Since December 2022, when the first public post about serial incidents of alleged sexual harassment at the Kalakshetra Foundation appeared, the Chennai arts community has been in tumult. Two weeks ago, the story finally appeared in national media outlets, immediately plunging the scandal into political waters. The issue is being cast in cultural nationalist terms—“people are trying to malign our culture”—and victims are being named, intentionally or inadvertently, with or without consent. Slowly, inevitably, we are losing sight of the horror of the experience of sexual harassment and trying to grapple with a host of external issues that are, in fact, irrelevant.
But Kalakshetra is not unique. Since 2018, when the first allegations of sexual harassment at the workplace, hitherto unspoken, began to be shared in public, victims have spoken up at eminent arts institutions across the country, including the Dhrupad Sansthan in Bhopal. Many teachers and performers have been accused. And as they continued to be invited to perform at prestigious platforms, conversations on how to address the problem intensified.
Some of the challenges in dealing with sexual harassment allegations are peculiar to the Indian arts. First, the teaching relationship is considered sacred traditionally, with revered gurus wielding immense power and influence. Second, most teaching relationships are informal, with no teacher training, no regulation of learning settings and no contracts. Contracts are also rare for performance arrangements.
This means the teacher or concert organiser is rarely accountable and there are no redressal mechanisms. Where they do exist within institutions, they may not be functional. Add intersectional power imbalances to this hierarchical culture, such as caste, class and family background or disability, and the potential for violence is evident. Inequality of status and power enables sexual harassment and this is the most common feature of Indian arts education, which remains largely untouched by the democratising changes experienced elsewhere—albeit still unevenly.
Learning the arts in an institution does not mitigate students’ vulnerability to sexual exploitation. Each institution’s response to allegations has led to a lively, though short-lived, discussion on whether they were fully in compliance with the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 or not (educational institutions are workplaces where teachers do the work of teaching; students, the work of learning; and administrative and support staff, the work of institutional and infrastructural maintenance). Legal compliance, however, is only the beginning. It is only a publicised accusation that motivates institutions and individuals to think about prevention.
The first response by most institutions and individuals is damage control. They hurry to deny the allegations. They offer testimonials to the talent and service record of the individual concerned. They point to the heritage and reputation of the institution. Under pressure, they catch up on or clarify their compliance record.
When that record is clarified, lacunae are discovered. In one instance, there may be no organisational policy against sexual harassment, as required, and if there is one, it may predate the law, need updating and/or be buried in a folder somewhere. The law requires that such a policy be shared with members of the organisation, even displayed in a public place.
Ditto, the internal committee (IC). A committee which is sometimes hastily put together. Where it does exist, we find some common problems. First, the head of the institution chairs it. This is a bad practice because it changes the power balance within the IC in favour of the status quo or institutional prestige. Other members are beholden to, or dependent on, the head. Second, gender imbalance within the committee—a male head (which is against the law); a majority of men or an absence of men (which goes against natural justice); and usually, the absence of any LGBTQ+ member. Third, different functions and levels across the organisation are unrepresented, so that the IC only has department heads, teachers or administrators. Often, with teaching institutions, the IC has no student representative. The ideal is that a complainant or accused should find someone “of their own” before them during this intimidating experience. Fourth, the external member may or may not be qualified. The law specifies certain qualifications but I would submit that it is not just the letter of the law but an understanding of the law and the social context that qualifies a member. Finally, ICs are supposed to have three-year terms so that they do not become an additional vested interest. This rarely happens because it is so hard to constitute them correctly.
There are other common problems—no dedicated, clear way of reaching the IC and inconsistent procedures for accepting complaints among them. In other words, you may have the perfect IC but no one knows how to reach it.
Creating awareness about the policy, the IC and the complaints procedure aside, the law also requires organisations to conduct awareness training. This should include, first and foremost, awareness about what constitutes workplace sexual harassment, how to recognise it, and, with rapidly changing social mores, how to mark interpersonal boundaries in the workplace. One question that has arisen in most cases is why those in positions of authority let sexual harassment continue for so long. If there were whisper networks and if sexual exploitation and bullying were open secrets, why did someone not act? The answer: What can we do once it has happened and if no one complains? Awareness training is more than compliance; it is key to building a culture of equality, mutual respect and transparency in the organisation.
The issue is not just how you deal with what has happened. The issue is also how you prevent its recurrence—and the answer is not CCTV cameras.
When an institutional head or any other person in authority (the Vishaka Guidelines clearly extend responsibility beyond the formal employer) hears about incidents or even hears rumours, they must not wait for the victim to file a complaint. The structures that enable abuse will usually deter the victim from speaking out. Sexual harassment is an act of intimidation, not uncontrollable passion.
What leaders can do is to create safe settings for discussions that raise awareness. Invite an expert for a general talk. Show a short film and have small group discussions. Host groups of students and staff to talk with you freely about issues within the institution—they may start with canteen complaints but once you build trust, they will speak out about other things. In other words, open the windows and doors and let truth flow freely.
In the recent case, Kalakshetra claimed it had conducted a confidential, suo motu hearing and established the allegations were false. What does “confidential” mean? It means not naming the victim and the accused and not sharing prurient details. It means the testimonies are confidential and the report is confidential.
In the mandatory reporting, you record the existence of a case, when the complaint was received and when the report was submitted, without names and particulars. It does not mean that the hearing should be so secret that complainants do not know and witnesses are not called. Compliance is incomplete without an understanding of the spirit of the law.
The biggest mistake institutions make is to not understand this: Your reputation is damaged by the opaque obfuscation of your response and the willingness to tolerate injustice in the name of prestige. Your openness, responsiveness and willingness to be accountable burnish your reputation. Art seeks and expresses truth and murkiness, panic and blind loyalty diminish your art. We are left not with artistic culture but rape culture.
Swarna Rajagopalan is the founder of Prajnya, which works to raise awareness about gender-based violence, including supporting the creation of safe and equal workplaces.