Named in #MeToo allegations, pakhawaj artiste Akhilesh Gundecha is invited to, then dropped from, Tansen Samaroh 2020

Akhilesh and the other Gundecha brothers — the noted vocalists Umakant and (late) Ramakant — were embroiled in sexual harassment accusations from current and former students of the institute they founded, Dhrupad Sansthan.

Suryasarathi Bhattacharya December 26, 2020 14:14:55 IST
Named in #MeToo allegations, pakhawaj artiste Akhilesh Gundecha is invited to, then dropped from, Tansen Samaroh 2020

Akhilesh Gundecha (left); Promotional poster of Tansen Samaroh 2020 (right). Images via Facebook

The Indian classical music community witnessed a series of aftershocks after sexual harassment allegations emerged this September against three of its luminaries — the Gundecha Brothers, vocalists Umakant and (the late) Ramakant, and pakhawaj artiste Akhilesh. The Gundechas, known for founding the Dhrupad Sansthan in Bhopal, were accused of sexual misconduct by several former and current students of the Sansthan. (Umakant and Akhilesh Gundecha have refuted the charges; an IC is looking into the students’ complaints.) The case brought into focus several aspects of the classical music sphere that have made harassment challenging to address: the guru-shishya parampara, need for safe learning environments, gatekeeping etc. It also raised a vital question: Would the calling out of alleged harassers, who happen to be individuals of immense repute and standing, bring any substantive change in the Indian classical music ecosystem?

In the case of the Gundechas, the answer, at present, seems unclear. Within three months of the allegations being reported — and while the IC probe at the Dhrupad Sansthan is ongoing — Akhilesh Gundecha was included in the lineup of performers at the prestigious Tansen Samaroh, organised by the Madhya Pradesh government. After the ensuing social media backlash, however, Gundecha’s name is no longer part of the latest itinerary shared by the festival’s organising committee.

Many musicians and connoisseurs of classical music had condemned Gundecha’s inclusion in the Tansen Samaroh, on social media. “This is how powerful and connected people escape the consequences of their acts. That a government body supported festival should offer someone facing multiple allegations of sexual abuse this platform is disgraceful,” one of the commenters noted. Another stated: “This only exposes the indifference and insensitivity of the Indian classical music fraternity and shows us that the ‘sanskars’ they deify and celebrate are truly anti-women. This inclusion is a way of giving the Gundechas the assurance that come what may, you have their back.”

Gundecha was meant to perform alongside noted Dhrupad artiste and teacher Dr Madhu Bhatt Tailang of Jaipur at the Samaroh. When this correspondent reached Dr Tailang for comment, she professed ignorance of the allegations against Akhilesh: “I am a disciple of music and I prefer to remain in that zone only. I am not aware of any such allegations or investigations.” Dr Tailang said the Tansen Samaroh’s organising committee had asked her to choose an accompanying pakhawaj artiste for her recital, and since she had previously performed with Akhilesh, she decided to go ahead with him. However, this correspondent accessed a screenshot of messages exchanged between Dr Tailang and members of the classical music community, dating to this September, in which she has commented on a Firstpost report about the sexual harassment accusations unfolding at the Dhrupad Sansthan.

The Tansen Samaroh is organised by the Madhya Pradesh government’s Directorate of Culture jointly with the Ustad Alauddin Khan Kala Evam Sangeet Academy, Bhopal. Academy director Rahul Rastogi told this correspondent that Akhilesh Gundecha would be delivering a lecture-demonstration at the academy. On being asked about the allegations against Gundecha, Rastogi ended the call and hasn’t responded to follow-up messages since.

While Gundecha is no longer mentioned in the festival lineup, it is unclear if this was the organisers’ response to the backlash, or Akhilesh’s own decision to not participate. (An email request for a statement from the organising comment has not yet been answered.) Members of the classical music community, however, remain concerned.

Bahauddin Dagar, noted rudra veena player and Dhrupad artiste, told this correspondent, “Artistes who have misused their powers or positions deliberately, knowing that they have abused their authority over other people, should be under strict scrutiny and should either undergo proper counselling or be barred from any further professional engagements. Denying it and shoving the matter under the carpet is absolutely unacceptable.”

Carnatic vocalist and social commentator TM Krishna said that incidents such as Gundecha’s inclusion in the Tansen Samaroh sent the message that the world of classical music seemed to be “proactively protecting offenders”. “The fact that the government of Madhya Pradesh is involved in the festival and an invitation was extended to Akhilesh says a lot. The impunity with which these people operate is shocking,” Krishna said, adding that such instances told survivors ‘remember who this person is and what their contacts are’. “Then how would women come up and say anything? Why would they take such a risk knowing that the classical music world is so small? Almost everybody knows everybody."

Krishna added that these developments underlined the need for forums and platforms that address sexual harassment and abuse of students at the hands of their gurus or even contemporaries. “It is not just a question of due process. Nothing will function if the culture doesn’t change. We may have sexual harassment laws, an IC, but none of these is of any use if there is no cultural shift,” said Krishna. The only way forward is holistic education and awareness around sexual abuse, according to Krishna. Until then, “we need to fight like activists; make the most noise about it and not let any of this sink at all.”

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