Several instances in the recent past have revealed the deep inequity in the performing arts field caused by abuse of power, systemic patriarchy, disregard for ethics and values, ignorance of legal frameworks among other reasons. Following several sessions on Arts and the Law initiated by Kri Foundation and other organisations over the last 2 years and taking cognizance of the valuable and enriching content that has been generated from these various conversations and exchanges, Artsforward and Sruti Performing Troupe feel the need to join hands with Kri and other partners to create a resource center that would serve at once as a space for information, reference material, guides to laws, rules and regulations, compelling research content, audiovisual documentation of expert conversations along with being a space of networking for performing arts organisations willing to create new and equitable workplace ethics. Thus we bring you Unmute – A Performer’s Guide to Speaking Up – Laws, Rights, Resources.
Our panel of experts are willing to listen and offer guidance. Our forum will allow you to initiate discussions among fellow concerned artists. Our partner network will have scope to be part of expert training sessions of various aspects, handbooks and other POP materials to talk about sexual harassment and other such issues not readily spoken about.
We hope to create a positive ecosystem to speak openly, be courageous and demand justice.
The silence from performance and the enforced slowdown of our lives in due to the Corona induced lockdown, caused a peculiar churning in the arts. The sector saw a severe sustainability crunch, but individually, artistes reacted by either going inwards into their practice, its philosophy or literature or moving outwards by embracing new technologies of social media, that helped to keep the discourse around the arts going. On these digital platforms, artistes continued to express their creative side and created online communities and stages. Disparate digital skills and capacity made the field unexplored, unequal and unpredictable. One of the reasons for the unpredictability was the frequent bumping into copyright issues. The issue of plagiarism came to the forefront. The issue of mental health, bodily harm, drug abuse etc also became very important. The issue of Sexual Harassment in the arts seemed to be a pan-Indian problem- what was first called out in Chennai in 2018, finally caught up with the rest of India- Bhopal, Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata, all reported stories and cases.
The reasons responsible for why the sexual harassment cases in the arts came to the forefront are many. Chief among these is the fact that abuse of power is likely in the arts, where unconditional, unquestioning surrender to the Guru, often male, is the expectation. The content of many arts, celebrate ‘chhed chhad’, a poetic word for eve teasing, and when the Gods are shown doing it, why can’t men follow? The idea of consent gets totally displaced, as students don’t fight back, argue or protest, since so much energy goes in to make them docile and pliant learners.
In the absence of clear pathways of professional advancement, artistes, are constantly faced with the whims and fancies or figures of authority, who wield disproportionate and unaccountable power. In this skewed power equation, the powerless artiste who has yet to build a career and a reputation often gets caught. While some can negotiate this power disequilibrium, to benefit them and serve their goals, it is never an easy choice, nor is it in an ethical environment.
As Kri Foundation and other stake holders in the arts, watched this much come up to the top, it became clear that the larger picture of Arts and the Law needed to be addressed. While from 2018, the world of the arts had been hearing vocalizations, this time of the pandemic seemed to be suitable for addressal of the multiple issues at the points of intersection of the Arts with Law.
A five part series on “Arts and the Law: What they don’t teach you in Arts School” was conceived and rolled out as an online co- production between Kri Foundation and the Visual Arts Gallery, India Habitat Centre, New Delhi.
What the success of this series taught us was that it was time to talk about many issues like this that plagued the arts, about which the artistes were largely unaware and for which their long years of training in the arts had not prepared them, for Arts and the Law is about what they do not teach you in Arts school.
The first issue we chose to focus on was “Abuse of Power: Sexual Harassment in the Arts”. This session was followed by one on “Drug use in the Arts”, instigated by the entire brouhaha of the Sushant Singh Rajput case, and which served as an eye opener on how rampant drug abuse was in creative industries like films. To address the frequent outages of online content that Indian artistes were putting forth and which would meet copyright restrictions and blip off the screen, the next session was on “Copying, Copyright and Plagiarism”, and apart from being very informative, actually anticipated a question that has come up unexpectedly- the Rights of the Guru on his/her teachings. The next session on Contracts informed how they protect artistes. This was important in the wake of the fact that artistes were now suffering long delays in getting grant payments and reimbursements, as patrons including the government bandied words like force majeure and Act of god! The final session looked at “Art, Obscenity, Prescriptions and Parampara”. While all sessions had a domain or arts expert in discussion with a legal eagle, the last session had the same advocate who had argued the case of M.F. Husain so persuasively that one of the most important judgement on the arts had emerged as a conclusion of the case.
Each session went off very well creating a discussion and discourse. But nothing prepared us for the post even life of each session, particularly of the first session that was on Sexual Harassment. The name Unmute, by which this website is known was born then, initially only to cover issues of Ethics and Abuse of Power. We owe this name to the team members of the collective Beej, and are grateful that they have allowed us to use it not just for our trainings on sexual harassment but also for this website which has now grown out of the Arts and the Law series, to embrace the bigger vision intersections of Arts and the Law, under the rubric of Rights and Responsibilities of Artistes and Ats leaders.
This initiative has grown in the spirit of togetherness as a caring and sharing process by a large group of partner organisations who are listed elsewhere in this website). It is a growing list and we hope that you and your organization will join. This website belongs to the community as a resource centre for issues of Rights and Responsibilities of Artistes and Arts leaders. Our immediate focus is the Abuse of power and sexual harassment as our combined experience tells us that this issue needs to come into the mainstream of art discourses. So, while the website is an idea whose time has come, sexual harassment is an issue that can wait no longer.
A quiet interaction with Gurus in Delhi, a well-attended public training session in Mumbai, an open table discussion in Kolkata, helped build a community and threw up arts leaders who were concerned enough to have been doing things, big and small to draw attention to the tendency for the abuse of power in the Arts. All these individuals and organizations, key stakeholders in the field of the arts, form the backbone of this website.
However you will find many other issues that this website will prove to be useful for. This is because whether the English version of Arts and the Law series (2020) or the subsequent longer series in the Bangla language- Kala Ebam Ain (2021), proved that the entire area of arts and the Law needs to be looked at in a wholistic manner. Therefore, this website will cover additionally rights of all artistes, rights of LGBTQIA+ artistes, Artistes who are differently abled or trauma survivors, and child artistes as well. Some of these areas were expanded upon later when we addressed the specific needs felt by the artistes community of Bengal. That is why large parts of this website are also in Bengali apart from English, Hindi. This website is a continuous work in progress and will be added to regularly.
One difference between the English “Arts and the Law” and the “Kala ebam Ain” series, was that in the former our legal experts were renowned legal professionals of India, while in the later we worked with some of the best Law Professors and educators from the best Law schools of India. This not just made for a difference of flavour in communicating the cardinal concerns, but also opened up many possibilities for a long-term association with a National Legal university that are being worked out at present. Jointly, the domain impact will be multiplied many times over, and some path breaking initiatives may follow. This website is the first step, and also the forum where we will be announcing the subsequent developments.