India’s classical music and dance ‘guru’ system hit by abuse allegations | Women’s rights and gender equality

Emilee Geist

One of India’s most venerated cultural traditions – the centuries-old guru-shishya (disciple) method of learning classical music and dance – has been hit by allegations of sexual abuse. A group of 90 female classical musicians issued a statement in September, alleging sexual abuse and exploitation of female disciples by their […]

One of India’s most venerated cultural traditions – the centuries-old guru-shishya (disciple) method of learning classical music and dance – has been hit by allegations of sexual abuse.

A group of 90 female classical musicians issued a statement in September, alleging sexual abuse and exploitation of female disciples by their gurus. They described a “fear-driven culture of silence” that forced women to submit to the sexual demands of their gurus for fear of having to end their careers.

The statement called for structural changes to tackle sexual harassment in the sector.

The move followed accusations of sexual misconduct against Akhilesh Gundecha, a classical musician, and his late brother, Ramakant, at the residential music institute in Bhopal which the brothers founded.

A woman, who has not identified herself, alleged that she and several other students experienced “physical, psychological and sexual abuse” over several years. Akhilesh Gundecha has withdrawn from the institute, which has launched an inquiry into the allegations. He told the Guardian: “While there is an inquiry going on by the internal complaints committee of the school, I cannot say anything on the allegations.”

Similar allegations were levelled against gurus in southern India two years ago. But the outrage was muted and had little impact in northern India, which has a different classical music and dance tradition.

“We heard horror stories about men we held in high regard indulging in abuse and intimidation. Young women felt terrorised. We tried to create an atmosphere where at least women felt safe in speaking out,” said acclaimed classical bharatanatyam dancer Swarnamalya Ganesh, from Chennai.

This time, however, the allegations against the Gundecha brothers have triggered a national debate.

Several women have said that abuse by gurus has been an open secret for years.

“The culture of classical music and dance is full of toxic and old-fashioned patriarchy,” said one dance student in New Delhi who did not wish to be named. “To learn from a guru, a woman is expected to agree to any demand, no matter how humiliating.”

For centuries, the classical arts have been taught to new generations through the guru-shishya method, under which students, usually at a very young age, go to live in the household of the guru to absorb his knowledge, both formally in one-on-one classes and informally over meals and the spontaneous interactions of daily life.

The relationship is characterised by absolute obedience and reverence by the student for the guru, who occupies a lofty status bordering on the semi-divine. Some classes begin with the student touching the guru’s feet and end with the guru’s blessing. In return, the guru imparts all he knows to allow the student to develop and flourish.

Singer TM Krishna
Renowned singer TM Krishna is among those campaigning for reform. Photograph: Yasbant Negi/India Today/Getty Images

“It is this power imbalance that is responsible for abuse,” said TM Krishna, a renowned south Indian classical singer. While acknowledging that the tradition has its own charm, he believes it is systemically flawed and celebrates the power inequality in the relationship.

Classical kathak dancer Shovana Narayan, who lives in New Delhi, said the allegations were not a shock. “Enough of us knew,” she said. But it made little sense to single out the classical arts, she added. “Tell me, is there any field or profession where women don’t suffer this behaviour because of the power imbalance?”

But Narayan fully supports the need to expose and discuss the issue. “We badly need periodic reminders of how unacceptable this behaviour is. It is very necessary for us to bring it out and examine it so that we self-introspect. Women should not have to go through this,” she said.

Krishna, along with Ganesh and others, now runs an informal group to lobby for more accountability, raise public awareness and try to break the power structures that allow abuse within the sector. Their first success was when the Madras Music Academy established an internal complaints committee to deal with sexual harassment cases.

But Ganesh said that making headway was difficult. “It’s two steps forward and one step back, partly because the offenders are so powerful and partly because some women in the field keep undermining progress by insisting, ‘but he didn’t do anything to me’,” she said.

But the fact that sexual abuse was being discussed publicly at all was a huge step forward in the world of the classical performing arts, she added.

“Even now the offenders, all very powerful men, are waiting for the buzz to die down. But we don’t let it die down,” said Ganesh.

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