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Power and what it does
- Paramita Saha

November 3, 2021

In our recent Arts & the Law sessions organized by, one question returned often: 'If the person on the other side is a really powerful one, what should we do?' That brought me to the question of what power is and how was it perceived and by who. What makes the powerful truly powerful, what corrupts the powerful and how do they wield their power.

The earliest perception of power is in the family when we are children. Who makes the rules, who calls the shots, who decides, who pays for things, where does the buck stop. Then in school: who knows more, who can instruct, who can punish. Then in our relationships, who decides what happens, who apologizes more often, who has more money, who knows more about how things work, at work who reports to whom, who can force you to do more, who can make you work on your holidays, who can taunt you, goad you, ridicule you, bully you.

Coleman says that power is associated with personal characteristics of individuals or groups whereas authority is tied to social positions or roles. Abuse of power in the arts happens as a strong decoction of both of these. Traditional authority invested in our gurus or teachers is socially legitimate, historically valid, morally conforming to precedent. Students are supposed to 'obey' and not question. Students of the arts, especially dance, are physically vulnerable, open to corrections by the teacher or seniors acting as teachers or seniors assuming to be teachers who find bullying a common way to impose their authority.

There is also a charismatic authority of the guru or teacher or senior based on their special capabilities or gifts that make them unusual and their advice coveted. Their ways are esoteric and the student can only 'learn' by experiencing. Often these teachers or leaders are socially revered and may be venerable on social and other news media that makes them even more special. Power need not be consensual but authority has a way of making it rational and almost legitimate in some ancient patrimonial way.

Young students have no language to protest to verbal abuse, body shaming, slut shaming, shaming based on class or religion. In the case of sexual abuse which also happens in many ways, devious and indirect, direct and violent and in all cases deeply mentally distressing, the student, trainee, intern, employee artist is on the receiving end of fear, pain, stress and helplessness. There is fear of isolation from peers, anxiety over lost opportunity and shame and guilt around repercussions from social and parental circles.

There is in all cases a total ignorance of what rights they may have to protect themselves and speak up against the guru or senior. Is it even possible?

Arts organisations need to prepare themselves for these situations as early as possible. Organise for suitable training of all students and teachers including the heads of departments and organisations, form internal complaints committees that need not be large but rather trained, authentic and effective. Have suitable and visible communication across rehearsal spaces, studios and change rooms. Anyone who undergoes such an experience or observes one, should know where to go to report or seek help. There should be suitable access to mental health counselling and guidance.The organisational structures and functions, hierarchy of decisions need to be transparent and clear to all, contracts for professional dancers and freelancers, clear rules of conduct for teachers, guardians to be closely involved in the mental well-beings of their wards are all important.

Why do the powerful abuse their position? What turns them into opposites of themselves? How do they think and act selfishly, aggressively, impulsively and lesser and lesser from other people's point of view? Some of the power wielding gurus of today may have been victims yesterday or co-opted as enablers before getting here and hence have a tweaked moral compass. Often, they forget the lessons on their way up to a position of power and forget empathy and kindness. The trends hold for not only older and more traditional organisations but also those who are younger and appear more radical and progressive.

The digital explosion of identities often brings a false sense of pride to those in power. The apparently powerful are over-celebrated, those who show off and visually assert their position and achievements are celebrated without critical questioning or rational understanding.

This easily creates a false culture of adulation and hero worship along with a deeply rooted stigma against those who do not fall in line as expected, who stand out, who ask questions and demand action. The trouble makers are isolated and weeded out in subtle and not so subtle ways.

There is an urgent need to educate ourselves about the laws that exist in our systems to protect the rights of the survivors. To be open and non-judgemental towards young students of the arts, their ideas, opinions, thoughts, anxieties and dreams. To respect humans beyond divides of age, caste, religion, colour and body shape. To truly dream through shared artistic vision of an equitable and just world. To imagine a world of beauty, creativity and joy. To unmute and speak up against abuse of power every time. As I answered the young attendees of the Arts and the Law sessions, 'Do not be dazzled by the light, question the source without fear or inhibition!'

- Coleman, J.A., 1997, 'Authority, power, leadership: Sociological understandings', New Theology Review
- Cornelius, E.M., 2019, 'The obsession with greatness leads to power abuse: Is spiritual intelligence an appropriate response?', In die Skriflig 53(2), a2463. v53i2.2463 Elizabeth M Cornelius

Paramita Saha is a performer, contemporary dancer, curator, and arts manager working out of Kolkata. Paramita was Repertory member, Co-Director of Sapphire Creations Dance Company, Kolkata, for 24 years. As Co-Director of Artsforward for the last 10 years. Paramita works with artists and the creative community to build moving messages for social change. She runs At the Still Point, India's only crowd-funded dance platform. She is an ArtThinkSouthAsia 2016 Fellow and a Global Fellow of International Society of Performing Arts 2018 and 2021. She has founded ArtAloneTogether, India's first and only am-pm, mixed arts online festival featuring artists across disciplines and borders; a Continued Learning Program in Dance called Continew operating in both online and offline formats; she co-founded, an online resource centre to safeguard the rights of performing artists!

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