MeToo in the world of Kathak: Faults within guru-shishya parampara, dependence on teachers has led to culture of silence

Though it does have its positives, the guru-shishya tradition unfortunately stops us from moving towards a more progressive and open community, where constructive discussions can take place without fearing consequences.

Saberi Misra January 27, 2021 10:08:06 IST
MeToo in the world of Kathak: Faults within guru-shishya parampara, dependence on teachers has led to culture of silence

Representational image. Wikimedia Commons/Suyash Dwivedi

The obvious takeaway from the discussion surrounding #MeToo in the Indian classical music and dance community has been the lack of awareness people have about the subject, the lack of initiatives being taken by organisations and artistes to raise their voices, and the clear existence of a power imbalance that has led to a community of enablers.

The deafening silence of artistes in this matter has been a cause for concern and has led to multiple questions being raised about the age-old tradition of the guru-shishya parampara. The power imbalance that stems from this relationship is not just limited to the guru (teacher) and the shishya (student); it also applies to the relationships between artistes — both established and emerging — and the organisers who are all inter-related, given the smallness of the ecosystem that the Indian classical arts operate in.

People who occupy positions of power have often used the guru-shishya parampara as a weapon to intimidate and silence disciples when it comes to issues such as molestation and abuse, which in turn has led to the grooming of artistes with a dearth of personality, curiosity and individuality. As a result, students in the Indian classical music and dance community have been taught not to question their gurus or seniors, and have been putting them on pedestals that wrongly keep them away from the consequences of their actions, resulting in them becoming enablers.

Also read on FirstpostSexual harassment in the Indian classical arts: Recent cases re-indict complicity of enablers and those staying silent

The guru-shishya parampara is known for the personalised training it involves. In many cases the student is told to ‘surrender’ to the guru in order to achieve depth in one’s artistic abilities. In the world of dance, this is all too familiar, as the possibility of physical proximity between the teacher and student is more likely. But inappropriate behaviour does not always take a physical form. The dialogue between the guru and the shishya is also important to decipher.

In Kathak, abhinaya is an integral part of the repertoire. It is also an element that takes a dancer many years to perfect, as it involves expressing mature emotions through movement and expression. These emotions often involve expressing love, desire, and the torment of waiting for the beloved to come home. Commonly in the Kathak community, students are told that in order to be able to manifest these complex emotions, it is important to also experience them in real life, otherwise, it is not possible to convey them with the depth that is required. As Kathak exponent Nisha Mahajan said to Indian Express, "There was this notion that in order to be able to present bhaav or abhinaya, if you don’t go through certain experiences, it does not work. This was considered part of the mentorship, of course informally…There was this aura of hero-worship...either the students gave in, some others who really wanted to dance were willing to make the compromise. Then there were others who just left.”

For some, leaving is just not an option, even now. In the Indian classical music community, once the disciple has learnt a specific raga and the technicalities of the art form, it allows them to explore the art with the taalim they have received from their gurus and to venture out and create their own individual style of music. In dance, however, especially in Kathak, there are now just a handful of gurus who are training their disciples to become solo dancers, individual artistic thinkers and spontaneous artistes. The focus has been on group productions which limit the artiste’s freedom to build on the taalim imparted to them by their gurus. These group productions tend to promote the guru’s work more than the different abilities of each dancer. As a result of this, the demand for solo Kathak dancers or dancers with their own identity has decreased, and has meant that disciples are over-dependent on their gurus for professional opportunities of any kind.

This over-dependence, coupled with the weaponisation of the guru-shishya parampara, has lead to the silencing of many Kathak dancers who wish to make this a profession and realise that they cannot do so without being dependent on their guru.

The normalisation of such notions has resulted in many voices being unheard or suppressed in the dance community. Those who do pluck up the courage to come out with their stories are met with responses such as, “This has been happening for many years now, there is nothing new in it, it is just how it works here." This leads to students believing that if they do not accept the status quo, they may not be able to advance in their careers or even pursue them. Using nuances of the art itself to accentuate the power imbalance, which then leads to sexual misconduct is, unfortunately, a very real part of the guru-shishya experience as it stands.

The recent arrest of pakhawaj player Ravi Shankar Upadhyay, who was a guru at the Kathak Kendra, and the silence that followed within the Kathak community did not come as a surprise. Most seniors and juniors alike chose not to speak up about the incident.

“Everyone should appreciate the courage of this girl who has come forward and spoken out. Most girls don’t speak out because of pressure from their families or the overwhelming love for the art itself. At least the ex-students and teachers of Kathak Kendra who have privately shared their experiences should now speak out and show solidarity," said Kathak exponent Uma Dogra in light of the Kathak Kendra case.

In this world of guru-worship, scratching each other's backs for personal gain, and silencing the voices of those affected by sexual misconduct, the Indian classical music and dance community has created enablers at all levels of the spectrum.

The idea that an artiste with an opinion and a voice is an artiste who is less involved in their music, has been inculcated in us. An environment has been created in which questioning is looked down upon and being subservient is seen as the ultimate quality. Though it does have its positives, the guru-shishya tradition unfortunately stops us from moving towards a more progressive and open community, where constructive discussions can take place without fearing consequences.

Being a professional Kathak dancer for over 18 years and living in London, it has come to my notice that the method of marketing of Kathak in the West has massively affected how the guru-shishya parampara is perceived. Although this marketing method may be targeted at the West, the effects are evident just as much in India. Ever since Indian culture has entered the Western world, words such as “mysticism”, “spiritualism”, “devotion” and “submission” have attracted Westerners to what they believe is the “Indian way of living”. Indian classical musicians and dancers alike have used this thought process to market Indian classical arts to the West, which has promoted the idea of an all-knowing guru to whom one must surrender unequivocally.

The concept of a “guru” is comparatively new in the West and has garnered great curiosity and attention. Many gurus have been using this notion of a leader guiding their unsuspecting devotees into the path of meditation, peace and spirituality, to gain students in the field of Indian classical arts. Though the popularity of the Indian classical arts in the West has provided financial stability to many artistes, it has also, unfortunately, laid the ground for those who wish to sell Indian classical arts as a strict disciplinary art form that involves complete surrender, submission and service to the guru. What started off as curiosity towards an art form that does in its purest form endorse peace and a spiritual way of life, has become a tool for those who want to fulfil their carnal needs.

One wonders why there has not yet been a single statement condemning the actions of the perpetrators from any Indian classical dance organisations and institutions in the past five months or, even a step to create some sort of space for discussion. UK-based organisation Darbar had recently organised a panel discussion on 'MeToo in the Indian Classical Tradition', which tackled topics such as what is considered to be sexual misconduct and what steps organisations can take to create a safe working environment, as well as invited questions from their live Facebook audience. The discussion, comprising of esteemed panelists such as Sangeeta Sivakumar, Swarna Rajagopalan, TM Krishna, Devina Dutt, Shubha Mudgal and Sandeep Virdee (Artistic Director of Darbar) moderated by Charu Shahane, was the need of the hour. Soon after the panel discussion, Darbar removed videos of the Gundechas and Ravi Shankar Upadhyay from their YouTube channel. When asked about this step, Sandeep Virdee said, “Pending the outcome of investigations, we feel it is only right to remove this content and to put the musicians on our block list for future live concerts”.

It is regrettable to see that in many such discussions where sexual assault has been addressed, representation from the Kathak community has been missing. Dance institutions have done very little to build forums for dialogue and to have necessary legal structures in place that will encourage survivors to come forward with their stories. Kathak Kendra, an organisation established in 1964 by Sangeet Natak Akademi, has only just formed an ICC (Internal Complaints Committee) following the recent case of Ravi Shankar Upadhyay. Perhaps the reason for the silence within the Kathak community is the flawed structure of dependency, vulnerability and conformity that originates from the guru-shishya parampara which is further encouraged by dance institutions.

The author is a professional Kathak dancer and musician based in London. She writes blogs on her website to raise awareness about issues within the Indian classical arts community.

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