The Arts

Kalakshetra Protests: We Must Empower Survivors to Speak Up

As a society, we must find a way to put aside religious, cultural and political differences on certain issues. Our strong opinions on these matters should not damage the lives of young girls and boys. 

The past few weeks have been tumultuous for the students of Kalakshetra. I will not go into the sequence of events that began unfolding a few months ago culminating with the protests by the students.

The protests are significant for many reasons. Outsiders often see the students of Kalakshetra as non-confrontational and unquestioning, especially since their learning environment seems to provide little room for questioning. The students shattered this stereotyping with their courageous coming together and refusal to budge despite immense pressure. It also reveals that the students were pushed into such a difficult corner that they had no choice but to shout out for their rights. A word of appreciation must also go to the many teachers who stood by them. As an ex-board member of Kalakshetra, I feel I should have been far more vigilant when I was part of the institution and helped evolve a robust and sensitive redressal system.

The protests also showed a mirror to the rest of the performing community. This was a collective failure because whisper networks have been informing us that all is not well within performing arts institutions. All of us owe many students an apology and must make the promise that we will not remain bystanders. This moment has to be transformative not just for Kalakshetra, but for all of us in the performing arts. 

Disturbing narratives

There has been immense solidarity with the students of Kalakshetra. But other disturbing narratives have also been instigated. In certain sections, these students’ appeal for justice is being twisted into a plot to destroy Hindu culture and tradition. Even as I write this piece, conspiracy theories are being developed. We may all have very different views of culture, art, learning and Indian-ness, but to ascribe sinister motives to people who are expressing their support for the hundred-plus students is just conniving deflection. This trivialises the voice of the students and strips them of their agency.

It is fair to assume that none of us want the students to suffer at the hands of abusers. We also know that it is not easy for young girls and boys to speak in public about what they have gone through. Despite this, the insensitivity shown by some commentators and journalists is astonishing. They have continuously indulged in gaslighting and discrediting the students. As a society, we must find a way to put aside religious, cultural and political differences on certain issues. Our strong opinions on these matters should not damage the lives of young girls and boys. Sexual harassment and discrimination cannot be acceptable to anyone. Irrespective of the identity of the institution or individual, we must stand by those who are affected. Individuals who use such delicate situations for their own benefit must be ignored by people across the board. If we cannot work together ethically when so many lives are vulnerable, it means we have lost our collective soul.

I hope that this collectivity enables survivors from across the performing arts to speak up fearlessly. When #MeToo hit the performing arts in 2018 there were many complaints but most of them were anonymous. This is understandable because these fields are tightly-knit microcosms. Everybody knows everyone, and one bad word from a powerful guru, performer or organiser can make or break a career. This danger is compounded when the student is marginalised by caste, gender, sexual preference or class. Even a privileged person from outside the all-powerful coteries faces a considerable degree of othering.

If the happenings of the past week empower some survivors to speak up, it will ensure that alleged perpetrators do not have any wiggle room to find their way back into relevance. Unfortunately, we are already seeing that happening. For this, we must stand by them, not just in the short term on social media, but all the way because they require serious allies. We need to create multiple safe spaces where these conversations can be had without the burden and fear of judgement.

Students protesting at Kalakshetra. Photo: Twitter/@nrithyapillai

Put aside differences

After reading my open letter to the chairman of Kalakshetra, some friends accused me of using a mild tone and not referring to larger structural inequalities within Kalakshetra. Depending on the situation, we must all use different tones in our words and actions. When I penned the letter, I was very conscious that nothing I said should backfire on the students or allow people who disagree with my worldview to hijack the issue. The students love their institution and want Kalakshetra cleaned up and safe for everyone inside. The focus must remain on what the students have been crying hoarse about: sexual abuse. An ally makes sure that those who need to be heard uninterrupted have the centre stage and his words do not distract or make things worse for the affected. 

This raises the question of how we should position larger sociological questions during such critical moments. There can be no doubt that systemic social oppression of various forms is the basis for sexual abuse. But I am not convinced that I should be making that point when Kalakshetra students need everyone’s support, even those who have a different sociological position. Socio-cultural education is an ongoing conversation, which needs to be paused when the stakes at that juncture are so high. Especially in today’s socio-political environment, we have to be sensitive to the repercussions of our every word and action on those in crisis. 

The Kalakshetra saga is not over and a few more chapters are going to be written. I hope all of us – and I mean everyone across religions, castes, genders and political affiliations – will be able to come together and support survivors and expand this conversation beyond the precincts of Kalakshetra. Let us keep in mind that this is not about us! 

T.M. Krishna is a musician, author and activist.