Condemning An Abuser Should Be Easy… But Why Does It Sometimes Become So Difficult?

I struggled to reconcile the two aspects- the formidable talent who literally moulded kathak into its modern form and the man who took advantage of women in his charge.

Trigger Warning: This speaks of sexual abuse and grooming by someone in a position of power and may be triggering for survivors.

The noted Kathak exponent Pandit Birju Maharaj passed away two years back. His death affected me greatly because I had just become a student of kathak and the composition we were learning then was one of his. For the next couple of days, I let his baritone voice comfort me while I mourned the fact that I would never see him teach or perform live.

Then the allegations of sexual harassment started coming out, which left me stunned. There was no question of not believing the victims/ survivors. Anyone who understands how power dynamics work knows that the classical music and dance space offers immense scope for sexual abuse. As a woman and as a feminist, I offered nothing less than unconditional support to the women speaking up.

However, a large part of me was shattered

Shattered because realised I would never again be able to truly appreciate a phenomenal talent like him. The almost divine voice which took me to undreamt levels- how could that voice belong to a man who preyed on defenceless women? To me it seemed almost unfair that just when I had learnt to be truly mesmerised by someone, he was taken away twice- once through the death of his physical body, and then through learning about how he acted with women.

I struggled to reconcile the two aspects- the formidable talent who literally moulded kathak into its modern form and the man who took advantage of women in his charge. Separate the Art from the Artist, I repeatedly told myself. But it is so much easier to say it than to actually do it.

As a student of kathak, his name came up in almost every class. The compositions he wrote and sang, the innovative techniques he devised for teaching the basics, the simple descriptions which helped us get the right posture. It is almost impossible to stay in love with the dance form without encountering him everyday.

I recognised that he was not untainted, yet…

More than once, when I finally mastered something I was struggling with, I would glance up at his portrait seeking approval. Yet, whenever I did that, it would be with a twinge of guilt- was I complicit in the conspiracy of silence that protects sexual abusers?

I have pondered on this for two years and I still don’t have an answer.

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At an intellectual level, I continue to stand by all I said two years back. Sexual abuse is rarely about sex, it is about power. When power dynamics are not equal, even a consensual relationship between two adults may not strictly be consensual. The victims deserve our nothing less than our unconditional support, and as a woman and a feminist I will not deny them that.

Yet, as a student of a classical art form of which he was the undisputed master, how can I ignore or deny the contribution he made?

Perhaps the best I can do is to continue to respect and be grateful for the immense body of work that Pandit Birju Maharaj left behind, while at the same time recognising that despite his almost divine talent, he too was human. And human beings are often flawed.

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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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