One of India’s greatest cultural institutions has been rocked by a sexual harassment scandal—that involves 100 official complaints. We look at what happened—and the larger problem of sexual exploitation in Indian classical dance.
Editor’s note: While we’ve touched on some of the systemic reasons why sex abuse is rampant in classical arts, our previous Big Story on Hindustani maestros—the Gundecha brothers—offers a more in-depth view.
Remind me about the Kalakshetra…
The Kalakshetra Foundation was founded in 1936 by the legendary dancer Rukmini Devi Arundale—who began by training a small number of students in bharatanatyam. It has since become one of the great cultural institutions of India—recognised by the government as an Institute of National Importance in 1993. Today, it is funded by the Ministry of Culture—and operates under its aegis.
Spread over 100 acres by the seashore in Chennai, it is driven by Arundale’s grand vision “of imparting to the young the true spirit of Art, devoid of vulgarity and commercialism.” The Rukmini Devi College of Fine Arts offers programmes in bharatanatyam, Carnatic music and visual arts—while the weaving centre is best known for the iconic Kalakshetra sari.
Point to note: Arundale’s legacy and the Kalakshetra have long been criticised by both the left and the right. A number of writers have accused Arundale and others of appropriating the dance tradition of shudra courtesans—and turning it into a ‘purified’ art form—making it the preserve of Brahmins. More recently, the Kalakshetra refused to give singer TM Krishna permission to release his book—a tribute to the contributions of Dalits and Christians to Carnatic music—on its premises because it was too “political.”
The Hindu rightwing groups have long been obsessed with Leela Samson—who served as the foundation’s director from 2005 to 2012. She has been attacked for her Jewish-Christian identity, and for ‘de-hinduising’ Kalakshetra. In fact, even the latest #MeToo allegations have become fodder for a conspiracy theory—claiming a plot to turn Kalakshetra into a hotbed of lefty activism à la JNU.
Point to note: Samson was forced to resign in 2012 on allegations of corruption—after a state audit uncovered financial irregularities.
Ok, so what happened now?
How it all started: On December 24, former director Samson shared a Facebook post where she alleged this:
A public institution, a haven of the highest art and contemplation — now turning a blind eye to how young girls are treated. They are vulnerable. A male member of the staff is known to be threatening and molesting them, who are not yet adults.
She quickly deleted the post but screenshots went viral.
The deluge: Soon students and alumni shared their stories of assault and harassment on social media and Whatsapp. A United States-based organisation called CareSpaces—which describes itself as “the first Indian performing arts safe-space”—launched an online support forum. The stories kept flooding in. And soon CareSpaces started a petition demanding action from Kalakshetra—which was signed by over 700 artists.
Kalakshetra digs in: On March 19, it issued a statement strongly denying the allegations—which it dismissed as a smear campaign:
During the last few months, a concerted and organised effort is being made to spread rumours and allegations mostly through social media, aimed at maligning Kalakshetra Foundation These allegations were presented as a false movement to help students speak up, they actually contained numerous ragtag word-of-mouth accounts; some of which were decades old. They seemed to be mostly manufactured by vested interests who aimed to sully Kalakshetra Foundation by falsely projecting the institution as an unsafe environment and thus confuse and distress students and staff.
The foundation claimed that its internal complaints committee—headed by director Revathi Ramachandran—conducted a thorough investigation and ”did not find merit in the allegations.”
Point to note: Kalakshetra also issued a gag order—threatening students with “legal action” if they failed to comply. And several students and staff members claim they were intimidated by authorities:
“Students and teachers have been actively discouraged from raising complaints about harassment, and warned of ‘consequences’ if they dare to do so. I have seen a letter from the administration to a staffer, threatening dismissal citing sections related to misbehaviour for sending these complaints,” alleged G Narendra, an alumni of Kalakshetra...
A few students are also allegedly under pressure to support the accused. “There is pressure on senior students to sign letters declaring we feel safe in his [accused teacher’s] presence,” said a repertory member who didn’t wish to be named.
Going back and forth: On March 21, the story went national when The Print reported the allegations—both of abuse and of an institutional cover up. That’s when the National Commission for Women jumped on board, tweeting:
Chairperson @sharmarekha has written to DGP Tamil Nadu to ensure that relevant provisions are invoked in the FIR against the accused teacher and also against the Director of Kalakshetra for shielding the accused.
But on March 26—last Wednesday—the same NCW closed the case, saying the complainants had backed out from testifying about the abuse.
Cue the enraged protests: Students began to stage all-night sit-ins—and boycotted exams. They also demanded action against four specific faculty members: Hari Padman, Sanjith Lal, Sai Krishnan, and Sreenath. The students also formed a union—which wrote to the Culture Minister G Kishan Reddy and Tamil Nadu CM MK Stalin—asking them to intervene.
Finally, a response: On Friday, the state commission for women announced that it has received over “hundred complaints of sexual, verbal, and mental harassment” against the teachers—and plans to prosecute them. Stalin vowed to ensure justice for the students, as well. The union has called off the protest for now. And the police have now registered an FIR against one of the four faculty members—Hari Padman–who is now absconding.
Didn’t something like this happen before?
The most recent #MeToo scandals have involved classical musicians.
Carnatic music’s #MeToo moment: There have been allegations of sexual abuse in Carnatic music circles since 2018, when the #MeToo movement kicked off in India. Singer Chinmayi Sripaada named some of the most prominent names in the business on Twitter. Other women shared their personal accounts of abuse, and news stories called out the misogyny of Carnatic musicians and bharatanatyam gurus.
All the attention resulted in 231 members of the Carnatic music community issuing an open letter calling for institutional accountability and reform:
Many such instances in the past have been brushed under the carpet, subsequently creating a culture of silent complicity. There continues to be a deafening silence that needs to be broken.
But, but, but: There were no investigations into the complaints—or any consequences. The gods of Carnatic music continue to perform in the leading sabhas. And there is no sign that any of them—including the Gundechas—will ever be punished for their crimes. As singer TM Krishna acknowledges, fear and apathy have won the day:
Most of the top-ranking musicians have not shown any interest in taking up this cause after initially signing petitions and putting up Facebook posts… even the few who wanted to speak up finally decided to back off out of fear that they will be singled out and their professional chances will be affected.
The Gundecha brothers: In 2021, two prominent maestros of Hindustani classical music—brothers Ramakant and Umakant Gundecha and their cousin Akhilesh—were accused of sexual assault and harassment (See: our Big Story). They preyed on students at their famous gurukul in Bhopal called Dhrupad Sansthan. And the complaints of abuse include at least one instance of rape. BBC News has more graphic detail.
But, but, but: Despite the international media spotlight, none of the Gundecha men have been brought to justice. Ramakant died before the allegations were made public. A new internal complaints committee was set up—but Umakant has moved the High Court to block the recommended penalties. Twelve women have filed cases against him and Akhilesh, but those haven’t moved forward either.
Birju Maharaj: In the case of the kathak legend, the accusations became public only after he passed away in 2022. A number of the accounts suggest that he raped young dancers under his tutelage. Women also shared similar experiences with other kathak gurus. But again, not much has changed as a result.
The good news: At least one person—pakhawaj player Ravi Shankar Upadhyay—is now in jail after a student filed repeated complaints against him.
So this is a problem with any kind of classical art in India…
Sexual abuse is hardly confined to any one area or industry. But both classical music and dance are uniquely burdened with the guru-shishya relationship—which is easy to abuse. In the Indian tradition, the guru is essentially god. And to learn is to submit, unconditionally. For instance, here’s how students expressed their relationship with the Gundecha brothers:
All of us have felt that it is the best place to learn and we have surrendered ourselves in the hands of the Gundecha brothers, because it is the proper behavior of a shishya: to have faith in your Guru, he who gives us the example in society, he who guides us in our learning process, he who becomes our mentor like a father.
More specifically, this slave-like subservience—“to surrender tan-man-dhan to our gurus”—is romanticised, as Malini Nair notes:
The sexual assault and bullying in the gurukuls in the name of the ‘guru-shikshya’ relationship is driven by the same unequal power dynamics as in academia. Only, here it is wrapped in mystical references to parampara, naad-anhad, atma-paramatma. Indian classical arts traditions place the guru on a near mythical pedestal, beyond question and reproof.
What’s different about dance: In an eye-opening Firstpost essay, Saberi Mishra identifies two ways in which nritya—specifically, kathak—enables abuse.
In Kathak, abhinaya is an integral part of the repertoire. It is also an element that takes a dancer many years to perfect, as it involves expressing mature emotions through movement and expression. These emotions often involve expressing love, desire, and the torment of waiting for the beloved to come home. Commonly in the Kathak community, students are told that in order to be able to manifest these complex emotions, it is important to also experience them in real life, otherwise, it is not possible to convey them with the depth that is required.
Needless to say, students who do not want to gain such “experiences” are forced to leave.
Also this: In recent years, performances have shifted from individual dancers to dance troupes. In kathak, only a handful of gurus are teaching students to pursue solo careers:
These group productions tend to promote the guru’s work more than the different abilities of each dancer. As a result of this, the demand for solo Kathak dancers or dancers with their own identity has decreased, and has meant that disciples are over-dependent on their gurus for professional opportunities of any kind.
The bottomline: We don’t think this story needs one. It’s far too tired and familiar.
The Print has the best reporting on the allegations—and mishandling of them. Our Big Story on the Gundecha brothers has lots more on how the culture of classical music enables abuse. Firstpost has the best piece on abuse within kathak circles. For a critique of casteism in bharatanatyam, see Scroll. If you want to dive into the debate on the origins of bharatanatyam among anti-casteist activists, read The Federal and Gitanjali Kolanad in India Seminar. Since everyone is innocent until proven guilty, you can also read News18’s sympathetic report on one of the accused, Hari Padman.