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Predatory Musician Gurus

The recent brouhaha at the Dhrupad Sansthan in Bhopal where two Gurus have been named as molesting and harassing the resident students there has brought up the age-old issue of the status of women in the arts, and the patriarchal attitude that women are there literally to ‘serve’ men. Advice about not smiling too often on stage (a senior Carnatic lady singer), to the standard advice in Delhi and Kolkata of never going alone to a fellow musicians house even during the day, reflect the attitude to women in the public domain.

Despite being the repositories of tradition (the ‘devadasis’ in South, ‘tawaifs’ in North India) women artists have always been regarded as lesser beings; till now, in the Carnatic tradition, some traditional accompanists are reluctant to accompany a lady artist.

Ruchira Panda

Kotali gharana vocalist, Kolkata based, outspoken Ruchira Panda said “We are a patriarchal society; this is so inherent a part of our ethos, that there has never been an honorific for a lady musician. It is Ustad so and so, Pandit so and so; lady musicians were referred to as  –  Kesar Bai, Mogu Bai, Gangubai Hangal; even fairly recently, only ‘Begum’ Parveen Sultana. Now its ‘Vidushi’ (learned)”.

Musicologist Partha Mukhopadhyay in his soon to be published book ‘Connecting the dots’ demolishes the artificial position of the music Guru. In his words “the term Guru has been misappropriated by Indian Classical Music teachers. In our scriptures, there is nowhere a mention of a Sangeet Guru. A Guru imparts spiritual wisdom, and to do that the Guru is supposed to be “Sthita Pragnya, Vairagya Vaan, Veda Vedanta Vid”, implying he should not have any earthly attachments. As Indians, our inability to see music objectively as a purely cultural artefact, leads to deification and hagiography that clouds and corrupts both sides. What we need is a “Sangeet Guru” in prison; if Harvey Weinstein, the most powerful person in Hollywood can end up in prison due to a few brave women coming forward, it can happen here also.”

This seems highly unlikely, given the reluctance of victims to even speak out. The assumption of some Gurus, that women disciples should be ready to accommodate the Guru in every way lies deep in the male psyche; regrettably, a few women disciples too seem to feel this is the only way forward. Sometimes getting a scholarship influences the decision to stick it out, even where there is ample evidence of abuse in the individual or institution. Sadly the issue of abuse is linked both to merit and economic necessity.

There is another side to the issue too – there have been cases of women disciples hoping and expecting their Gurus to promote them musically and then verbalizing their dis-satisfaction with innuendo-es of abuse against the Guru. But such incidents are rare in the world of classical music; the relationship of giving without return creates the kind of bond that is usually totally inspiring.

What is equally reprehensible is the attempt to sweep unsavoury incidents of abuse under the carpet; this emboldens the perpetrators to continue. Common comments are – “Oe can never be sure of what really happened; many times the students are so enamoured of the aura and the persona, they invite attention”.

Begum Parveen Sultana | PC: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar via

Begum Praveen Sultana, representing the mature viewpoint of a senior generation said “I don’t know, and can’t comment on specifics, but generally speaking I would say I have personally never experienced anything of this nature. I don’t think of women as weaker and needing protection. I am very aware of myself; my upbringing is such that I know what signals to send out. Women have to stand up for themselves, in the field of music or anywhere else. Yes, you are learning from male Gurus; but please be steadfast in yourself. Leave the Guru if you feel things are impossible. I do feel one rotten apple can spoil the entire basket, so it is important not to tar the entire institution of learning under a Guru.”

Kolkata based vocalist Indrani Mukherji, who has been a part of the world of classical music for 3 decades now, feels women artists today are bolder and stand up for themselves; the power and reach of social media can empower. “What is far more deep-reaching is the trust issue; it’s so upsetting to think of seniors not honouring the sacred Guru Shishya relationship,” she said.

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In their 20s, young Chennai based Carnatic vocalists Anahita and Apoorva Ravindran admit that “Be it any profession or art form, a change in attitude is required from all sides. In our world, one can be exposed to a form of verbal abuse not just from fellow artists, it could be organisers or even fans. I guess, in some cases open accusations would work, in some cases just avoiding, and social ostracism.”

In Maharashtra, with no tradition of ‘gharanas’, where the tradition of classical music came later, in the 20th century, instances of abuse seem rare. Senior vocalist Ashwini Bhide shared that she had never experienced or heard of specific instances of abuse; “My Guru was my mother, I have always had her protective hand. After marriage too, I have received only magnanimity from males. We are living in the 21st century, we are all educated people, we know our rights. Of course, speaking generally, I would condemn any act of taking advantage of someone’s weakness.”        

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In cases of abuse, unless a police case is made, there is very little action that can be taken, and the accusations die a natural death after some time. The problem persists. Societal ostracism is the only real deterrent to an abusing artist. Organisations can ban concerts of offenders; fellow musicians can refuse to perform on the same stage; the world of music, if united, can be effective. Future would-be predators would perhaps be scared of this type of reprisal.

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