When allegations of sexual misconduct against Tamil lyricist Vairamuthu began surfacing on Monday as part of the MeToo movement on Indian social media, singer Chinmayi came forward with her own story of harassment the following day. Chinmayi recounted the incident from 2000-2006 when the lyricist allegedly harassed her, and later had to defend herself from the vile comments and attacks on social media and the news media. This mounting disbelief about Chinmayi’s version provoked US-based artiste Sindhuja Rajaram to come forward with her own experience. TNM also spoke to another woman, who chooses to remain anonymous, but has shared why she was forced to leave the music industry.
In an email interview to TNM, Sindhuja talks about why she chose to be identified than staying anonymous. She also details her experience with Vairamuthu, when she tried joining his hostel. Sindhuja maintains that she has received closure.
While Sindhuja says Vairamuthu was only 'trying his luck with her', the artiste calls him a weak person for painting the MeToo movement as 'fashionable.'
When did you first hear about Chinmayi's accusations on Vairamuthu?
I have not been active on social media, especially Twitter. A close friend sent me her posts on October 5. I started to follow her with my old, unused Twitter account since then. After a few days, I saw a few posts on Vairamuthu and felt that it was high time he was exposed. A couple of friends, who knew my story, insisted I write to Chinmayi. I also remember telling them that my experience was not as horrific or “sensational” as others. But then, the following day, I also realised that nobody was coming out with their names and wanted to stay anonymous. When I read Chinmayi's posts on what had happened to her and that people were not willing to believe her story, I decided to gather myself, remember exactly what happened to me and email her. I did this only because I did not have a problem coming forward with my name for more credibility.
What was your experience with Vairamuthu? Could you explain it?
It happened about 14 to 15 years ago when I was about 18 years old and working with Kosmic Studio. My father was transferred to Bengaluru and my mother started looking for a decent working women’s hostel to settle me in. All hostels had a curfew time of 8.30 pm or 9 pm. Then, she found out about Vairamuthu’s hostel in Kodambakkam, Chennai, from newspapers. It had a similar curfew but since Mr Vairamuthu was in the same industry, my mother felt he would understand that I had to work late. She called the hostel and was put through to Mr Vairamuthu. They had a long phone conversation about me and my career. He was apparently keen to know more about me. He wanted to see me and invited me and my parents over.
We met him a few days later at his Kodambakkam office, above his residence. He greeted us saying, “Ungal paechil miga naal natpu therindhadhu” (I can sense a longtime friendship in your voice), referring to my mother’s phone conversation. I had taken along my demo CD containing songs that I had composed and programmed. He was so impressed that he said he would love to introduce me to Mr AR Rahman. Our meeting lasted for 20 to 30 minutes. He took my number and said he would keep in touch.
Fortunately or unfortunately, he could not do anything about relaxing the hostel’s curfew just for me, as the other residents might have objected. I moved into a family friend’s home instead. A week later, after my parents had moved to Bengaluru, Mr Vairamuthu called me, asking me to come over to Rahman’s studio that evening as he had some work with him. I was excited but also a little nervous. I took my aunt, who was my local guardian, along with me. The meeting with Rahman sir was brief.
Mr Vairamuthu called me again the following day and told me how impressed Mr Rahman had been with me. A few weeks later, he started calling me frequently, asking how I was doing. He would ask about my work and tell, “Let’s meet sometime”. I would say “sure” and end the call. Then his calls became desperate. I would only answer out of respect for the man.
Once, he said, “When do we meet? I miss you. I have written poems about you, please come and meet me at my Besant Nagar office.” I felt awkward. I hung up the phone saying I had to get back to work. His next call was even more desperate. He said he was falling in love with me, that he was constantly thinking about me. That is when I said, “Sir you are like my father. I have great respect for you. Please do not say such things. I feel very awkward.”
He persisted to convince me to meet him, but I always threw some random excuses. Once, I even handed my phone to a male colleague and told him to tell the “caller” I was busy with a recording. After a few more calls from him, I finally answered – not willingly but out of respect. He was upset that someone else had answered my phone and said I should never give my phone to anyone.
He apologised for the things he had said but still called me to his Teynampet office, saying he had a new project to discuss with me. “Let’s see sir, I am busy with our sessions at the studio,” I said. Around the same time, I heard from an acquaintance at Sun Network (I cannot name her since we are not in touch) that Vairamuthu had met her at work, taken her number and started calling her. She complained to Sun TV’s then deputy managing director, after which Vairamuthu stopped calling her. I stopped taking his calls since then.
Did it frighten you and did you feel helpless as he was a celebrity?
Why would I be frightened? It was not like he was threatening me. He was only on the other side of the phone line, trying his luck with me. I never got to see him in person and I avoided him. I warned all my women friends about it.
When you read people criticising and pointing fingers at Chinmayi, what do you feel?
She is already under so much stress that she has to read tonnes of stories, edit their names out and post them. I feel terribly bad for her that she also has to fight against all the people who don’t believe her and call her a liar.
People foolishly ask her for proof while nobody wants to ask the accused for a proof of their innocence. They blindly want to believe the revered artistes just because they achieved fame over the years whereas they don’t want to believe someone young. Additionally, I find Mr Vairamuthu disgraceful for being a weak person as he calls #MeToo a new fashion as an excuse.
'He wanted me to go to Malaysia with him'
Another singer and anchor with a popular Tamil TV channel who came forward to TNM anonymously says that her experience with Vairamuthu has left her traumatized for life.
Ananya* entered the industry around 1998- 1999 at the age of 25, having returned from the US with hopes of becoming a singer. She says she first encountered Vairamuthu at a singing opportunity for Trichy Sarathas Silks, a brand the lyricist was promoting at the time. While Vairamuthu was all praise for Ananya’s Tamil diction, he reportedly asked her to come to his office(then in Trustpuram) for a singing session.
“I gave a demo at the office. Nothing happened since many people were present. Then I started receiving calls from him everyday. At first, they were harmless. He said he would get me an opportunity to sing for Rahman since I’m talented. I didn’t take it seriously since I never asked for a chance. Then one day he told me that he is going to Malaysia to receive an award from the Tamil sangam.”
“I remember every word he said," she tells us.
Ananya says that Vairamuthu asked her if she would accompany him to Malaysia. To this, she asked, “For anchoring or singing?” Vairamuthu reportedly said, “Not for either. Do you not understand? These things are common in the industry. Pattum padama nadandhukanum (you have to act like this is casual).”
When Ananya refused, she knew the consequences. She knew her dreams of becoming a singer would be crushed.
“He called a week later and asked, I’m asking one last time, shall I book ticket or not? I said no. Then he said I will close every door for you. I said, go ahead. You can do only that. I have studied. I will do some job and survive,” she recounts.
The 45-year-old says although she would now be able to handle such situations better and know what to say, she has developed a mental block towards singing. Once her passion, she is now only able to perform in front of family and close friends.
“I haven't even had the courage to pursue playback singing since then. When I read everything on social media, it triggered some very unpleasant things that have been at the back of my mind. I saw so many people judging Chinmayi since she is from the industry. Had this happened to one of their family members, they would not have said this. I decided I wanted to help,” she says.