Over the last few weeks, several allegations of sexual harassment by prominent names in the field of Carnatic music have emerged. On Wednesday, a survivor who has been part of the music industry for almost a decade came out to name yet another highly accomplished musician, and her harrowing experiences with him as a student for three years. Lalitha*, in a series of messages to social activist Radhika Ganesh, has alleged that popular singer and chitravina player Ravikiran sexually abused her.
She has also levelled allegations of sexual harassment against his father Narasimhan. The messages have been posted with the survivor's permission on Facebook. They follow a string of anonymous allegations against Ravikiran's brother Shashikiran, who is also a popular musician.
Both Ravikiran and Shashikiran are world renowned musicians. Members of the Carnatic music industry tell TNM that they play a huge role in deciding the list of singers who perform at the Cleveland Thiagaraja festival every year. In addition to being the largest music festival outside India, this event is considered every musician's pass to performing across the United States of America.
Former students speak up
What Lalitha explains in her account is a textbook case of abuse of power in a place of education. She joined Ravikiran's Carnatic music classes at the age of 18. She says she initially did not find anything amiss when he claimed that he always tried to get to know his students personally. But soon, she says, the reason became clear.
"Under the pretext of dropping me or picking me up from my home, he used to take me in his car on a slow drive, while engaging in conversation. The conversation slowly shifted to how he was unhappy in his marriage. I tried to take the conversation away from that topic as much as I could,” she recounts. She says that his offer to go for an outstation concert left her perturbed, while the messages increased over time.
"He said, “I buy you coffees and get you concerts, but I don’t get to experience anything.” He then took me to his home after a drive and showed me his bedroom and asked if I liked it," says Lalitha.
"He had also asked me then, "What do you feel, are you wet?” I didn't even know what it meant then. Later on, the verbal harassment got more brazen with statements like – You are very sexy... Your boyfriend must be really lucky... What will you do when you like a boy?... Have you ever kissed?... Would you like to?” she recalls.
On other occasions, Ravikiran allegedly listed the female musicians he had affairs with and tried to initiate dirty talk, Lalitha says.
Two former students of Ravikiran, who were his disciples at the same time as Lalitha, corroborated her allegations to TNM.
"A bunch of us were in the living room of her house, jamming together," says Praveen*, who was a student of Ravikiran. "And Lalitha came out of the bathroom and sat down, she looked very troubled. She didn't say much, which was odd because she is a talkative person. And then, suddenly, she burst into tears. When we asked her what happened, she told us that she told Ravikiran she will be late for class as she had to take a bath and get ready. He apparently replied to her saying, 'I wish I could join you'," reveals the former student.
Another female student, Archana*, who was Ravikiran's disciple for a short while, says that he approached her, too, for car drives and attempted to get too personal.
"She (Lalitha) happened to hint to me that he is capable of flirting as we were on that topic. I took the courage to tell her the kind of personal questions he asked me, and that got her to confess some unbelievably perverted things you would never want to hear from your guru," recalls Archana, in her account which has also been posted by Radhika on her Facebook page. "I also saw how mentally stressed out she was as she had left everything to pursue music," she adds.
But disinterest and even her fear, did not stop Ravikiran, alleges Lalitha.
The unending harassment
"I went without knowing it was a one-on-one class and before I reached his place he called me and asked me not to ring the doorbell and instead call him. I did so. When I went in, he asked me to check if his father in-law was asleep. I did so, and then I went upstairs to his music room," says Lalitha. "He started talking dirty and started coming near me and touched my hair. Made me very scared and I cried," she adds.
The other two students were aware of the harassment being meted out, but did not speak up then.
"Nobody says anything because Ravikiran is influential in sabhas in the US. He can destroy your career if he wants to," explains Praveen. "If things don't go as per his narrative, he can get very vengeful," he points out.
Intimidation when rejected
Lalitha, at that point of time, was attempting to make a mark in Chennai's Carnatic music field. She claims she was trying to kickstart her career and avoid getting molested at the same time. But the results of rejecting his advances were evident in class, she says.
"He started giving away concerts she was supposed to do to others. From star pupil, she came down to being humiliated in every class," says Praveen.
Unable to understand why somebody so talented was being picked on, Archana claims she questioned Lalitha on Ravikiran's behaviour in class. "She broke down and told me how he has been trying to pursue her, and is very upset with her for not reciprocating," says Archana. "When she decided to quit learning from him, he was so upset that he sent her emails with so many taunts and subtle threats," she adds.
While the mails and texts stated that he was unhappy with her performance, Lalitha claims the real reason for Ravikiran's behaviour was evident. "In the texts, he claimed these threats were because my performance was not up to the mark. But it was a totally obvious retaliation for rejecting his advances," says Lalitha. She finally left the class, but continues to carry the scars of the experience.
Another former student of Ravikiran approached TNM with her story as well. She was 18 years old and had been his student for a few years when he coaxed her to join him on car drives and have coffee with him. She says his behaviour took a drastic turn as soon she legally became an adult.
"He’d ask me if I’ve ever had sex, then he’d tell me, oh so you’re still a virgin in the woods. He also told me now that I’ve turned 18 I was free to make my own decisions. He’d also tell me that unlike alcohol or cigarettes, sex had no consequence. It felt like he was grooming me for consent," she tells TNM.
She eventually left his classes for good but he continued to call her for a while.
Former students allege that this was Ravikiran's modus operandi. "Build trust in a student and push his limits to see if he can coerce consent. And if said consent isn't given then make the student's life hellish," summarises Praveen.
Archana says she was just lucky, she understood his intentions in time. "He tried it with me as well but luckily he could not get too far. He traps you by telling you that there is no such thing as right and wrong. It was so sick that I can't tell you how much I regretted taking up music," she admits.
Ravikiran denies allegations
When TNM contacted Chitravina Ravikiran over the allegations levelled by the former students, he dismissed their claims.
Ravikiran says, "Asking someone if they have a boyfriend does not mean that I want to have sex with them. Moreover, I would never ask someone something that sleazy, it is not my style. I have never laid a finger on someone against their will. I am a victim of child sexual abuse myself.”
The musician states that he was always involved in the lives of all his students, including personal, financial and professional facets of it.
"She has misunderstood my parental concern for her. I do this for my male and female students," he claims.
Ravikiran further goes on to state that he had pulled up Lalitha several times in class for bad conduct and that his students were aware of it. (Though TNM did not take her name, he said he could guess who the person was).
Responding to the allegations, Ravikiran instead accused Lalitha of being ‘flirtatious to others’.
"I tell all my students to be career conscious and focus on music. She wasn't practicing enough and there were complaints against her. I am known to give advice in soft manner as well as in a scathing manner in front of the entire class," he adds.
Praveen, who was also a student of Ravikiran however denies this.
"The men in his classes were definitely treated like second class citizens," he alleges.
Archana meanwhile points out that Ravikiran was particularly cruel to Lalitha.
"He would literally humiliate and break her in class. And she was one of the most talented singers there," she states.
When questioned about the alleged blackmail Lalitha was subjected to when she attempted to quit, Ravikiran laughs it off.
"How can I take away opportunities in a democratic society?" he asks. "Am I the mafia?" he asks.
‘Don't question the Guru’
Stalwarts in the industry, tell TNM, that the complex relationship that a Guru and his student shares, often robs the latter of the power to say no to their teachers.
"In the world of art and culture, the Guru-Sishya dynamic is very complex. The Guru wields immense power over his students and is almost seen as a demi-god," says Swarnamalya, a performing artiste. "If a student aspires to take up music or dance as a career, then the Guru's decisions and opinion will permeate into every aspect of their life," she explains.
She says that there is a culture of not questioning the Guru and the student is groomed into believing that the Guru's help and guidance is required to make a mark in the field. "They are considered to be the custodians of any knowledge imparted to you. That is why even parents push their children without paying any attention to the abnormality in the relationship. It simply does not strike them that sexual harassment could occur in this environment. This hold that the Guru has over the student must be inspected," she adds.