Several sexual harassment allegations rock the world of Kathak
Will Kathak face its #MeToo moment?
The guru-shishya parampara (teacher-disciple tradition) in Indian classical arts has always been a matter of fascination for outsiders. Usually glorified as a form of devotion to the art and to the guru, the 'parampara' is considered next to worship. What is often overlooked due to this, are the subtle, and thus often forgotten, tales of exploitation that the unchecked power relations in these arrangements cause and the lives they adversely impact.
After the recent demise of well-known Kathak Guru Birju Maharaj, several kathak performers have come forward through social media, narrating their horrific experiences, igniting a discussion about the gravity of the abuse engulfed in the glorified guru-shishya tradition in the classical dance diaspora. The late Birju Maharaj’s name has emerged at the top of the latest round of discussion around the ‘me too’ allegations. What began with an Instagram post by a well-known Kathak performer, has now raised a storm in the community.
“As tributes flood my feeds honouring Birju Maharaj, I can't help but reflect on my own experiences with him, Saswati Didi and the stories told to me by my gurus, one of whom learned as a child alongside him and Saswati Didi," Kathak dancer Naina Roychowdhury Green posted on her Instagram account by the name ‘naina_kathak’. Saswati Didi (Sen) is a renowned dancer and a senior disciple of Birju Maharaj. Roychowdhury said she had learned from them both briefly.
Revealing the secrets, Roychowdhury added to her post, "Saswati Didi would cry to me on my bed and tell me stories of how BM (Birju Maharaj) would ask her to find more young Kathak dancers, some of these girls were teenagers, and she would weep as they often disappeared into his bedroom, sometimes two at a time.”
"Some of these girls were teenagers, and she would weep as they often disappeared into his bedroom."
Roychowdhury’s post led to several survivors to come forward, who shared their stories with her, which she posted anonymously on her Instagram account. “At first it was slight grazes of my breasts. One day he asked me to stay back. I can’t go into details but my underwear was soaked with blood for days. I had not yet gotten my menses. The colour was deep red. I have been in therapy here,” shared a woman who says she trained with Maharaj at a young age and emigrated to the UK after the biased treatment she says she received when she began resisting the abuse.
Several of these dancers said that despite loving their art, they were forced to leave it due to the trauma of facing abuse at a tender age. Another survivor, who was a minor at the time of abuse, shared how she was touched inappropriately by Maharaj, during a dance class. She also said she never went back to the class despite her love for Kathak.
The incident and the events led to dancers revealing more stories of abuse by many Kathak Gurus. An anonymous 41-year-old woman, who says she trained with one of Birju’s disciple, shared how she was sexually abused at the age of six. “I didn’t know whom to talk to. I used to get really sick on practice days because I was very scared - after a point I just told my parents my feet hurt a lot and I stopped going,” she said. She could never go back to learning dance again.
From bodyshaming to asking for sex as a bribe, Kathak dancers are sharing the terrible things they had to endure.
From bodyshaming to asking for sex as a bribe, Kathak dancers are now sharing all the terrible things they have had to endure. Another account narrates how a 'gharanedar tablavadak' (Tabla artiste/accompanist) asked her to marry him in order to become a Kathak dancer. When she blocked him on Facebook, he still kept trying to reach her through her friends. She said her friends asked her to keep this a secret as the said Tabla artiste could ruin her career.
In fact, instances of abuse by not just the gurus, but also by accompanists,have been talked of before. Noted Pakhawaj artiste Pt Ravi Shankar Upadhyay was arrested in December 2020, for allegedly molesting a 23-year-old student of Delhi's Kathak Kendra.
Many known Kathak dancers have come forward in support of the survivors, encouraging more to share their ordeals. “I hope the women who have suffered in silence feel free at last to speak. We are not free of our past till we acknowledge and account for our past and past wrongs. If you want to protect the next generation of dancers from these cycles of abuse, you must identify and root out the cancer in the ones with power now," writes dancer and artistic director Daniel Phoenix Singh in a Facebook post, appealing to those in positions of power to come ahead in support of survivors.
Serial sexual harasser Birju Maharaj, whose unchecked predations drove away so many students from Kathak, dies at 83 without being punished or even formally called out by the Indian classical dance communityhttps://t.co/1WU5ErG9im— Amba Azaad (@AmbaAzaad) January 17, 2022
But it’s certainly not going to be an easy task. Kathak dancer and choreographer Vikram Iyengar wrote in a Facebook comment, "The brotherhood of that particular world (which I come from too) is extremely strong and vehemently patriarchal, and they will close ranks against anyone or anything that may blemish the mythologies that have been so carefully and ruthlessly constructed. Doubly unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, women are very much a part of this protective army."
In her article for the Firstpost, Saberi Misra, professional Kathak dancer and musician based in London, wrote about how the imbalance of power in the age-old guru-shishya parampara and the expectation from the disciple to surrender to and depend on completely on the guru has fuelled all kinds of abuse and silencing of victims.
A couple of years ago, the world of Hindustani classical music too rocked with the allegations of sexual abuse with some renowned artistes being named as abusers. While several artists expressed their support towards survivors, the incident was soon forgotten. Meanwhile, considering the way the media has covered me too movement in the past there is a suspicious silence this time, especially from the mainstream.
Indie Journal tried to reach out to Roychowdhury’s Instagram account for more details, but were yet to receive a reply at the time of publishing. However, the follow up posts on her account show that she has put together a team of journalists, those acquainted with abuse in Kathak, as well as mental health professionals to help any survivors coming forward with their accounts, not just pertaining to abuse in Kathak, but all in all Classical South Asian Arts.