Male students accuse two Kalakshetra employees of molestation, sexual harassment

Speaking to TNM, a complainant said that repertory member Sanjit had groped him in the green room on multiple occasions. He had earlier blocked Sanjit on his phone after he sent sexually suggestive messages during the lockdown.
Kalakshetra students' protest
Kalakshetra students' protest
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Four male students have accused two employees of the Kalakshetra Repertory of sexual harassment and molestation. Speaking to TNM, the four students have named Sanjit Lal and Sai Krishnan — who are employed by the Union government funded Kalakshetra Foundation as part of their performance troupe — of molesting them and sending lewd messages. This comes after a senior dance teacher of Kalakshetra’s Rukmini Devi College of Fine Arts, Hari Padman, was arrested by the Chennai police after several allegations of sexual harassment against him by female students and alumna of Kalakshetra. 

TNM spoke to the four male students — referred to as Person A, Person B, Person C, and Person D in this article — who have filed complaints with the Internal Committee (IC) against sexual harassment at Kalakshetra. 

Kalakshetra Repertory is a body created in 2018 by the current director Revathi Ramachandran as a performance wing of the institution. The artists are on contract and are not required to teach students at the institution, although they do perform substituting duties. 

All four students are currently pursuing their four-year Diploma in Bharatanatyam course at Kalakshetra. The IC dismissed two of the four complaints citing that the redressal mechanism is gender specific. It has not responded to the other two complaints yet. However, the IC response mentioned that “there will be an appropriate action taken sooner of which you will be informed.”

Allegations against Sanjit Lal

Person A told TNM that Sanjit had groped him on multiple occasions while he was in the green room, or was working as a backstage set up artist. “Sanjit would make excuses to grope me in the guise of ‘teaching’ me how to tie a veshti,” he said. Veshti is a garment wrapped around the waist. Person A had earlier blocked Sanjit on his phone after he began receiving sexually suggestive messages during the lockdown. 

“As recently as The Remembering Rukmini Devi Festival in (February) 2023, I was groped by [Sanjit] during the performance of Koormavataram. … This has left me traumatised,” his letter to the IC said. The IC has not yet replied to A.

Similar allegations were levelled against Sanjit by Person B too, who told TNM that the repertory member had groped him while he was on backstage duty. “He would touch my private parts in front of other students under the guise of teaching,” he said, adding that he had to “unfortunately” practise with Sanjit often as they played complementary roles in several acts. “I would try to ensure that we practised amidst friends, but that would not always happen,” Person B said.  

Three of the four students said that they started receiving sexually explicit text messages from Sanjit Lal around the time of the COVID-19 induced lockdown in 2020, while the fourth student said he had received inappropriate texts from Sanjit Lal much before he joined the college. While the initial texts from Sanjit appeared innocuous, they became increasingly sexual and led to instances of propositioning for sex, they alleged.

Person C said that Sanjit began texting him in February 2020, weeks before the COVID-19 lockdown was announced. “I used to contact him to ask him about the pandemic situation in Chennai and the chances of the college reopening. But the conversations began to get uncomfortable,” he said, adding that he has received requests for late night video calls, and that Sanjit’s texts involved sexually explicit emojis.

“I began receiving similar texts from anonymous Facebook profiles. I realised it was him when he began sharing pictures of himself,” Person A said. After Person A shared his experiences with some of his friends, he realised that several of them had faced similar situations, he added. 

Person D said that he began receiving Sanjit’s text messages before he joined Kalakshetra. Even though Person D tried to stay away from Sanjit, there were instances when the latter would teach as a substitute. Person D recounted to TNM how he was groped by Sanjit during one such class. 

Complaint against Sai Krishnan

There have been similar complaints of sexual harassment against another repertory member, Sai Krishnan. Person A said that since an August 2022 Bengaluru tour of the repertory, Sai Krishnan has been asking him for “massages” for his “back pain.” “After the massage requests grew frequent, I told Sai Krishnan that I do not know massaging techniques and that he must ask others. Ever since, I have noticed a change in Sai’s attitude towards me. He began harassing me, telling me that I am not a good dancer and that I hadn't ‘earned’ a place at a reputable institution like Kalakshetra,” Person A said. He believes this is because he refused Sai’s sexual overtures.  

Sanjit Lal responds

Speaking to TNM, Sanjit Lal denied all allegations made by the four survivors, while admitting to making late night calls to Person C. He said that the call was to inquire about Person C’s mental health during the lockdown. “We all cared for each other. I even called my cousins, and other college boys as well,” said Sanjit, defending himself. 

Sanjit also admitted to touching Person A during performances, but he said, “it was a tap on the shoulder, to ensure Person A relaxes before going on stage. We perform dance dramas, and there are 40 members in the dance drama — is it logically possible to touch a person’s private parts in that crowd? Anybody can see it, no? How can this happen? I can’t even think about it.”

Sai Krishnan was not reachable on phone or WhatsApp texts. This article will be updated if we receive a reply from him.

The IC’s response

Of the four students who complained to the IC, two received stock responses on March 27, dismissing their complaints under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Preventin, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 (PoSH). The IC response stated that the redressal mechanism is “gender specific.”

The provisions of the PoSH Act only provide for female complainants to seek redressal against male perpetrators. However, several workplaces have actively tried to make their sexual harassment policy gender neutral. Akila Ramalingam, a lawyer who practises at the Madras High Court, acknowledged the lacuna in the law, but said Kalakshetra could have taken up the complaints by male students under a general grievance redressal mechanism as laid down by the University Grants Commission, and if it does not fall within the purview of the Education Department, then under other mechanisms that govern public/governmental workplaces.

She said the IC could not have taken cognisance of the complaints by male students as the committee was not gender neutral at its inception. However, she said, as these complaints are serious, they could have been taken up under a different mechanism, as remedies are available and should have been made available. “They could have enacted a better PoSH policy, but we can’t turn back the clock,” said Akila.

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