Allegations of abuse against India’s classical music and dance ‘guru’ system Women’s rights and gender equality

Centuries old – one of India’s most controversial cultural traditions Guru Shishya (Student) How to learn classical music and dance – has been accused of sexual exploitation.

A group of 90 female classical musicians issued a statement in September accusing their teachers of sexually abusing and exploiting female students. She described a “culture of fear of silence” that forced women to obey their guru’s sexual demands for fear of ending their careers.

The statement called for structural changes in the sector to address sexual harassment.

The move was followed by allegations of sexual harassment against classical musician Akhilesh Gandacha and his late brother Ramakant at the Bhopal-based Music Institute, which was founded by the brothers.

One woman, who did not identify herself, alleged that she and several other students had been subjected to “physical, psychological and sexual abuse” for years. Akhilesh Gandicha has resigned from the institute, which started it Inquiry into the allegations. “While the school’s internal complaints committee is investigating, I can’t comment on the allegations,” he told the Guardian.

Similar allegations were made against gurus in southern India two years ago. But the outrage was silenced and had little effect in northern India, which has a distinct tradition of classical music and dance.

“We have heard horrific stories about men who have been abused and threatened with great respect,” he said. The young women were frightened. We tried to create an environment where at least women would feel safe in speaking, ”said Sornamlia Ganesh, a classical Bharatanatam dancer from Chennai.

This time, however, the allegations against the Gondicha brothers have sparked a national debate.

Numerous women have said that abuse by gurus has been an open secret for years.

“The culture of classical music and dance is full of toxic and old-fashioned etiquette,” said a dance student in New Delhi, who did not want to be named. “To learn from the guru, a woman is expected to agree to any demand, no matter how humiliating it may be.”

For centuries, classical arts have been taught to new generations through the Guru Shashiya method, under which students, usually at a very young age, live in the Guru’s house to absorb their knowledge, the two formally meeting each other. With a class and a casual interaction of informal meals and everyday life.

This relationship is characterized by absolute obedience and devotion to the student’s guru, who holds a high position bordering the semi-divine. Some classes begin with the student touching the Guru’s feet and end with the Guru’s blessing. In return, the guru allows himself to grow and prosper as a student.

Singer TM Krishna
Leading singer TM Krishna is among the reform campaigners. Photo: Yasbeen Negi / India Today / Getty Images

Leading South Indian classical singer TM Krishna said, “It is the imbalance of power that is responsible for the abuse.” While acknowledging that this tradition has its own charms, he believes that it is systemically flawed and celebrates power inequalities in relationships.

New Delhi-based classical Katak dancer Shawana Narain said the allegations were not shocking. “Many of us knew,” he said. “It doesn’t make much sense to use classical arts.” Tell me, is there a field or profession where there is an imbalance in power? Don’t women suffer from this behavior? “

But Narayan fully supports the need to expose and discuss the issue. “We need to be reminded from time to time how unacceptable this treatment is. It is very important for us to bring it out and review it so that we are self-aware. Women should not go through this.

Krishna, along with Ganesh and others, are now trying to lobby for more accountability, raise public awareness and break the power structures that allow abuse in the sector. His first success came when the Madras Music Academy set up an internal complaints committee to deal with sexual harassment cases.

But Ganesh said it was difficult to move forward. “It’s two steps forward and one step back, partly because the culprits are so powerful and partly because some women in the field insist on hurting growth, but it didn’t do me any good,” she said. “

He added that the fact that sexual exploitation at the public level was a major step in the world of classical performing arts.

“The culprits, all very powerful men, are still waiting for the buzz to end. “But we don’t let him down,” Ganesh said.

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