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Kalakshetra Chennai has a PoSH problem. Students fume, gag order imposed, art world shaken

Over a hundred students of Kalakshetra Foundation's fine arts college have been pushed to secret online forums to share stories of sexual harassment by the 'most influential person on campus'.

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Chennai: Female students of Kalakshetra Foundation in Chennai felt sick as they stood in the sun on 8 March 2023. The enveloping humid heat wasn’t to blame. They were watching a senior teacher who had been accused of sexually harassing students being felicitated on Women’s Day by the institute’s director. On 19 March, they learned that the teacher had been given a clean chit by the internal complaints committee headed by the director. The committee described the allegations as “mostly manufactured” and “aimed at maligning” Kalakshetra’s reputation.

That was also the day the foundation issued a gag order preventing students and staff from discussing the events from December 2022 after a former director posted details of alleged sexual harassment cases online. The Facebook post has since been deleted.

Fear and distrust are rife in the outwardly peaceful campus of Rukmini Devi College for Fine Arts, Kalakshetra Foundation—an institute of national importance, directly funded by the Ministry of Culture. Several students, alumni and faculty members that ThePrint spoke to, before the gag order, allege that sexual harassment by a powerful senior faculty member has been going on unchecked and unabated for years.

The stories of continued sexual harassment at Kalakshetra, and claims that it is now silencing students indicate the arduous battle that young women face when they are up against a formidable institution with a storied reputation, and one that has an internal PoSH committee and goes through the motions on paper. For one, it now appears that Kalakshetra’s process did not earn the students’ trust. It is also symptomatic of the skewed power dynamic and the normalisation of the ancient guru-shishya dynamic, even in modern times.

“Any mentor-mentee relationship is unequal. In the case of the guru-shishya parampara, the guru’s unbridled power is sanctified. This leads to toxic class environments, discouragements, verbal and sexual abuse, and control over the student’s life,” said Carnatic singer and activist TM Krishna.

“Just because some of us had healthy relationships with our guru doesn’t mean the system is all right,” he added.

At first glance, the college acted swiftly when allegations surfaced online. Seemingly in accordance with the Prevention of Sexual Harassment (PoSH) Act 2013, the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) took suo moto action and launched an investigation. But with the teacher exonerated in less than three months, it’s business as usual—only now, under a blanket of studied silence.

A notice published on the college’s website warns students of ‘legal action’ if they talk about the case.

It has added to the simmering anger and helplessness among students who have turned to international forums that they consider to be safe or are organising ‘secret’ online discussions to share stories.

The alleged lack of transparency has further muddied the waters. For one, the internal committee reportedly took action even though there was no written complaint.

“Any inquiry under the PoSH law has to be initiated if there is a written complaint. It’s a prerequisite for ensuring that such inquiries stand the test of a court scrutiny. This is important as the law also has an appeal provision,” said Sana Hakim, lawyer and founder of Mumbai-based legal firm PoSH at Work. Hakim added that as per the law, the committee can also assist the aggrieved woman in writing the complaint.

It’s also not clear if the Kalakshetra internal committee interviewed any aggrieved students before publishing its findings. A few students allege that the administration informally coaxed them into writing letters in support of the accused teacher.

“I am legally moving forward with all the accusations that have been put forward against me,” the teacher told ThePrint in a WhatsApp message but refused to name any individual.

Also read: Lights, camera, sexual harassment—PoSH committees in Mumbai showbiz failing MeToo

Breaking the norm of silence

A day before Christmas, Kalakshetra’s former director Leela Samson wrote a post on Facebook about a teacher who had been harassing and molesting students for over a decade.

Samson soon deleted the post, but it had already elicited a flurry of responses and set off a chain of events. Screenshots were taken and posted on Instagram and other platforms. Students and alumni started sharing their stories. And dead WhatsApp groups pinged to life.

“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,” Samson wrote. The post’s screenshot can be accessed on public pages on Instagram.

There was an outpouring of frustration in the comments section, screenshots of which have been accessed by ThePrint. Students both present and past raised red flags about an alleged misogynistic culture prevailing in the institute.

A cottage in Rukmini Devi College for Fine Arts where Bharatnatyam classes are held | Photo: Shubhangi Misra/ThePrint

“The guy who portrays Laxamana is a pervert. He openly stares at girls and misbehaves with them…. he has proudly said that there’s no cottage in Kalakshetra where he hasn’t ‘made out’ with someone…” wrote a student in the comments section.

Worried alumni in Chennai organised discussions to figure out how to address the issue, with Kalakshetra students joining via clandestinely shared live stream links.

Many aggrieved students turned to the United States-based Care Spaces, which describes itself as “the first Indian performing arts safe-space”.

On 25 December, it started an online peer support forum, and an anonymous email for Kalakshetra students who wanted to share their stories of sexual misconduct they might have faced on campus.

The number of voices have ballooned since then. Over a hundred students have flooded the forum with stories of alleged abuse. Following this outcry, Care Spaces, which stands for Conscientious Artistes Rallying for Ethical Spaces, started a petition in January demanding transparency and accountability from Kalakshetra.

The petition has been signed by 641 artists including alumni and students. Of the signatories, more than a hundred identified themselves as current staff, students and officials of Kalakshetra. On their Instagram page, the organisation has also posted stories that students have allegedly sent to them anonymously.

Some students alleged they had been recorded on video without consent; others described how they had taken to harming themselves.

Also read: Dalit Bahujan women need to reclaim Vishaka guidelines — they started Indian #MeToo first

Papering over the allegations

But for Rukmini Devi College for Fine Arts, Kalakshetra Foundation, the matter is closed.

“A concerted and organised effort is being made to spread rumours and allegations mostly through social media, aimed at maligning Kalakshetra Foundation,” it wrote in an official notice posted on its website on 19 March, Sunday. It went on to add that “gossiping, spreading rumours and bad mouthing are incredibly toxic in a learning environment”.

Students felt let down, Care Spaces announced that it was “beyond furious”, and TM Krishna called it a “deeply disappointing statement that uses language of politicians.”

“In a single brush, it accuses everyone who raised these issues as people with vested interests wanting to sully the image of the institution. I strongly believe those who are speaking are doing so because of their love for the institution and students,” Krishna told ThePrint via mail.

He said the allegations are bigger than the individuals in positions of power. “The statement further threatens people with legal actions. The institution does not recognise that this is not just about an ICC, it is about the culture within the institution.”

Kalakshetra Foundation had been following all the guidelines of the PoSH Act, holding annual briefings by external members, informing students about internal committee members on notice boards, and changing its members in a timely manner.

The college’s website has the contact numbers and names of the internal complaints committee members, but it was updated only last month. The link to the committee only appeared on the website after 4 February 2023, as screenshots below show.

“Please check Wayback Machine, the information about IC members was added only after the community demanded it,” said Janani Ramesh, co-founder of Care Spaces.

But the students, teachers and alumni say that the college has failed to adhere to the most important aspect of the PoSH Act — help people in filing complaints.

Many see the college’s stand as combative and harsh.

“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 and a Bharatnatyam dancer based in Chennai.

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.

Others said the college organised a PoSH briefing, but made it very difficult to ask questions.

“During Q&A, our questions were put off. The director [Revathi Ramachandran] didn’t like any inquiries,” said a senior student. At the session, they asked questions on consent without directly naming any staff member.

“The director’s attitude was very hurtful. We expected a woman to understand our plight, but she got agitated and said that we are not grateful towards her or what she does for the institute,” the student added.

ThePrint reached out to Revathi Ramachandran but her only response was a link to the notice on the committee’s findings issued on Sunday.

A Kalakshetra repertory member who resigned on 4 February alleging she was verbally harassed by the accused teacher also mailed the internal committee about the events leading up to her resignation.

“But I was never called for a hearing, and wasn’t made aware if any investigation was underway,” she told ThePrint.

Director Ramachandran didn’t confirm if this particular complaint was part of the committee’s investigation or not. Her position as director of Kalakshetra Foundation and chairperson of the internal committee was a point of conflict for the students who feared the hearing wouldn’t be fair.

“The director dissuades us from even trying to raise a complaint. Her common response is: ‘You all are harassing me’,” alleged a repertory member.

Alumni too have been knocking on the doors of the foundation demanding answers but with little success.

“I have approached the director in my personal capacity to ask what Kalakshetra is doing about the allegations. I just want to know if our girls are safe and if an inquiry is being conducted. But we were never told about anything,” said Sai Kripa, a Bharatanatyam teacher and an alumni of the institute.

Complaints of antagonistic responses from organisations are common.

“Usually when the complaint is filed against a senior employee, there are more apprehensions in escalating PoSH complaints for obvious reasons,” said lawyer Hakim.

The National Commission for Women (NCW) is yet to take cognisance of the Kalakshetra matter. ThePrint reached out to BJP leader Khushbu Sundar, who recently became an NCW member. Sundar said she is aware of the allegations, she didn’t give any information about any action taken by the commission.

Tamil Nadu State Commission for Women Commissioner AS Kumari said she has received no complaints of sexual harassment from anyone studying at or employed by Kalakshetra. “If anyone needs support or guidance to lodge complaints, they can directly reach me and I will assist them,” she told ThePrint.

These developments also find no mention in mainstream English or Tamil newspapers or South-focussed digital media outlets.

“News from the art world has always been sidelined. Earlier, our place was relegated to page 12 of a newspaper, now we are nowhere,” said Anita Ratnam, founder and publisher of online magazine Narthaki, which is dedicated to the performing arts. “We’re not considered mainstream, so any developments in our world are hardly ever reported on.”

The one exception to this was during the MeToo campaign when a handful of male artistes were named and shamed.

Narthaki has been sharing posts by Care Spaces, and informing its readers about the Kalakshetra developments on Instagram, although there’s nothing on its website.

A powerful personality on campus

To be part of Kalakshetra’s dance drama is a dream come true for young students. For four years, students train night and day for a coveted spot on the stage. Their first on-stage performance is a ‘kacheri’ — the final graduation exam. Those who pass with first division get admission into the college’s two-year post graduate diploma programme during which they’re given stage training.

The accused teacher has considerable control over casting, and allegedly takes undue advantage of junior students.

“He can add or remove a name [from a lineup] at his own whim and fancy. He removed my name from a dance drama I was set to perform in. If it can happen to me, it can definitely happen to students too.” Narendra told ThePrint.

Students on their way to class in Kalakshetra | Photo: Shubhangi Misra/ThePrint

The teacher has been described as the “show runner”, and “most influential person on campus,” by multiple staff and faculty members.

“He’s the right-hand man of the director. She [Ramachandran] does everything per his advice and trusts him blindly. He’s the one running the show, not her,” a Kalakshetra teacher told ThePrint.

It’s a view other people share as well.

“Revathi is an ‘outsider’, she’s not a Kalakshetra alumnus and heavily depends on his insight to navigate her way in the institute. She trusts him blindly,” Narendra added.

Kalakshetra’s repertory promises national and international exposure. Students get to travel with senior dancers to countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, and the United States to perform.

“Look at the kind of opportunities G20 is bringing to Kalakshetra students. Their contingent is set to perform in so many cultural programmes,” said Anita Ratnam, senior performing artiste and Kalakshetra alumnus.

A former post graduate student recalled a 2019 incident that got her in trouble with the teacher.

“I had just started the post graduate diploma course, and had skipped assembly because I wasn’t feeling well. The teacher enquired about my health, and suggestively asked me if I would go home with him, in evening hours. I refused,” she recalled. “After this, he made life at Kalakshetra very difficult for me. He verbally abused me in Malayalam on various occasions.”

A day before she was set to portray Krishna in a dance drama, he came to the auditorium and declared that she wouldn’t be playing the lead role.

“He said I am not a ‘genuine person’.”

Other members of the repertory alleged that it was an unwritten rule that to survive in the dance dramas, one had to be subservient to him.

“He would never ask for sexual favours directly. But ask you to come to his house in the evening hours. It’s not like he would force you, one had different ways of being of service too. Members of the repertory used to go to his house to clean and chop his fish, buy groceries for him, or babysit his children,” said the repertory dancer who had resigned in February.

There’s also a sentiment among the students and teachers that female students were willingly giving into these alleged demands of the accused teacher.

“If things were happening consensually between two adults, we didn’t think we could interfere,” said a teacher. But nobody questioned the power imbalance in the ‘consensual’ relationships. In the private corporate sector, it’s common practice for HR policy to ban fraternisation between employees for this very reason.

ThePrint asked Ramachandran if student-teacher relationships in Kalakshetra are banned or not. This copy will be updated when she responds.

“This culture of seva (service) is not just about one teacher. Gurus who came before him also did the same things,” said another teacher.

Members of the concert group said that senior dancers would often call them to their rooms while on tours, and ask for ‘massages’. The dancers also report constantly hearing derogatory comments about their bodies.

“We were playing apsaras in a dance drama, and were dubbed ASS-paras by senior members. Once, a senior dancer commented on a colleague’s buttocks and told her that she has ‘big watermelons’. I was told this once, and I couldn’t bring myself to perform the next day,” a student told ThePrint.

Also read: ‘No panga with minister’—Haryana woman sprinter’s lone battle against sexual harassment

A college stuck in time 

A walk in the Kalakshetra campus is an almost meditative experience. A sprawling gurukulam, where students train in classrooms called ‘cottages’, is spread across the campus. When classes are on, a passerby can catch glimpses of young dancers training on the beat of Tattapalkas.

The only sound interrupting this ballet is birdsong.

Students have to abide by a strict regime and olden rules. In the name of inculcating discipline, the administration rules can be strangulating. There are CCTV cameras everywhere, keeping a close eye on the movement of students, teachers, and visitors.

It’s a campus devoid of students chatting away in a college canteen—because there isn’t one. There is no typical college campus commotion, or laughter echoing down the halls.

Day scholars are discouraged from hanging out in the campus, while hostel students aren’t allowed to set foot outside the campus barring one weekend a month.

The Pinjra Tod movement is yet to reach this campus.

“We are adult women, but we have to take permission from the director to meet even our parents,” said a senior student.

In January 2022, on Pongal weekend, a group of friends went to Puducherry. One of them posted a photograph from the beach on Instagram.

“The director called us to her office and questioned us about going on a holiday without informing the college. Our parents’ consent was of little value. In front of male teachers, she zoomed into the photograph of a student, pointing to her cleavage and shamed her for wearing ‘such’ clothes,” a former senior student said.

ThePrint contacted Ramchandran on WhatsApp messages and email regarding these allegations. We will update the story once we receive a response.

The purity of Sanskriti 

The guru-shishya relationship is the most cherished aspect of sanskriti (culture), which might have vanished from most modern schools and colleges but still prevails like an unwritten rule in the classical arts. Adherence to this culture was evident in Kalakshetra too. Students would stand upright and bow down whenever a teacher passed, like a soldier standing upright whenever an officer passes.

But since the MeToo campaign, this tightly knit, almost secretive performing arts sector is slowly coming under increased scrutiny.

In January 2022, allegations of sexual abuse by Kathak dancer Birju Maharaj were made by multiple women, but only after his death. In December 2020, a 23-year-old student lodged a police complaint alleging molestation by noted pakhawaj player Ravi Shankar Upadhyay, who used to teach at Delhi’s Kathak Kendra. She had been studying there for 11 years. The dance centre didn’t have an internal complaints committee, and one was constituted only after the police complaint was filed.

Twelve students of Bhopal’s prestigious Dhrupad Sansthan had alleged physical, psychological and sexual harassment by Akhilesh and Ramakant Gundecha in September 2020. The internal committee found the Gundecha brothers guilty, but they challenged the report in the Madhya Pradesh High Court, where the case is ongoing.

“The women’s claims were vindicated by the internal committee. But it did little to harm the reputation of work of the Gundechas, who were still invited to high-profile events and seen hanging out with the Chief Minister,” said Arshiya Sethi, a Delhi-based advocate.

The classical arts community in Chennai itself has been rocked by allegations of sexual harassment. Sadanand Menon, a friend of legendary Chandralekha, was accused of sexual harassment by a student at SPACES, a Chennai-based arts foundation, after his name emerged in the controversial 2018 list of ‘predators’ in Indian universities — compiled by law student Raya Sarkar. Menon has denied these allegations.

These are examples of guru-shishya dynamic that has been twisted into something more sinister.

But G Narendra dismisses this reading. “The guru-shishya relationship of the past doesn’t exist anymore. We take a fee to teach students, not dakshina. I don’t agree with this assessment,” he said.

ThePrint spoke to four current and former staff members of Kalakshetra, and nine students and alumni. Almost all of them requested that their names be withheld fearing they would be targeted.

This article is part of a series called PoSH Watch.

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