Student protests wane as Kalakshetra turns fortress

Even as the Kalakshetra Foundation students' protest on Thursday attracted nation-wide attention, what prompted the students to call off the protest within a day?

Kalakshetra foundation, sexual abuse allegations
Kalakshetra students call of their protest and according to activists and the art fraternity they have probably buckled down under pressure after they got wide news coverage

The protest by students of the Kalakshetra Foundation in Chennai, one of India’s premier cultural institutions, over alleged sexual harassment by four staff members on Thursday (March 30) seems to have come for a pause.

There has been no statement issued by the students on why they have withdrawn the protest. And, the students have become inaccessible to the media or activists, as the Foundation’s premises in Thiruvanmiyur has turned into a walled fortress with heavy policing. Nearly 60 police personnel were deployed at the Foundation on Friday (March 31).

According to the arts fraternity and activists, the students were “unable to handle the pressure” and buckled down once the news got wide coverage. Activists complained that the protestors, who had once been eager to share their experiences and complaints against the institution, were not taking their calls anymore.

A cultural activist, who did not wish to be named, told The Federal that the students of such dance schools are usually “depoliticised” making it difficult for them to take on the establishment.

“The dance school, Kalakshetra, especially functions on the foundation of submission. So, it was brave enough of them to initiate the protest first of all. When there is an unequal power structure, exploitation is bound to happen. Especially since the institute is built on the concept of patriarchal cultural nationalism,” she pointed out.

The Kalakshetra Foundation, too, took a tough stand against the allegations and the protest. They first dismissed the allegations as “rumours” and warned the students not to spread gossip. And, when the protests began, the Foundation announced that it was closing the Rukmini Devi College of Fine Arts until April 6 and asked the students to vacate the campus. But, the students refused to budge until they got justice.

The students gheraoed director Revathi Ramachandran’s office for hours and she finally came out and gave an assurance that she would initiate action against the accused. But she refused to give anything in writing. After she complained of feeling uneasy with the situation, the police escorted her out of the campus.

Also read: Chennai Kalakshetra sexual harassment row: CM Stalin pledges action

Nearly 200 students went on a protest because they were disappointed by the lack of action over the allegations of sexual abuse in the institution. It is because the Kalakshetra had on March 19 said that their Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) suo moto had initiated an investigation and found no truth in the complaints of sexual abuse against the four faculty members.

It was found that “the allegations (of sexual harassment) were unfounded and baseless. During this period, Kalakshetra Foundation has not received any active complaints as per the guidelines of the PoSH,” said the press release.

It is unclear what prompted the students to back down and withdraw their protest. According to sources, the students have been assured by the management that their grievances will be addressed. But, the media and activists have been barred from entering the institution.

This issue highlights how “we need to think of the larger picture to understand the skewed power dynamics between patriarchal figures and the dancing bodies,” tweeted Nrithya Pillai, a dancer-activist. According to Rituparna Pal a former student “character shaming, victim blaming and body policing were part and parcel of the dance history and practice” taught in Kalakshetra.

A former Kalakshetra student, who was visiting her alma mater, along with two other girls on Friday, to express her solidarity with the protesting students admitted to The Federal, “In our time too, there were talks of sexual harassment at the institution. But, it takes a lot of courage to protest. That’s why we have come here to express our solidarity.”

Also read: Kalakshetra sexual harassment case: students halt protests temporarily

Moreover, Tamil Nadu State Women’s Commission chairman AS Kumari, who conducted an inquiry for five hours with Kalakshetra’s twelve students, told the media today, “There have been accusations of sexual harassment against four teachers. I am told such incidents have been happening for many years. I am going to file the report and submit it to the state government by Monday.”

She also confirmed that the students called off the stir without explaining why they have done so.

According to Bharathi, joint secretary of Students Federation of India (SFI), a left wing organisation, which is supporting the students, said that there had been a “quick turnaround” all of a sudden after the Thursday protest.

“They seem to have arrived at a compromise and don’t want us anymore. Yet, we continue to demand justice for the affected students,” he told The Federal.

He added that on the first day of the protest, the students shared their grievances with them. “But, it seems they were not able to handle the pressure once the news got wide coverage. The same set of students refused to pick up our calls the next day,” said Bharathi. This was echoed by the journalists waiting outside the Kalakshetra foundation.

Right-wing groups, too, have dived into the controversy, further muddying the waters. A noted Carnatic music critic, who didn’t want to be named, said that the rot started when the institution started compromising with the Hindu ethos of this temple of art.

“The institution first appointed a non-Hindu director. Today, we see fake claims of sexual harassment framed against teachers. It is nothing but rivalry among the school’s teachers, and some are instigating the issue,” he pointed out.

Right-wing leaders like Arjun Sampath of Hindu Makkal Katchi termed this a conspiracy of “communists and the Church”. He tweeted saying the protestors were “forced into participating.”

Against the backdrop of a right-wing backlash, the student protests seem to have whittled down. And, so has their social media campaign #WeWantJustice. “Students who were in regular touch with us stopped taking our calls,” said Bharathi.

Meanwhile, Tamil Nadu chief minister MK Stalin has also promised a probe into the controversy.

According to the arts community, the turn of events has confused the Kalakshetra students and they probably decided to go in for a compromise with the management. But, for the Foundation, this is one controversy that is not likely to die down in a hurry.