajeshwari Ganesan Rajeshwari Ganesan @rajeshwaridotg

Assistant Editor, DailyO

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