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Whatever The Truth Of The Pt. Birju Maharaj Case, Those Speaking Up Point To Skew In The Guru Shishya Parampara

From the time one dancer went public about Pt Birju Maharaj through a series of stories on Instagram, the classic cycle of victim blaming started asserting itself- deny, disbelieve, discredit, disgrace.

From the time one dancer went public about Pt Birju Maharaj through a series of stories on Instagram, the classic cycle of victim blaming started asserting itself- deny, disbelieve, discredit, disgrace.

Trigger warning: This has sexual abuse, victim blaming, and gaslighting, and may be triggering to survivors.

In light of the recent allegations of sexual misconduct by the legendary kathak maestro Pt. Birju Maharaj, a number of people are asking “why now?” Why is the person choosing to make the allegations public after his death when he is no longer around to defend himself? What is to be gained by sullying his reputation when he is no longer in the world? If these allegations were true, why didn’t we hear of it before?

We will not go into the merits of the case, because all we have at this moment are verbal testaments, anecdotal evidence, and whispered comments about how it was “common knowledge” in the Indian classical dance fraternity. Though others too have written about how the ‘guru-shishya parampara’, with its attendant power imbalance which has led to a community of silence which enables sexual predators to escape the consequences of their action.

We will, instead focus on the other and more generic aspect of the case- victim blaming. From the time one dancer went public through a series of stories on Instagram, the classic cycle of victim blaming started asserting itself- deny, disbelieve, discredit, disgrace.

Deny

“Utter rubbish. If that was the case, we would have heard about it. We have all heard stories about Pt. xyz, but never about him.”

When this was countered by people who mentioned that the Delhi based Indian classical dance community was aware of and spoke about his predations, the next phase began.

Disbelieve

“She’s mistaken. It must have been consensual. Why should someone of his stature indulge in predatory behaviour.”

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By this time, other voices, on condition of anonymity started speaking up too, and it emerged that though the maestro had a history of sexual assault and predation, the victims had remained silent because they hadn’t found a safe place where they could speak on record. By this time, the third phase of victim blaming began.

Discredit

“Why did she wait till after the maestro was gone before speaking of his predatory behaviour? Why did she present a façade of normalcy as long as he was alive? She is doing it for the publicity.”

The answer to this is obvious. The maestro ruled the classical dance form. He could make or break careers. Had she spoken up earlier, her entire career as a kathak performer and instructor could have been ruined. Who would dare take such a great risk? Anyone would wait till she was no longer vulnerable before sharing her story.

Disgrace

“She shouldn’t have done it. What does she gain by tarnishing his reputation when he is no longer around to defend it. She should have known better.”

This is probably the most insidious part, where the victim is blamed for speaking up. If anyone is guilty, it is the person who abused his power to coerce women (and even young girls) into granting sexual favours. If he didn’t want his reputation to be tarnished, he should not have indulged in predatory behaviour. Yet, he did, and it is the victim who is blamed. And while blaming the victim, people forget that by speaking up, she provided a safe space for other victims to open up too. Victims who had remained silent about their abuse for years (even decades). Victims who pushed aside the memory of his predatory behaviour, yet could never completely overcome the trauma.

Happens every time when a woman speaks up

Unfortunately, this is not the only time this has happened. Every time a woman speaks up against a person in power, the same Conspiracy of Silence plays out. Friends and acquaintances of the person who has been accused of being a sexual predator close-ranks on him. He is made out to be the ideal friend, colleague, father, and even husband. Stories of his wit and humour, his intelligence and his talent are told as if any of that excuses him from making inappropriate sexual advances against a woman he had power over.

The mainstream media starts questioning the victim and her motives. She is simultaneously painted as a naïve person who misunderstood his intentions, and as the ambitious woman who encouraged him in order to get professional favours.

Everybody chooses to ignore the fact that sexual coercion is not as much about sex, as it is about power. That where there is a disparity in power between the predator and the victim, it is almost impossible for the victim to defend herself.

“Why now?” is the wrong question to ask the survivors who speak up

The people asking, “why now? Why not when it happened?” choose to ignore the fact that it often takes the victim a long time to recognise the abuse and process it. And it takes even longer for her to go public with her accusations.

Equally important, even after she has decided to go public with the story of her abuse, she is often held back by practical considerations. In the past, whenever a victim has come forward to speak about her abuse, her career has almost always suffered a setback, even if it is proven that she was the victim.

Coming back to specific case, while one can certainly speculate on the motives of the person who spoke up first, the reality is that by speaking, she has drawn attention to how the ‘guru-shishya parampara’ creates unequal power structures which leave students vulnerable to sexual harassment and abuse. This will, hopefully, generate more conversations, and an effort would be made to make the classical dance community more safe.

Anyone who has been affected by abuse in the Indian classical dance or music space can reach out to document abuse and for mental health support at this link.

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About the Author

Natasha Ramarathnam

Natasha works in the development sector, where most of her experience has been in Education and Livelihoods. She is passionate about working towards gender equity, sustainability and positive climate action. And avid reader and occasional read more...

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