New Delhi: When Arunima* first entered the Kalakshetra campus in 1992, she believed she had found a safe space where she would be surrounded by like-minded people. However, she claims that her experience at the reputed Chennai-based dance academy dashed this hope. While she was able to finesse her Bharatnatyam skills, she alleges some members of the faculty exploited her vulnerability for sexual favours.
At the time of the alleged abuse, Arunima, a trans woman, said she still presented as a male and did not have the vocabulary to express her female side.
Currently residing in the US, she filed a complaint with the Tamil Nadu State Commission for Women on 24 April, detailing the abuse she allegedly experienced decades ago at the hands of P.T. Narendran, currently a board member of the Kalakshetra Foundation, and Mohanan, a faculty member at Rukmini Devi College for Fine Arts (RDFCA).
According to the complaint, Narendran purportedly solicited oral sex from her, while Mohanan coerced her into having sex with him two or three times. She has claimed that the incidents occurred in the 1990s and early 2000s when she was a student and, later, a member of the concert department.
“I felt as if these faculty members and senior dancers at Kalakshetra were using me for masturbation. They had wives, they had a family, and they would never acknowledge me in public. They were using me for their own gains and exploiting my vulnerability,” she told ThePrint in an interview over Zoom.
She added that the SCW has acknowledged her letter and said it will investigate the matter.
ThePrint contacted Narendran and Mohanan via calls and messages for their comment on Arunima’s allegations. While Mohanan is yet to comment, Narendran responded with a statement saying he was “deeply perturbed” by the allegations.
“I have full faith in the state women’s commission which appears to be in receipt of the complaint. Needless to add, I will cooperate to the fullest in any investigation. I would like to reiterate that I have tremendous respect for the dignity of another human being. In the end truth will prevail,” the statement said.
Narendran also said in the statement that he believed his appointment to the Prevention of Sexual Harassment (PoSH) committee at Kalakshetra had made him a “convenient target”.
“I reiterate my commitment to the due process of law and emphasise that a neutral, fair investigation should be done, to thwart further damage not just to individuals but to the entire community of artists,” he added in the statement.
Arunima’s complaint comes in the wake of several allegations of sexual harassment at Kalakshetra. ThePrint had first reported on the issue on 21 March. Subsequently, assistant professor Hari Padman was arrested and suspended after a student filed a complaint against him. Three other contractual staff members facing similar allegations were also dismissed.
Last month, Narendran had told ThePrint that the governing board intended to meet all of the demands of students who had been protesting over the institute’s alleged inaction on sexual harassment complaints.
Notably, Arunima told ThePrint that she felt “empowered” by other alleged victims from Kalakshetra coming forward and so decided to raise her voice as well.
Also read: Kalakshetra Chennai has a PoSH problem. Students fume, gag order imposed, art world shaken
What the complaint says
Narendran was an instructor/guest artist at the concert department at the time of the alleged abuse, Arunima said in her complaint.
“He would invite me to his quarters on campus while he was alone. He wanted that I give him oral sex and I did it,” her email to the SCW alleged.
In her letter, she explained why she felt compelled to acquiesce to the alleged demands of the “powerful and celebrated” artist. One, she said, was that he wielded considerable influence in the concert department, which offers an opportunity to dancers to showcase their talent on a global platform.
“While I felt vulnerable as a student, I was also shocked and didn’t know how else to react, but to oblige. Narendran held a powerful sway over the concert section and at RDCFA in general. He is a celebrated artist in the Bharatnatyam world, and he could make or break the careers of budding artists like myself. I now realise that the power dynamic was such that I could not have resisted,” her complaint further said.
What complicated matters even more was that as a young dancer she idolised Narendran, known for his star power.
“We came close when I was part of the concert department and worked as a junior with him,” she said.
Arunima has made similar allegations against Mohanan, then a tutor at Kalakshetra.
According to her, Mohanan allegedly coerced her into having sex a few times at his quarters within the campus.
“I would have to go to his house for discussions, rehearsals, and even for casual visits, and if his wife was away, he would take advantage of my humility, timid behaviour, and generally amiable nature, and force me to have sex with him,” the complaint said.
“He would lie on my body and rub his private organs against my thighs and buttocks. This happened 2-3 times while he was residing in the Kalakshetra quarters located next to Marundeeswarar Temple, Thiruvanmiyur. He was a tutor the entire time I was at Kalakshetra,” the letter added.
‘Realised the abuse in hindsight’
Arunima belongs to a small town in Kerala where she spent her formative years, and learnt Bharatnatyam under the aegis of a guru. However, in her letter to the SCW, she said she faced abuse even as a minor.
When she arrived in Chennai, she felt she had finally found some kinship in the city’s trans and gay community, but Kalakshetra was “more orthodox than I thought it would be”, she told ThePrint.
At the dance academy, though she got some succour, being able to express her “feminine side”, this was not always accepted by others and she faced ridicule and disapproval on several occasions.
“I was mocked for my feminine nature. I wasn’t allowed to play some roles I wanted to. I used to get ridiculed for making my eyebrows,” she recollected. “I had once helped a colleague with make-up before a performance. While the student was happy, her guru immediately asked her to remove it, and I was told not to do such feminine things.”
Arunima told ThePrint this environment exacerbated her gender dysphoria — the distress or discomfort caused when a person’s gender identity does not match their biological sex at birth.
Thus, she said, she misinterpreted the sexual attention she allegedly received from the male senior dancers.
“I thought they understood and accepted the woman in me. But in hindsight I realise the kind of abuse I was going through,” she added.
Silent for all these years, Arunima said she felt “very empowered by the young women who have come forward to share their experiences”, and so decided to do the same.
“All these years I have lived with this trauma, it worsened my gender dysphoria, and I had no help,” she said.
*Name changed to protect privacy
(Edited by Asavari Singh)
Also read: Conflict of interest? Kalakshetra board member’s son representing accused Hari Padman in sexual harassment case