The Arts

Two Gurus of Bhopal’s Famed Dhrupad Sansthan Accused of Sexual Harassment

Students accused Ramakant and Akhilesh Gundecha of misconduct and threatening to ruin their careers if they spoke up. Music school says it has initiated an internal probe.

New Delhi: Two famous gurus of the prestigious Dhrupad Sansthan in Bhopal – Ramakant Gundecha and Akhilesh Gundecha – have been accused of sexual harassment in a Facebook post put out by a group called ‘Dhrupad Family Europe’.

An Indian Express report said that the allegations were made by an Amsterdam-based yoga teacher who claimed she was speaking on behalf of a friend who did not want to be identified.

Dhrupad Sansthan is a residential music gurukul that is accredited by Unesco’s cultural heritage committee. It draws most of its students from Europe, where Dhrupad concerts are a regular feature on the music calendar.

The post alleges that several victims of the two gurus have remained quiet about the harassment due to threats. “We have been prisoners of this silence for fear of reprisals, for fear of your judgments, for believing the threatening words Ramakant and Akhilesh Gundecha would say to keep us silent. Fortunately enough, things are starting to change worldwide… They would threaten us saying they always get what they want and won’t accept ‘No’ as an answer,” the post said.

The yoga instructor claimed that the two gurus made sexual propositions to students and touched them inappropriately. They would also caution them that if they “ever wanted to have a career in music” they would have to “comply” and a refusal to oblige would result in “trouble at the Gurukul”.

Ramakant died of a heart attack last year and his elder brother Umakant heads the Sansthan. They both learnt the rare art form of dhrupad from Zia Fariduddin Dagar and his brother Zia Mohiuddin Dagar. Both went on to become celebrated exponents of the art form and were awarded the Padma Shri in 2012 and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 2017.

Akhilesh, the third sibling, plays the pakhawaj and accompanied them on the tours. He has also played along with many other maestros.

Akhilesh, Ramakant and Umakant Gundecha. Photo: Flickr/Joe Mabel CC BY SA 2.0

The newspaper reported that Akhilesh has been accused of harassment by a woman student. The student, who left the institute after a couple of months, said he often spoke about her looks and how lonely he was. “I ignored it initially. I told him that I was here to learn music with clean intentions. He would keep sending messages. When I confronted him once, albeit mildly, as he was my guru, my father’s age, and I really looked up to him, he said it wasn’t his fault and that he couldn’t help himself because of how I looked,” she charged.

Reflecting on how the harassment often turned physical, she added that in one-on-one sessions, Akhilesh would sit really close to students, sometimes behind them, and hold their hands to teach. “One knows when the touch is inappropriate. I was confused and uncomfortable,” she said.

Often the students were left confused and shocked by the advances and did not share their experiences with others. As this student said, she only told her family about what happened and not anyone at the institute. She also told the newspaper that she heard that some students had confronted Akhilesh earlier, but he told them, “You do whatever you want, go to the press if need be, nothing will happen to me.”

The student said most students, especially those from India’s small towns, bore the harassment because they were too keen to learn music. “They (the Gundechas) have the power to put you out of the music circuit. You don’t get any concerts and can’t have a career,” she explained.

The Indian Express report also cited a male student at the institute, who also studied under Akhilesh, claiming that everyone knew about such incidents of sexual misconduct, but remained silent as they did not want to jeopardise their careers. “We knew some of our female friends were feeling disturbed but everyone was too scared to speak up. No one wants their careers ended,” he said.

In response to the charges, the Sansthan has put out a statement, signed by its chairman Umakant, declaring that an internal committee will look into them. “The committee shall look into the allegations levelled against Akhilesh Gundecha, and until the committee submits its report, without averting to the merits of the allegations, Akhilesh Gundecha has voluntarily recused himself from all the activities of Dhrupad Sansthan,” it read.

The Sansthan also stated that the panel would “strive to deliver justice without prejudice” and insisted that “a safe environment and impartial teaching have always been the paramount concern at Dhrupad Sansthan.”

Meanwhile, several prominent musicians and vocalists have demanded that Umakant should step down to allow a fair probe.

Carnatic classical vocalist T.M. Krishna told the Indian Express, “It’s unfathomable that Mr Umakant had no clue about this… He can’t remain chairman if there has to be a fair investigation,” he said, adding, “Guru shishya parampara is beautiful but one needs to stop having the romanticised notion where a person is put on a pedestal. The power structures in it are skewed. And that’s a problem.”