In this historic system of classical music, one quickly notes how the flawless preservation of tradition sits alongside hours of onstage improvisation. Yet behind stage curtains, the musicians’ fraternity is secretive and passionately guarded: a tinted glass cabinet where hierarchy and religious decorum outweigh individual or even community well-being. Casteism, sexism, colourism, and classism are stable fixtures in the Carnatic music scene. Members must obey or pretend to obey unspoken demands regarding their diet (eggless vegetarian), dress (traditional and/or modest), and relationships (arranged intra-caste marriages). But it is also a world of fluid standards: sex is both divine and demonised, lifelong relationships often have no paper contracts, and artistes bully students but grovel at the feet of seniors.
Like most competitive art forms, Carnatic music doesn’t conclude in the classroom but engulfs the student’s personal life, often pulling their teacher into that intimate sphere as well. The grooming often begins there.
Tied to an abuser
The media coverage of sexual abuse is bound by a number of legal and ethical requirements. The survivor’s anonymity and right to privacy coexist with the accused’s right of reply.
This means that to uphold the principles of fair and accurate journalism (as well as to avoid defamation), a survivor might reveal the details of their abuse at great personal risk – only for the accused individual(s) to casually dismiss their experience at the end of the article.
This happened to several Carnatic music students who approached mainstream news publications to share their encounters with abusive artistes and teachers during the 2018 #MeToo movement. In most articles, the student survivor was treated merely as an anonymous news source; their trauma was reduced to a compass needle which was then used to point at their larger-than-life abuser.
To obtain insider knowledge about the Carnatic music fraternity and its complex power dynamics, journalists reached out to established artistes in the field. This act became a trend, and soon these artistes’ comments were over-represented in the discourse. After some time, what should have been a student and survivor-led project was taken over by dominant caste artistes and activists. Instead of amplifying the stories of marginalised students who survived sexual abuse, caste discrimination, or caste-based gender violence, the media platformed the bird’s eye view of a privileged few who earned their status by cooperating with the culture’s oppressive demands. As a result, male regret and dominant caste allyship drowned out the lived experiences of survivors – and their calls for practical aid.
How did this happen?
Journalists failed to amplify the accounts of anonymous survivors, choosing instead to assign that space to celebrity artistes for their interviews and op-eds.
Journalists failed to confront the sabha (concert hall) owners who allowed accused artistes to perform, and failed to question patrons who gave awards to the accused musicians.
Journalists failed to spotlight survivor-led efforts across social media; instead they put the #MeToo movement in the hands of artistes who had more in common with the accused than their marginalised students. Confidential sources told the author about how they have witnessed emotionally/verbally abusive music teachers being publicly praised for supporting the #MeToo movement and protesting sexual harassment in the industry.
Failure of journalism
Read the account of an abuse survivor and you can feel your way back to the questions they were asked: What did you experience? When did it happen? How did it make you feel?
Mainstream media coverage of Carnatic music students froze them in time as victims. Their stories ended on a note of horror, disgust, or helplessness. There were almost no follow-up articles to speak of; these students were not invited by national newspapers to publish 800-1000 word essays laying out their thoughts on toxic guru-sishya (teacher-student) relationships or requested to offer their solutions to misogyny in the classical arts. Students were not invited to speak out about other forms of mistreatment such as physical, verbal, or psychological abuse at the hands of even absolved teachers. Students were not given the opportunity or resources to transition from survivors to leaders and activists.
Instead, their voices fell silent while those who should have amplified them were urged by the media to make the most noise.
Here is what student survivors should have been asked: Were you able to receive counseling? Have you found a new and supportive teacher? Was it difficult to rekindle your love for music? Can you participate in competitions and give concerts without facing stigma? How did your family and fellow students support you? What more needs to be done for you?
These answers and discussions should have taken the place of remarks made by privileged artistes/activists who identified as allies rather than survivors.
Future of media and #MeToo
With the arrival of a new movement, journalists have a duty to report on all sides of the issue – without repeating the daily life oppressions and erasure in their publications.
For the reporter, it is an achievement to secure a celebrity interview or win the exclusive quote from an exalted source because such features boost page views, bring in new subscribers, raise one’s career profile, and enrich their network of useful contacts. However, editors must fulfill their ethical duty to platform the voices that best serve the public interest, even if such voices come from the most vulnerable members of society.
As our communities circle back to Carnatic music’s #MeToo story again and again, the media must remember those we need to hear from first: students and survivors.
Featured image source: The Hindu Business Line