Kalakshetra: Sex harassment claims shake top India dance academy

Dance students at Kalakshetra in Chennai
Image caption,Kalakshetra in located in Chennai city in Tamil Nadu state

By Geeta Pandey and Pramila Krishnan

BBC News, Delhi and Chennai

One of India’s pre-eminent art and cultural institutions, Kalakshetra, has been embroiled in an ugly row over allegations of sexual harassment against a faculty member and three repertory artists who work as substitute teachers at the prestigious dance academy.

At the centre of the controversy is a college run by Kalakshetra, the Rukmini Devi College of Fine Arts, famous for teaching Bharatanatyam, a classical dance form.

Last week, police arrested assistant professor and accomplished dancer Hari Padman after a former student lodged a complaint accusing him of sexual harassment.

It came after days of protests by more than 200 students of the institute, located in the city of Chennai in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. They alleged that sexual harassment had been going on at the campus for years and accused the administration of ignoring their complaints.

In a short statement on its website, the Kalakshetra Foundation – which is an autonomous institution under India’s culture ministry – blamed “vested interests” for trying to “sully” its reputation.

But after the scandal made headlines, the foundation announced a three-member panel, led by a retired high court judge, to investigate the allegations. It also suspended Hari Padman and said the services of the three repertory artists had been “dispensed with pending inquiry”.

“As the inquiry is in progress, it will be inappropriate to make any comment on the incidents mentioned in your mail,” it told the BBC in an email.

The Tamil Nadu State Commission for Women has also launched an inquiry into the allegations.

Protesters at Kalakshetra
Image caption,More than 200 students from the institute protested for days

Before his arrest, Hari Padman had denied the allegations against him in meetings with college authorities. He also told a TV channel that he would make every effort to seek justice.

“There are hundreds of students studying in Kalakshetra. Ask them if I ever misbehaved with them or misspoke. I have never abused anybody. I stand by my conscience and I know they do not have a shred of evidence,” he told News18, adding that he would rely on CCTV footage to prove his innocence.

His wife has also defended him and lodged a counter-complaint against the complainant and two of Kalakshetra’s teachers, accusing them of levelling false charges against her husband out of “jealousy and professional rivalry”.

Divya Hari Padman said the charges against her husband were “an act of revenge” because he had “chided” some students for bad behaviour and that the two teachers had “instigated” the former student to lodge the complaint.

Kalakshetra is often described as “the IIT of fine arts” – drawing a comparison with India’s premier technology institutes that are extremely tough to get into. Students who earn an engineering degree from there are sought after globally.

Similarly, Kalakshetra brings name and fame to its students, helps them earn well and gives them opportunities to perform across the world.

Many students told the BBC that it had been their life’s dream to join the dance academy and that they felt on top of the world when they were accepted.

But they now say that harassment from some teachers has led them to doubt their self-worth.

The BBC spoke to a dozen students, teachers, former students and other staff and heard claims of alleged abuse suffered by young dancers. All of them spoke on condition of anonymity because the alleged abusers are famous and accomplished dancers.

Dance students at Kalakshetra in Chennai
Image caption,The prestigious academy attracts students from across India and the world

Many of the complainants alleged a lack of freedom at Kalakshetra, verbal abuse, body shaming and caste discrimination. Some students said they were told to lose weight, others alleged they were not given important roles and discriminated against for their darker complexion.

But the most alarming allegations were about sexual harassment – both male and female students have complained of inappropriate touches and receiving lewd messages – and, they claimed, the authorities’ refusal to take complaints seriously.

One former student told the BBC that she was harassed and her grades fell when she resisted a teacher’s advances.

“He sent me a friend request on social media. When I didn’t accept it, he kept pestering me, asking why couldn’t I accept him as a friend,” she said.

“Finally when I accepted his request, he started sending me lewd texts. They were so bad that I could not even share them with my close friends. After I unfriended him, he started to treat me badly,” she said, alleging that her grades plummeted after her falling out with him.

A male student narrated a similar story of harassment at the hands of a different teacher.

“At midnight, he sent me a ‘good night’ message. When I replied, he asked if I was alone and if he could come over. I was shocked. He then asked for a video call so that he could see me ‘fully’. He continued sending lewd messages. I could not handle this, I fell ill,” he said, adding that the harassment increased after he complained to the authorities.

“The administration did nothing about it and it further emboldened the harasser. It also prevented more students from coming forward to complain,” he said.

A dancer at Kalakshetra
Image caption,Kalakshetra is famous for teaching Bharatanatyam, a classical dance form

Lawyer BS Ajeetha, http://tehmasnisdingin.com/ who was an external member of the institute’s internal complaints committee (ICC) for sexual harassment since 2018 and quit recently, says the allegations against Hari Padman first surfaced in December in a now-deleted Facebook comment.

Leela Samson, one of India’s best-known dancers and a former director of Kalakshetra, had accused an unnamed teacher of “molesting students” and alleged that “he was in an inappropriate relationship with a female student”. She also warned parents against sending their daughters to an institute peopled by “sexual predators”.

Although the post did not name the teacher, Hari Padman and the female student were named later in the comments. Both denied that there was anything inappropriate about their relationship.

Ms Ajeetha, who was part of the ICC when it investigated the case, said “the student condemned the way her name was dragged into the controversy and said her relationship with Hari Padman was one of teacher and student. The case was closed because the female student denied any accusations of harassment”.

But since then, many students have come forward to level serious allegations against Hari Padman and the three repertory artists. Groups of students and alumni have also come to defend the institution and its teachers. Some have even suggested that the “anonymous allegations” against Hari Padman were “false and politically motivated”.

The ICC considered some other allegations too – one from a former female student accusing Hari Padman of “shouting at her and removing her from a dance show” and another from three male students who’d alleged sexual harassment by other teachers.

Ms Ajeetha says the ICC couldn’t do anything in these cases because India’s sexual harassment law is gender specific and allows ICC to only take up cases of women and only those cases that have explicit allegations of sexual harassment.

“We forwarded the complaints to the management, advising them to take “stringent action” against the teachers involved. But the administration did not deal properly with the students,” she added.

One student said they were taught to tolerate everything and many fell in line because it’s a very close community of artists and young students fear that speaking out could affect their careers.

For the moment, he says, they have paused their protests and are busy writing their semester exams.

“We called off the agitation after the institute’s governing body assured us that our grievances would be looked into and action would be taken against our abusers,” he said.

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