Performer and music academician Swarnamalya, who has been at the forefront of the #MeToo movement in Carnatic music and also vocal about her support to those who called out lyricist Vairmuthu for alleged sexual harassment, says that she has been dropped from an event being held by the Sahitya Akademi in Coimbatore on December 11 and 12, after initially being invited for it. At least one other co-participant, a senior music academician, has also backed out of the event in protest against the decision to drop Swarnamalya.
While Swarnamalya says that she has been given no reason as to why those who invited her changed their minds, she believes it could be because she has been vocal on several controversial issues, including the recent MeToo movement. Representatives of the Sahitya Akademi say that she was never officially invited in the first place.
Swarnamalya was invited by one Professor Mammathu in September to present a paper on Sadir Natyam (a dance form which preceded Bharatanatyam) with a focus on Devadasis, for a seminar on Devadasi traditions and perform a Sadir recital at the event.
While Mammathu is not a member of the Sahitya Akademi, he was requested to put together the event on behalf of the Akademi. TNM has seen several text communications between Mammathu and Swarnamalya, where he invites her for the event and also asks her to send her details and her academic paper to Sahitya Akademi board member and coordinator, Sirpi Balasubramaniam.
Another music academician, Prof Sundar Kali, also told TNM that he was privy to the discussions on preparations for the event and that Swarnamalya was indeed invited, and that there was no formal invitation sent to anyone initially. “I had seen a draft of the invite in which she was scheduled to present a paper and also perform in the evening,” Prof Sundar Kali says. Kali has since withdrawn from the event in protest.
"On November 21, I get a call from the professor who was in touch with me regarding the arrangements for the seminar. He tells me that I am no longer invited. By then I had booked train tickets for my musicians and crew to Coimbatore and mailed my seminar paper along with my CV to the Sahitya Akademi, as per their instructions," says Swarnamalya.
The initial excuse given to her was that Sahitya Akademi could not host a dance performance, as that is done by the Sangeeta Natak Akademi. "This is when I asked him if I am still invited for the paper presentation. He said that the higher authorities of the Akademi decided to strike my name out entirely," she says.
Swarnamalya and her sister Radhika Ganesh were vocal about sexual harassment within the Carnatic music and dance circles throughout the month of October, after she received the invite for the event. "It could be because of MeToo. But I have also been very open about the current political dispensation in the country and I have shared the same on social media," she says.
Sahitya Akademi comes under the central government's purview with executive members appointed in different states. When TNM got in touch with Sirpi Balasubramiam, a Sahitya Akademi Board member from Tamil Nadu who was co-ordinating the seminar, he said that Swarnamalya had never even been invited by the Akademi.
"We don't have funds for hosting dance performances, this is done by Sangeet Natak Akademi. Swarnamalya had not even been invited by the Sahitya Akademi. We did not contact any participants. This was outsourced to a third-party expert in music and dance. The list of invitees was made and Swarnamalya is not there in it," he said.
When TNM contacted Prof Mammuthu, the ‘third-party’ expert who invited Swarnamalya, he refused to go into the reasons as to why she was dropped, but accepted that he had reached out to her to perform at the event. Prof Sundar Kali, who is also a professor of Tamil, Indian languages and rural arts at Gandhigram University, says that the Akademi had struck out her name at the last minute.
"I don't know the politics behind it. But she was dropped out at the very last minute after the list of invitees were made. I had recommended her because the topic in discussion is her forte," Sundar Kali told TNM. Professor Kali added that it was not fair for non-academics at the Akademi to force decisions on academic events and said, “I have decided to boycott the event as the decision taken by the Akademi is a totally unfair one.”
When asked if her views on the MeToo movement led to the decision to not have her on board, he says, "It could be."
Following this decision, several noted names from the music and dance circles have come out in support of Swarnamalya. Noted Bharatanatyam exponent Anita Ratnam too supported Swarnamalya. "This exclusion is most unfortunate. Swarnamalya is facing the expected fall out from shaking the patriarchal foundations of smugness. Cancellations, ostracization, exclusion are all barriers that strong women face. She must not be fazed or diverted," she said.
Singer TM Krishna, who has also been vocal about the MeToo movement, and has faced backlash from right wing groups for his secular views has come out in support of Swarnamalya. "Fundamentally to withdraw an invitation without any valid reason is just wrong and no excuse can justify it. If the cancellation is a result of Dr. Swarnamalya Ganesh's work in the #metoo campaign it makes this that much more shadowy and murky. Swarnamalya and Chinmayi have to be in fact thanked for bringing into focus the underbelly of the classical arts," he said.