Kalakshetra’s summer of discontent

Charges of sexual harassment have threatened to upend the equilibrium at this prestigious haven of the fine arts. Deepa H. Ramakrishnan spoke to students, alumni and administrators to map the current crisis and the growing pressure for wider reform 

April 15, 2023 01:15 am | Updated 03:20 pm IST

Students protest against sexual misconduct in Kalakshetra Foundation at Thiruvanmiyur. File

Students protest against sexual misconduct in Kalakshetra Foundation at Thiruvanmiyur. File | Photo Credit: M. Karunakaran

A small revolution has been making itself felt on the sylvan campus of the Kalakshetra Foundation, an institution of the arts in Chennai. For an institution such as this one steeped in the guru-shishya tradition and held in high regard, the revolt within has sent ripples of shock in the wider community. The charges that have been made are of a very serious nature: sexual harassment, verbal abuse, body-shaming.

On March 30, a group of around 250 students who attended the usual morning prayer under the banyan tree did not sit for their examinations scheduled that day. They began an indefinite strike inside the campus, demanding the removal of four staff members, including an assistant professor, of the Rukmini Devi College of Fine Arts under the Kalakshetra Foundation. Media reports had already been rife with stories of complaints of sexual harassment.

The students, many of whom joined the institution after finishing Class 12, had formed a core committee (for the first time in the college), and were protesting against instances of sexual harassment, verbal abuse and body-shaming by the four staff members. They refused to relent, despite entreaties by the college authorities, and take their examinations. They were backed by a group of teachers who stood by them.

The Foundation established by Rukmini Devi Arundale in 1936 with the vision “of imparting to the young the true spirit of art, devoid of vulgarity and commercialism” is set on a campus spread over 100 acres. Today, it is a vital centre for the study and performance of fine arts and is an autonomous body functioning under the Ministry of Culture. With the Kalakshetra Foundation Act of 1993, it is listed as an institution of national importance.

The students, headed by seniors in the fourth year, did not stop their protests till the Tamil Nadu State Commission for Women went to their campus and heard their grievances on March 31, the day after the protests began. “The Internal Complaints Committee (ICC), headed by director Revathi Ramachandran, was an eye wash,” said a student. The committee hearing was held after the allegations surfaced in December 2022. “The committee described the allegations as mostly manufactured and aimed at maligning Kalakshetra’s reputation. The Foundation had also issued a gag order preventing students and staff from discussing the events from December 2022. A day after students opened up before the committee, whatever they had shared with the members was out in the open. Secrecy was not maintained.”

Charges and more

Soon after the protest was launched, it emerged that the charges of sexual harassment were made against an assistant professor, Hari Padman, a Bharatanatyam exponent. Meanwhile, the institution said that the ICC did not have a written complaint from anyone, so action could not be taken. The issue had caused a stir in the institution in the past.

In a social media post that she subsequently deleted, former director Leela Samson wrote about irregularities in the college, alleging that Padman was having an affair with a student. Shortly thereafter, a former student, who said she had been harassed by Padman, sent letters to the Ministry of Culture and other officials. Samson also hinted at the involvement of three repertory artistes in harassing students.

Immediately after the protests were launched by the students, the National Commission for Women (NCW) took suo motu cognisance of the matter and directed the Director-General of Police to register an FIR and proceed with criminal action against the professor. Subsequently, a team from the NCW visited the campus and heard the grievances of students in the first year, one by one, and later of those in their second year. Finally, all students of the final year were called en masse. “They looked at each other and were hesitant to disclose their grievances openly. The hearing was conducted in a hurried manner and without the proper atmosphere for the student to speak out,” said a police officer. Subsequently, the NCW closed the case, indicating this in a communique sent to the Director-General of Police.

Simmering discontent

Students have been voicing discontent over the governing ethos of Kalakshetra for several years now. The current spell of restiveness goes back to the monsoon season of 2022 when many fell sick due to water contamination in the hostel. “We were sick, with vomiting and diarrhoea. They gave us some medicines or took us to some local doctor. But then, we are not even allowed to go home if a relative dies. They don’t believe us and ask for proof. Hostel students are not allowed to go out for more than three hours on two Saturdays,” explained a student. Matters escalated with complaints of sexual harassment, particularly after Padman was honoured as part of Women’s Day by the institution, students said.

“The committee described the allegations as mostly manufactured and aimed at maligning Kalakshetra’s reputation. The foundation also had issued a gag order preventing students and staff from discussing the events from December 2022”A studentRukmini Devi College of Fine Arts 

State Commission for Women (SCW) chairperson A.S. Kumari also visited the campus and received complaints from around 100 students, including male students. She said that after the interaction with students, it emerged that instances of sexual harassment on the campus could be traced back to 2018: “Around 12 girl students from Hyderabad gave their statements through WhatsApp video calls to us. All of them have been compiled and forwarded to the State government for immediate action. Most of them are about sexual harassment, emotional blackmail and verbal abuse.”

The SCW recommended to the State government and Director-General of Police that suitable action be taken against the Kalakshetra Foundation following complaints from students of sexual harassment. It found several lacunae in the institution’s handling of these complaints. At one point, one person in the administration even randomly questioned students about whether they had faced sexual harassment or molestation.

It asked the Foundation to constitute a Grievance Redressal Committee to ensure a safe atmosphere for the students and also asked for details about dropouts, and their reasons for dropping out. The SCW also directed the Foundation to produce details of the complaints taken up by ICC so far, and the action taken.

Police action

M.R. Sibi Chakravarthi, Joint Commissioner of Police, who came to the campus on the first day of the protests, said, “Initially nobody came forward to lodge a police complaint. Finally, a former woman student came forward with a complaint against Padman. Then we registered a case before proceeding further.”

The Adyar All Women Police Station registered a case on March 31, following a complaint by a student who studied at the college between 2015 and 2019 and discontinued her studies due to harassment. Padman was booked under section 354A (sexual harassment and punishment for sexual harassment) of the Indian Penal Code and provisions of the Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Harassment of Women Act. Chakravarthi said, “We have recorded the evidence of six students from Kerala to corroborate the sexual harassment charges and felt there was enough evidence to proceed further to arrest the suspect.”

The police claimed that Padman went into hiding after his return from Hyderabad, where he had gone for a performance, but they zeroed in on his location in Chennai and arrested him two days after the FIR was filed, on April 3. The IX Metropolitan Magistrate Court in Saidapet court complex dismissed his bail plea on April 11.

Meanwhile, a section of students and teachers spoke up for Padman, alleging that some members in the college were unfairly targeting him, and that the accusations were driven by jealousy and trumped up. His wife spoke of “inconsistencies” between the charges and the complainant’s own actions.

“We received information that the students who gave complaints were intimidated by the management and asked to withdraw the complaints. The government should take legal action against the management after conducting an inquiry”A. RadhikaGeneral secretary, AIDWA’s Tamil Nadu unit

The three other staff members, repertory artistes Sanjith Lal, Sai Krishnan and Sreenath, had been let go after a meeting of the Governing Board of Kalakshetra, which had also placed Padman under suspension. These three were alumni of the institute and were working on contract. The Repertory, which is the performance wing of Kalakshetra, comprises staff, students and guest artistes from among alumni. Students who learnt directly from Rukmini Devi are invited to help and teach the present students. The Board also announced a three-member independent inquiry committee, with Justice (Retd) K. Kannan, former Tamil Nadu DGP Letika Saran and Shobha Varthaman, to look into the allegations. The ICC was reconstituted.

For its part, the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) took suo motu cognisance based on a news item dated March 31, 2023 in The Hindu. Two teams from the Commission visited Kalakshetra and interacted with the management and the students.

All this has taken place amid suspicion of intimidation, said activists of the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), the Students Federation of India and the Democratic Youth Federation of India. They alleged that some staff members were forcing students who had agitated not to proceed further with their complaints.

A. Radhika, general secretary of the AIDWA’s Tamil Nadu unit, said, “We received information that the students who gave complaints were intimidated by the management and asked to withdraw the complaints. The government should take legal action against the management after conducting an inquiry. We also demand that the Union Ministry of Culture intervene in this issue.”

Former Kalakshetra students are worried about the lasting damage to the Kalakshetra ethos with the polarisation between students and teachers. “The administrative team should not have let things get to such a situation,” said one of them, echoing the others. “They, especially the director, seem to have lost the confidence of the students. The staff needs to work towards instilling confidence among the students. Their well-being and development must come first.” The students had also demanded the resignation of the director, whose tenure ends soon.

Discrimination and favouritism?

Charges of favouritism have been flying fast and furious, with other complaints bubbling up. Some students alleged that they faced discrimination because of language and caste. A former teacher at Kalakshetra countered: “Dance is an art form where teachers cannot use a chalk and board to get across what they have in their mind. The teacher has to communicate to the students what is on his or her mind. When students learn dance, they should know their capabilities. If they want a certain part, they must be physically and mentally prepared for that. Otherwise, they cannot be chosen. When a production is taken up, participants are chosen based on their capabilities. Not on the basis of their language or caste. Here, the institution comes first since the artistes represent Kalakshetra.”

Dancer Anita Rathnam recalls entering Kalakshetra as a postgraduate: “It was a time when Rukmini Devi Arundale was still heading it. I made most of my best friends there. Our teachers were strict but they ensured that we learnt to dance well and in due course, they too became our friends. We were a very diverse group, we had Tamil-speaking students from Malaysia and Sri Lanka and also students from Russia and Japan. But there never has been a caste or communal divide in Kalakshetra. This was the pluralistic vision of the founder. Kalakshetra was envisioned as a cultural Auroville where voices and [thoughts] blew in from everywhere.”

Calls for course-correction

The events of the past few weeks and the manner in which students and the institution have faced up to each other hint at a generation gap, and a changing profile of the student community. and their aspirations. There is great pressure on Kalakshetra to undertake a deep appraisal of its systems, and set its house in order. There are also calls for reforms in the education system. After four-six years of studies, students leave only with diplomas, and their career prospects are essentially limited to performing and teaching dance. Perhaps the institution needs to include other subjects — such as history and art perspectives — and accord degrees that are recognised by universities so that alumni can pursue other courses of study.

“Kalakshetra needs to understand that it is dealing with students who were born in a different society than what existed some 30-40 years ago. More freedom for students would be a good starting point,” a Bharatanatyam dancer said. Another academician pointed out that the institute is led by great dancers who may not necessarily be good administrators. But first, on the issue at hand, P.T. Narendran, a member of the Governing Board of the Kalakshetra Foundation, said that the institute was awaiting the outcome of the investigation by the police. “We hear that students are afraid whether they would be taken back. They need not be afraid,” he added.

“We are there for the students. They should understand that they need not fear anything. We only want them to be honest and truthful,” he said.

A tough test awaits the Foundation in the summer months ahead.

(With inputs from R. Sivaraman)

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