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Dr. Arshiya Sethi 

Founder, Kri Foundation and Unmute

Chair and Founder Trustee, The YP Foundation

Editor in Chief, South Asian Dance Intersections (Journal of University of North Carolina, Charlotte)

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Unmuting for safer classrooms and
an ethical arts ecosphere: 
Recent examples from India

Something big is happening in India today that must be heard and known. The #MeToo movement of 2017 continues to have a ripple effect in India, particularly in the field of the Arts. This is out of the norm. The global movement first found echoes in India on-line, in a social media list of predators that went viral and brough many Gods from academia and some from the arts, crashing down. But it was a loosely put together list with no due diligence done. On the ground, in 2018 in Chennai, as many a cultural organisation woke up to this unpalatable reality, the prestigious Madras Music Academy, the only significant organisation that took instant action, possibly because its own secretary was embroiled in a series of #MeToo allegations, debarred seven top musicians from performing, against whom there were allegations. That year, even the Government of India showed some sensitivity in keeping an awardee who had allegations against him away from the prestigious Sangeet Natak Award ceremony. 

In Chennai, mention must be made of the efforts of the NGO Ek Potli Ret Ki, led by actress, dancers and scholar, Dr. Swarnamalya Ganesh, herself a Fulbright Fellow, in starting these public conversations. In other cities too, similar efforts were made to foreground the issue. In Mumbai, the Beej Collective, helmed by Kathak dancer Sanjukta Wagh, Masoom Parmar and others started focusing on this issue.

While kindling the discourse, and drawing attention, these efforts failed to take wing as a movement. The main reason for this has been the lack of persistent follow up action. Today even the seven debarred musicians have bounced back nonchalantly, returning to perform on some of the country’s most prestigious forums. Rather sadly, the government which had earlier taken a progressive position is engaging with these allegedly tainted stalwarts, privileging them further by giving them important appointments. 

Covid gave a boost to the situation, when probably due to the silence of performances, other issues from the ecosphere of the arts and its intersection with law, came to the forefront. The issue that gained maximum traction was regrettably the issue of sexual harassment in the arts, with the allegations against some of the most important Gurus in the arts, and ironically at government and government supported schools of the arts. The most recent amongst them is a battery of 100 allegations at one of India’s iconic dance schools- Kalakshetra.

For anyone who has been following the news, sexual harassment is not restricted to the arts alone as the recent public protest by the international medal winning wrestlers of India established. What are the commonalities in the ecosphere of dance and sports. Is it the embodied practices? Could it have anything to do with unstructured pathways and whimsical selections to prominence?

Interestingly, as established by some current cases, the complainants are not only women, but even transpersons and increasingly men. It is pertinent to point out that India has a strong statutory provision in the Prevention of Sexual Abuse at work place Act of 2013 (POSH Act). The first counter argument offered by those tainted with allegations was that a dance or music school does not constitute a work place. The art school was promoted as a place of inter-generational generosity, through the bestowing and transference of knowledge – ‘gyan daan’- which is seen in India, as a bequeath of the highest value. Behind the mask of such idealism was the unpleasant and painful reality of abuse, including sexual abuse. How could one be inspired to break through the centuries of shackling silences?

Read the entire  article

For anyone who has been following the news, sexual harassment is not restricted to the arts alone as the recent public protest by the international medal winning wrestlers of India established.

 

What are the commonalities in the ecosphere of dance and sports. Is it the embodied practices? Could it have anything to do with unstructured pathways and whimsical selections to prominence?

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Twice a Fulbright Fellow, Dr. Arshiya Sethi, established Kri Foundation (2003), braiding Arts, Activism and Knowledge. Her work has been described as Artivism- Arts and Activism, and has often been part of scholarly enquiry.

 

Former dance critic Times of India, presenter of the archive worthy National Programme of Dance and Music on Doordarshan for over three decades, advisor for the Art and Culture channel DD Bharati, Creative-Head, Delhi’s India Habitat Centre, Dr. Sethi has authored essays in several anthologies on dance and presents regularly at international conferences on dance and the south Asian region. She writes two popular columns in Narthaki.com, co-authored the book “Non-Gharanedaar: Pt Mohanrao Kallianpurkar, The Paviour of Kathak’ (2022), and co-edited and contributed to Dance Studies Association’s international publication “Dance Under the Shadow of the Nation” (2019).

 

Post Covid, she jointly created and edits the new online international academic Journal “South Asian Dance Intersections” (SADI), housed at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. Currently she is writing her book on the dance of Assam’s sattras, that got national recognition in the year 2000, studying it via the political lens.

 

New academic investigations are around the theme of dance in the Indian diaspora and on the intersection of Arts & the Law. She has also helmed the activism around sexual harassment in the arts and has co created www.unmute.help as a one window for literacy on the legal rights and
responsibilities of Arts and Arts leaders.

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