Why it's ironic Chennai forum used Sadanand Menon's Spaces to talk about sexual harassment
There have been several allegations of predatory behaviour by the prominent arts editor.
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Last week, I received a mail from Short and Sweet India, a pan-theatre collective in Chennai noting that a sexual harassment forum was being convened at the Alliance Française canteen to discuss sexual harassment in the theatre community. The mail stated that “there is a need for a platform that allows individuals, in this case, women to come to the fore and speak about the incidents without shame or guilt. To bring to notice the people who are involved in such acts, so that further actions can be taken by the concerned individuals in an informed way. The forum is to seek justice for everyone and allow a safe platform that promotes free speech and guidance to the needy”. The email was signed off by Meera Krishnan, V Balakrishnan, Mathivanan Rajendran and Sunil Vishnu all of whom are prominent in Chennai theatre.
It was a long overdue move. There had been several Facebook posts about a man who had repeatedly behaved in predatory ways with women, some of which I’d seen shared by friends in the theatre community. However, stories about sexual harassment and abuse of power in Chennai theatre have been floating for years. These stories have even percolated social circles outside the theatre community which was why even I, as a complete outsider — albeit one with some friends working in theatre — had heard stories through the whisper networks.
Still, it felt like this forum was a discussion happening within a community that I didn’t belong to, so I decided to stay away.
Sadanand Menon is a prominent arts critic and co-founder of Spaces, one of Chennai's foremost cultural venues. Photo: Screengrab/YouTube
Then, the venue changed. The organisers probably realising they needed a much bigger space decided to hold the meeting in Spaces, one of Chennai’s foremost cultural venues*. The problem? There have been several allegations of sexual harassment and predatory behaviour by Sadanand Menon, the co-founder of Spaces. A friend of mine was among that list too. I was incensed.
Over the next few days, I made attempts to reach out to the organisers. I mailed the official email ID. I messaged two of the organisers. I even spoke to everyone I knew in the theatre community who was attending. In almost all cases, the response was absolutely disappointing. I got a reply from the official email ID saying that they understood “my angst” as if my grouse against the choice of venue was a personal one and not a structural issue rooted in the kinds of cultural spaces we legitimise and frequent. I was asked to contact a number which remained switched off. One organiser asked me if there were “concrete cases” against the co-founder.
A day before the event, it became clear that the venue wasn’t going to change despite assurances from some people. On May 1, I decided to attend because by then I had also received word that there were women who weren’t attending the forum because they didn’t consider it a safe space. I wanted to stand up for my friend and as someone who didn’t have anything to lose not being part of this tightknit circle. I could also bring up the choice of venue in the forum.
I arrived a few minutes after 10am and it had already begun. There were more than 50 people in attendance. A prominent female lawyer by the name of Geeta Madhavan was leading the forum apparently to tell us about how sexual harassment could be handled by the theatre community in Chennai.
Over the next hour and a half, there were numerous disturbing and malformed views spouted by Madhavan about consent and restorative justice among others. For one, Madhavan’s view of what constituted sexual harassment was disingenuous to say the least. While the forum had been convened in response to a man who had repeated incidences of abusive behaviour with women, his behaviour was not brought up even once. Instead, there were numerous assertions about “accidental” sexual harassment and how any complaints should not destroy somebody’s life or reputation.
Even while Madhavan spoke about the theatre community instituting a sexual harassment committee, she repeatedly noted that such a committee had to be impartial by making sure it was gender balanced and wasn’t made up by “card carrying feminists because they can also be dangerous”**.
Madhavan continued to use “card carrying feminists” as a pejorative multiple times (a few women also called her out on this after which Madhavan to her credit apologised). She also stressed how such committees should try and resolve disputes and give people chances instead of playing judge and jury. This followed her admission that making this legal by filing a police complaint would be a long drawn and arduous process and worse off for the survivor in the long run. Yet, she shockingly mentioned that women would also be asked to provide proof of the harassment to the committee!
Madhavan also noted that one way of sorting out sexual harassment problems was for survivors to mail the sexual harassment committee for a meeting and explain face to face. It was clearly a dangerous recommendation given that such methods seem to be built to assuage survivors rather than take the case forward especially since written records help survivors establish a paper trail. “The written word has a way of just coming back to bite you in the ass,” she said with a laugh.
Throughout, Madhavan demonstrated her completely patriarchal mindset to an audience almost half of whom were women and the subtext was clear. Women can use sexual harassment cases to ruin men’s lives. Most men don’t knowingly sexually harass women. Boundaries in the theatre community are hard to determine.
People occasionally questioned her on her claims but the moderator told them that these discussions could be reserved for the end.
After Madhavan was finished there was barely half an hour available for a forum that was supposed to let survivors speak up about sexual harassment and violence. Men spoke over women. Women were repeatedly dissuaded from using the name of the abuser. The meeting was officially over at 12, even though it was clear that many still hadn’t had the chance to speak up. It’s close to impossible to get these many people from the Chennai theatre community in the same room again, but no extension was announced. By then, it had become clear that the only reason the meeting was convened was to deflate some of the anger and upset over the abuser’s despicable behaviour. What a complete farce.
After the meeting, I walked up to the moderator and told her about how I had reached out to multiple people about Menon’s behaviour and why it was a sham to hold a meeting at his venue. She was extremely uncomfortable with what I was bringing up and noted that this was just the first meeting. “Spaces was founded by Chandralekha,” she retorted. She also appallingly explained that they couldn’t give up using the venue because it was very important to performing artists. A whole forum about sexual harassment and it still ended with a sentiment like that.
Addressing sexual harassment in theatre is of vital importance. Earlier this year, a survey revealed that more than a third of theatre professionals in the UK have been sexually harassed at work. Last year, Bengali theatre director Pregmanshu Roy was accused of sexual harassment and Mahmood Farooqui was acquitted of rape by the Delhi High Court despite being earlier convicted by a lower court. Two years ago, in a piece on The Ladies Finger, Nandini Krishnan, a theatre veteran, wrote an essay on how the skewed power dynamics and culture of abuse in Chennai theatre forced her to leave it. She writes “I will not be told I must feel good about being abused for love of theatre. I cannot live with myself as an actor, a writer, a journalist, and a woman if I stay silent. Because silence is misconstrued as consent, and I do not consent.”
I wonder how many more women like Krishnan or my friend stay out of these cultural spaces because abusers and predators occupy them and repel them. Chennai theatre needs its #MeToo moment but it’s admittedly a hard task for the community to extricate themselves from abusers, some of whom pose as allies and have been vocal about abuse in Facebook posts online. Till those harder decisions are made, sexual harassment forums like these are just cosmetic attempts at progress.
*After this piece was published, I was reminded that Spaces is used for events leading up to Chennai Pride by the Tamil Nadu Rainbow Coalition. I hope the choice of venues for events this year is given serious thought.
**It was pointed out that Geeta Madhavan apologised for using “card carrying feminists”. I still don’t think that minimises the extent of her harmful statements but I have accordingly updated it in the piece.