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Unmute: Breaking the culture of silence
- Ellora Kothare & Shivani Jatar

January 27, 2021

On January 15, 2021 Beej and the Kri Foundation shared space with Asiya Shervani, an inclusion and diversity advisor, to start a conversation about a topic often looked over: the ethics and values surrounding sexual, physical, and emotional harassment. The session was moderated by artiste Masoom Parmar and was attended by about a 100 attendees across fields of artistic expression. Neha Kudchadkar, visual artist and dancer, opened the session by acknowledging the #metoo movement in the Indian art space and the possible hesitations that still hold us back. She spoke about the value of educating ourselves so we can make more informed decisions, and more importantly to understand who we are and how we fit into this complex dynamic.

Asiya began the session by describing the constituents of sexual harassment in a legal arena including physical advances and verbal and non-verbal gestures. She explained and evaluated the role of the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC), went over how to register a complaint, and stressed on the importance of registering a complaint even when it's from a space of doubt. She also addressed the complex issue of both respecting and resenting an abuser who is a reputed figure and the importance of having a community that holds spaces for these conversations. She also posed several questions for the audience to think about: Do we have a culture that celebrates a me-first ethic? Do we have a culture where we worship celebs like demigods? Why do we have blind respect for our elders? How do we build a culture where constructive feedback is not perceived as an attack but as something valuable? How do we build more empathy as a community?

Arshiya Sethi

Sanjukta Wagh

The respondents included Sanjukta Wagh, Gita Chadha, Arshiya Sethi, and Natalia Hildner. Sanjukta Wagh, artiste and co-founder of Beej, spoke about moving towards a more egalitarian student-teacher relationship and subverting the power hierarchy by encouraging students to call their teachers out and hold them accountable. She also spoke about how we have inherited certain cultural codes and conditioning which don't encourage dissent, criticism, and inquiry. Gita Chadha, Mumbai based sociologist, said that predatory cultures in the arts are linked to what ideas about art we uphold. While art is expected to raise questions about societal norms and also transcend the social dimensions of life, ironically it often reproduces them in strange ways. She also stressed the importance of recognizing 'genius' in collective work of artists rather than celebrating the idea of the individual genius. Arshiya Sethi, managing trustee of the Kri Foundation, addressed the importance of listening and sharing circles in catching early signs of abuse. Finally, Natalia Hildner, artiste and victim advocate, spoke about understanding consent and mental health resources available to support and empower survivors. She also addressed how we, as individuals, can be of better support to fellow artistes who have been through such abuse and/or trauma.

The panelists' responses were followed by a Q & A session open to the audience, which included discussions around trusting institutions, establishing a healthy student-teacher relationship, and holding more inclusive spaces for non-women and non-binary individuals.

In the closing segment, The Way Forward, Sanjukta Wagh spoke about the necessity of honouring vulnerability in an artistic space, rather than exploiting it. Arshiya Sethi emphasized the importance of collecting evidence, creating spaces to support fellow peers, and exploring these problems through art.

The session left us with thinking what now? As much as we had spoken about legal measures of dance, what about the more accessible, nuanced, non-legal measures that we could make use of? How does one deal with more subtle signs of abuse and toxicity? We also addressed more complicated, personal issues like early childhood development and their potential effect on a trauma bond with a guru. Do most of us know what a trauma bond is and how it could apply to our lives? Do we have spaces where we can at least ask these questions? If not, how do we create them?

Clearly UNMUTE is just a starting point in what is a much larger discourse on sexual harassment. The Beej and Kri Foundation hope to collaborate with institutions, groups, arts communities, lawyers, policy makers, schools and students to take this forward with greater nuance, empathy and sensitivity.

For those who missed it, the session can be viewed here

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