As India's #MeToo movement launched in October 2017 by law student Raya Sarkar has gained new momentum in recent days, women in Chennai’s music and theatre spaces have come forward with their stories.
In April this year, widespread allegations of sexually predatory behaviour were made against the member of a fledgling theatre group in the city with an online campaign. While a meeting was held to help design a redressal mechanism for the theatre community as a whole, the campaign failed to bring about a systemic change and little seems to have happened since.
In this latest bout of the MeToo campaign, a prominent city theatre group for children and adults has been accused of allowing harassment to take place at their premises.
TNM reached out to theatre groups in the city to ask if they have an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) in place, as mandated by law. We also find out how redressal mechanisms take place in these spaces.
Chennai based Crea-Shakthi, one of the biggest theatre groups in the South, operates with a legally constituted ICC consisting of 6 women out of 7 and an external member.
According to Dushyanth Gunashekar, Founder and Director of Crea-Shakthi, the production house set up their ICC when they crossed 10 members in April this year.
“One of the problems is that the Vishaka Guidelines and the ICC aren’t tailor-made for fluid workspaces such as theatre or other art forms. We do have lots of volunteers, we have members of the audience who participate in the plays, we have freelancers who come and perform in some of our productions. So how do we handle sexual harassment in each case and hold people accountable for their actions?" he asks.
Dushyanth believes that the proper way to go about investigating cases of sexual harassment within the theatre fraternity is to, first, hold each member of the community accountable for their actions.
“There’s a necessity to define workspaces even in theatre and other performing arts. Theatre groups cannot hide behind the excuse that this is their recreational activity,” Dushyanth adds.
Dushyant also adds that if the accused company believes that they are being unfairly accused, having an ICC helps as it would speak for them.
“If you don’t have an ICC, you don’t have these incidents documented. You don’t even have a committee to hear these instances. If you do have ICC, that would speak for you in case of unfair accusations or mudslinging,” he adds.
The Crea-Shakthi founder also adds that contracts have to be made mandatory while bringing performers, whether they are established artists from other groups or freelancers, on board.
Karthik Kumar of Evam, a popular theatre group in the city that also organises stand up comedy events, says that the group has an ICC since his organisation is run as a corporate enterprise. This means that artistes performing for Evam events would count as consultants of the company.
“The problem with a redressal mechanism in the theatre space is because of the amateur design of the whole enterprise. It’s semi-formal, more like a bunch of people who get together to have fun. So there is no way to hold anyone accountable. There are no professional terms or contracts,” says Karthik.
He also believes that a grievance redressal mechanism for the arts and theatre community as a whole should be set up.
The Little Theatre
As for redressal mechanisms for sexual harassment cases in their theatre space, a trustee of The Little Theatre has said that the group does not concern themselves with issues that happen outside of rehearsals and performances. A Facebook post had recently alleged that a woman had been harassed by a member of this group, however TLT leadership has rejected this allegation vehemently.
“We can’t be managing somebody’s private life. The Little Theatre does not pay the artists. We don’t own them. They are part of multiple institutions at the same time and they are free to do what they want during their private time. Any cases that happen during that time is not our responsibility then,” the person who chose to be anonymous said.
The 30-year-old organisation does not have a formally constituted ICC to look into cases of harassment, the member says.
“We do have a board of trustees who are mostly women. We haven’t had any complaints come our way yet. But if it happens during the time of practice or performance we will definitely take action,” the person stated.
With regards to addressing issues of sexual harassment as a community, Venkatraman Balakrishnan, founder of Theatre Nisha (a 5-member production house in the city) believes that the the theatre space in Chennai and its practitioners don't essentially form a community. Hence, a centralised organisation to address such cases becomes difficult.
"The word community has at its base, the desire to pursue a common interest or is unified by common ideologies or common space. It does not exist with the theatre practitioners of Chennai. We rarely even watch each other's works. In the light of such isolated groups, to unite under a common umbrella seems like a herculean task. The concept of first do-no-harm has to be a personal responsibility of each individual and group. Each theatre group will have to create its own method of keeping its space safe for every member of its team. And no actor should agree to work with a group lacking this basic system," he says.
That being said, Venkat agrees there is a need for a systemic approach to dealing with sexual harassment complaints.
"There is a need for redressal that allows the survivors to tell their story and get justice as they deem best for themselves, and not decided by anyone else. It should not be a space to settle personal scores and cheap hyperboles, but justice that the survivors deem as a resolution for themselves," he
ICC is a legal requirement
Speaking to TNM, city-based lawyer Amba Salelkar disagrees that the theatre community is too undefined to have an ICC.
She says, "The definition of an employee is quite wide. It includes all kinds of staff members, including cleaning, catering staff, etc. As far as theatre in Chennai is concerned, there are quite a number of people always involved ie more than 10. So one cannot argue that it's too small an organization to have an ICC. They are quite large. Just cast members exceed 10 people."
Amba points out that if individual theatre groups find it difficult to constitute a body, they could come together to set one up for the entire community.
"Under the law, there is a requirement is to set up an ICC.
The law is very clear and includes paid and unpaid employees, including cases where conditions of employment are not defined," she says.
Vaishnavi Sundar, an independent filmmaker, writer, and a theatre actor says that there are avenues to set up bodies to look into complaints, if the organisation truly believes in doing so.
“It is going to be very difficult to come up with a mechanism for redressal in the arts and theatre space. Groups don’t conform to a set structure. Most people perform theatre as a hobby. After a production wraps up, they go back to their day jobs. It is also difficult to define who an employee is. We need to factor in other people not associated with the organisation, freelancers and audiences,” she says.
However, Vaishnavi is quick to point out that in the absence of an Internal Complaints Committee as mandated by law, there must be a Local Complaints Committee(LCC) for organisations that have less than 10 employees set up by the district administration.
She says, “Most people are unaware of its existence. They don’t know whom to approach, call or email. There is no information available in this regard anywhere. Of course one can easily say that the victim should go to the cops but we know how cops behave. Victim shaming happens and there is no redressal at the end of it.”