Minutes of the TFA Adda on “Arts in the Age of #MeToo”, held on 1 December 2018 at The Courtyard, Bangalore.
Moderated by Ammu Joseph
Participants: Akhila Udayashankar, Anmol Vellani, Anshuman Acharya, Arundhati Ghosh, Basav Biradar, Chanakya Vyas, Darshana Dave, Gaurav Jain, Jayachandran Palazhi, Lavanya Lakshminarayan, Lekha Naidu, C.K. Meena, Namrata Agarwal, Nimi Ravindran, Nisha Abdullah, Nisha Susan, Padmini Menon, Poorna Swami, Sachin Gurjale, Sarita Vellani, Shabari Rao, Sharanya Ramprakash, Shiva Pathak, Sidhaarta Maadhyamika, Sunayana Smita, Unnikrishnan.
A background note had been circulated to the participants in advance; it was loosely based on the points raised at the October meeting of performance artists on sexual harassment and #MeToo at the Max Mueller Bhavan, Delhi.
TFA Chairperson C.K. Meena said that since TFA deals with young people in the arts, it decided that the adda should focus on the #MeToo movement from the perspective of artists. Also, the thrust in this adda would not be on “naming and shaming”, although that’s a very important aspect, but on how to go forward — building a network and creating a redressal mechanism.
Ammu asked whether anyone in the room questioned the legitimacy of the #MeToo movement as a whole. “I do have questions about the details but the movement itself I have no doubts about,” she said. There were no objections from anyone present so it was taken that they all agreed. Ammu asked what, if anything at all, was different about cultural spaces (as opposed to institutions and other formal workplaces) in the context of sexual harassment.
Nisha S. (ironically): How much leeway should we give for ‘greatness’ and the ‘artistic temperament’? Should we make room for it?
Shabari: There aren’t any clear-cut career progress routes. Your career progress depends on which ‘guru’ or group of people you align with.
Basav: It’s very hierarchical. Since there’s no money involved, the creator or director wields great power, especially if it is a well-known artist.
Sunayana: Relationships are informal and personal, so it becomes a predicament when it comes to choice and consent, the lines are blurred.
Poorna: I disagree, I have no doubts about consent. But when we hear of a complaint, there is no formal mechanism, no boycott. Do we continue to work with the same people on upcoming shows that have been scheduled? Do we boycott the accused and if so, for how long? There is no investigation team. Do we have the right to have an ICC (Internal Investigation Committee)?
Sunayana: Formal redressal is not always there. Within a small space, among ourselves, how do we tackle it? Is there a way to address complaints informally?
Ammu: Both are important: formal redressal, and how you deal with the accused before it even comes to the stage of a complaint. With regard to ICCs, does a centralised committee or a committee formed for each theatre group work better? Is the guru-shishya relationship problematic, and how can it be addressed?
Shabari: How does the artist get recognition, opportunities without aligning with someone in power?
Anshuman: Rape and sexual harassment seems to be one of the perks of power. (He narrated a personal incident where he heard of a group of women who had all been victims of rape by one man. He was shocked but felt helpless, didn’t know what to do. He boycotted the perpetrator, avoided all contact with him. But then later on he saw that the same women were continuing to work with the perpetrator.)
Ammu: What is the scope of justice people are looking for? In all cases people may not take the legal route, they may not necessarily be interested in involving the police and courts. But it is traumatic, so support is needed.
Darshana: Whisper networks have saved a lot of us. (She explained the term: when you hear of a harasser, through word of mouth you warn everyone you know to stay clear of him.) We should turn these whisper networks into bigger forces, something more solid, so it can serve as both prevention and redressal. Do we only avoid the person or do we name him/her? We should discuss this.
Nimi: Even publicly naming the individual hasn’t worked, hasn’t stopped them. It takes a lot of courage to put yourself out there and name sexual offenders. In the arts it is seen as the right thing to do. But then you find that the perpetrator is protected by friends and is even painted as a victim. What’s the message being sent to the offender, then?
Nisha S: In science institutions in the US, when you’re given a grant, due diligence includes checking the grantee’s credentials as a non-assaulter. This doesn’t work in informal situations, though.
Sharanya: Work dries up for women in the film industry who stand up to harassers. I’ve had women in the industry telling me sexual harassment is a rite of passage! This is a big deterrent for those who wish to complain.
Nisha S: You’ll be known as “difficult” to work with.
Sharanya: It’s infinitely more difficult in the South where there’s so much hero worship. Institutions should give the green light to women who’ve been abused, to say, we will work with you.
Darshana: There are advertising agencies which have put out messages on Twitter calling for women who’ve been sexually harassed to come work for them.
Arundhati: Many of the men who’ve been named have been our allies in different struggles — women’s, Dalit, and other movements. What kind of conversation should we have with them? They have friends who support them, some who call them out, and a very large number who simply keep quiet about it. These are people you trust, respect, learn from. The nature of our work is both personal and political. What kind of conversations do we have with them after they’ve been accused?
Nimi: The disappointment is all the more when it’s those you have respect for, those who stand up for some values in public. Their public personas and private behaviours are at odds with each other. You feel cheated. Not all of us want them to be handcuffed. But they continue to have a large public following. There is no acknowledgement. They can’t pretend that nothing has happened. I feel I’m owed an explanation.
Ammu: (Narrates how she herself has confronted someone who has been accused) The accused needs to be heard out as well. It is extremely important for us to hold an honest conversation with them. Perhaps a few of us could collectively approach them.
Poorna: Why are the voices of women who complain being actively washed out? People tend to use the informal nature of our work as an excuse. There’s a sense that the space is bigger than the person. Beyond the informal, what kind of formal structure do we create?
Chanakya: What does “work” mean? There is a lot that happens outside of the rehearsal space, there are cast parties, beer sessions. Before we begin a new work we should have a conversation with the cast, lay down a code of conduct for the team within and outside of rehearsals. We should outline how we will deal with a complaint, whether within or outside a rehearsal space. Maybe we should have a formal process along with a committee.
Nisha A.: We don’t look at our own rehearsal spaces. Instances of harassment have been brought up, by both men and women, and there are directors who say “it’s opening day and we don’t want bad publicity” as an excuse to ignore what’s happening. What is our zero-tolerance policy?
Anshuman: What is the regulatory authority? It’s an unorganised sector and lots of new artists keep coming into theatre. There are first-time directors, all they need to do is call for an audition, get some actors who’ve never been on stage before, and then behave inappropriately during rehearsal, using movements that the newbies are uncomfortable with but hesitate to complain about. It would be good if the venues themselves can exercise control (over such harassers).
Poorna: It need not be a regulatory body, it’s not legal recourse that you need, you need someone you can turn to. Maybe people from outside the community. A listening body is what we need. Maybe we can use government guidelines on ICs to formulate our own code.
Sunayana: I agree, we should have this kind of body. But besides listening, it should also be actively on the lookout for instances of sexual harassment.
Nimi: A small group of us had a meeting last week and had a lengthy discussion on the #MeToo movement. As a beginning, we felt it should only be women, but it is very important to open it out to men, to anyone who wants to join in. In a small company you cannot have an internal committee (IC). Most of us are not equipped to handle it, and often we know both the victim and the accused! We should work towards an umbrella network for the arts. The committee should also have lawyers and other outsiders who are not deeply embedded in the arts community. We should make it known that such a committee exists, as well.
Shabari: I agree. A group should be formed. But what are they going to do, besides listening? What is that action they will take? What are we equipped to do?
Arundhati: We should see if we can collaborate with academic spaces, have a conversation with institutions like JNU which has formed GSCASH, which has laid down guidelines. The academic space is very similar in the blurring of lines between formal and informal spaces. Maybe we can learn from them.
Nimi: We should start with workshops for anyone who is interested. Maybe everyone doesn’t know what the ‘right’ kind of behaviour is, or where to draw the line. If not an IC, we should frame some kind of policy for ourselves which we can tell newcomers about.
Anmol: Sometimes the rehearsal process can itself be a form of abuse. The director is supposed to challenge actors, to push them. When does it turn into abuse? The director wields the power, so who stands above as a check on him/her?
Padmini: An umbrella group could bring enough pressure to boycott the person.
Unnikrishnan: Look at what hurts the perpetrator. If the umbrella committee can use influence to block funding, for example, or performance space.
Jayachandran: It’s not just rehearsal spaces but training spaces for dance, for example, where if you’re correcting posture you tell the person “this is what I’m going to do” before touching. Teachers themselves are not sensitive to it. Between students too I’ve noticed issues.
Ammu: Even in law, ICs are not meant only for complaints. Its responsibility is much wider — education, awareness etc. ICs must have a wider mandate. Many ICs don’t do anything until a complaint comes up and when it does, they conduct it like a court; it’s traumatising for the accuser. Education and awareness-raising is very important.
We should deal with the perpetrator on a case by case basis. Sometimes it’s class or caste that is at play. Or the perpetrator may not wield power, but behave out of ignorance. Only a certain circle is aware of codes of conduct in this space — we can’t assume that everyone knows how to conduct themselves. As for redressal, what kind of justice do we need? Women are almost pressured to complain, to take steps they’re not comfortable with. Should the complainant first be asked what kind of justice she is looking for?
Nimi: The IC must be equipped to explain to the complainant the consequences of each step. To be on an IC, you need to be fully equipped and skilled enough to deal with the ongoing situation. The choice of what steps to take has to be entirely with the complainant. It need not always be the legal route.
Ammu: The media often forces complainants to prosecute the accused in a formal legal space.
Shabari: The art world is so fragmented, with cliques and camps and groups. How do we prevent fracturing it even more? This is a moment when we should come together, build bonds.
Nimi: If many people have a problem working with someone, have raised complaints against them, how can we continue working with them?
Anmol: You’ve talked about redressal and prevention (through education and awareness building). Some cultural institutions seem to have more sexual harassment than others. It might be useful to research this, to find out the reasons why.
Darshana: (Giving the example of a creative services company that fell under the #MeToo radar) Since the two main employers, the leaders, used to be into sexual harassment, it became the culture of the place.
Arundhati: Anyone in a position of power is capable of harassment. If you create a ‘sacred zone’ around a place, saying sexual harassment doesn’t happen here, it’s liberal, feminist etc., it becomes even harder for someone there to complain.
Anshuman: You see the hypocrisy of those internet entertainment companies where their strong point is supposed to be their feminist slant but they turn into hostile work spaces for women. Wherever there is power, there is potential for abuse.
Ammu: Cultural organisations don’t have to stick to what the law recommends when forming ICs. For example it merely says that a “senior woman” has to head it, and that only one external person should be on it, which are problems.
Nisha A.: If I’m starting out (in the arts arena) I wouldn’t know what to do (if I were harassed). I’d be very vulnerable. I might complain to a senior woman and then see moving with, being friendly with, the accused. Someone approachable is a must, on the IC.
Nimi: Even public apologies by the accused are a sham, they’re not genuine. Isn’t the onus on them to give an explanation?
Shabari: Who is going to be on the committee? What can they do? Members have to be accessible, they must be trained to handle cases, they should not be too entrenched in the arts community. What resources will they have access to, and how can we support them?
Arundhati: (responding to Nimi’s previous comment) Should we not demand an explanation (from the accused, whom one might know or have been friends with)? It requires more time, perhaps gather more people, and more than one meeting with the person. I myself have more questions than answers. This adda is just an exploration. I need time for self-reflection. Has there been complicity on my part?
Shabari: Complicity, it’s true. What is my zero tolerance? We have to begin asking ourselves.
Basav: Institutions should support us, not continue supporting the perpetrators.
Poorna: We should begin by asking the institutions we work at, do you have a policy on sexual harassment? Do you have an IC, and if not, when will you form one?
Ammu: The support network can even be virtual.
Darshana: When someone has chosen the legal route, which is long-drawn and tedious, we should show our support. Message her to say hey, we’re with you. Support means so much.
Ammu: You could begin by collecting resources (a Mumbai committee has been conducting research, for example), gather information on other committees, figure out what is the most useful way to go ahead. This can be a centralised committee that hears out complaints from institutions who don’t have ICs.
(Ammu then asked the circle for final comments and suggestions on the way forward.)
Anshuman: Need to figure out how to punish the perpetrator, how to support the accuser.
Shabari: I need internal reflection. And think of which people should be on the committee.
Padmini: The committee should have someone who can offer professional help to the traumatised accuser. And someone who can offer legal help.
Unnikrishnan: Draw up a model draft policy.
Jayachandran: Sensitisation, and transformative possibilities.
Sharanya: A group committee for the arts to help us break up cliques.
Poorna: Come up with names, put them on an email thread and share. See how similar bodies in other cities function. Ask the institutions we’re most familiar with whether they have a policy and press them to draft one.
Nisha A.: Identify what are “no go” in my own spaces, call out those who indulge in objectionable jokes and behaviour. I’ve seen change happen when you call out such people, they’ve apologised individually to those they’ve affected. I can begin a conversation with the institution I work in, asking them about their policy. I personally need a workshop where I can learn how to deal with such issues, and learn the ways in which I can support.
Nimi: We’ll have workshops which we will open out to all who’re interested. We’ll lay down a “zero-tolerance” policy. And we’ll initiate conversations with people known to be perpetrators.
Chanakya: In a rehearsal space, the onus is on us to inform newcomers (about the norms) of the rehearsal and the company/group.
Anmol: Most of what takes place in the arts is outside the formal space. Workshops are useful but they must be designed carefully and not just lay down do’s and don’ts.
Basav: We should form a support group.
Arundhati: I’m available to listen.
Lavanya: We need to identify the right kind of people to conduct sensitisation training, and have clued-in people to receive that training.
(Ammu then summarised the next steps agreed upon by the participants.)
Ammu: At this point, it appears there’s a need for raising awareness in this space, along with a requirement to form an umbrella committee. Should this committee be informal, or impersonal? Who belongs to it and who trains them?
We also need to create support groups that can help complainants navigate this space.