Published: 09th May 2018
Chennai's theatre fraternity sets up committee to deal with harassment
The theatre fraternity in Chennai has set up a committee to facilitate the artists to open up about their complaints on sexual harassment at the workplace
Following the Movie Artists' Association (MAA) announcement of setting up a committee to hear sexual harassment complaints in the Telugu film industry regarding harassment at workplace, the theatre fraternity in Chennai also set up a committee to provide actors speak out about any incidents.
This move is to quell the storm rising on the social media where a number of members of the tight-knit community spoke of being harassed. A number of 'pain posts' were put up on Facebook on April 25 and the community immediately swung into action to form the committee.
E-mails were circulated that called for a meeting on May 1. Initially, the venue was fixed at Alliance Francaise. However, it was shifted to Spaces in Besant Nagar. This did not go down well with some as the co-owner of Spaces was among those named in the Raya Sarkar list last year. The organisers of the meet, however, declined to comment.
"There is a need for a platform that allows individuals come forward and speak about incidents without shame or guilt," the e-mail read.
"To bring to notice the people who are involved in such acts, so that action can be taken by the concerned individuals in an informed way. The forum is to seek justice for everyone and allow a safe platform that promotes free speech and guidance to the needy." It was this need that led to the formation of Chennai Theatre Prevention of Sexual Harassment (CTPOSH), a voluntary, not-for-profit organisation. According to the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 'sexual harassment' is a behaviour that is unwelcome either directly or by implication.
This includes physical contact and advances, a demand or request for sexual favours, making sexually coloured remarks, showing pornography or any other unwelcome physical, the verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature.
"Here it's the survivor's say," One of the posts on their Facebook page read. "You can choose to first care for yourself by seeking trauma relief through therapy or seek legal action against the abuser through our team of lawyers or explore options in between."
When it comes to sensitive issues like harassment, survivors often find it hard to complain either because of fear or shame.
"I went through an unpleasant experience when I was new," said a young actress in the theatre circuit. "It started off seemingly innocently but it escalated and involved the individual trying to behave inappropriately. I protested and nothing has happened since. But my parents were very supportive and so were friends in the community."
However, not everyone in the community has a support system at home to fall back on.
"I haven't experienced anything, but I don't know what I will do if something like that happens," said another actress. "My parents are against me acting and going for late night rehearsals. They think that theatre is not for 'good girls.' If they hear these kinds of complaints coming out, they'll stop me from doing theatre."
Others refrain from complaining of fear of losing out on roles and work since it is a small community.
"Girls feel threatened and feel that their chances to get roles will get spoilt," said a member of the community, on condition of anonymity.
"Many parents are not supportive so they are all the more hesitant. As it is, people don't consider theatre as a profession and as a community, it is essential to make everyone feel safe at the workplace. The biggest worry is that many schools already don't have a theatre component. With this, it will become worse. Will they take on a male director after all of this? While these could be isolated incidents, will the world see it like that?"
It is not only sexual favours and advances that women deal with, but also abuse. Nandini Krishnan wrote about how she was slapped by a co-actor and the larger narrative of 'the culture of abuse in Indian theatre' in an article she wrote for The Ladies Finger in August 2016.
"In 2014, a co-actor slapped me as a scene was being choreographed," Krishnan wrote. "There was no slap in the script. I was acting in a play I had written, which had been commissioned and was being staged in Chennai by one of India's oldest theatre groups. The actor claimed he had got 'carried away'. The director supported him and made me feel guilty for objecting. At the next rehearsal, the same actor bruised my arms. The rehearsal after that, the director decided to demonstrate a strangling scene and I left with a headache. My mother, who is a doctor, found a bruise on my neck. It was close to my carotid artery."
Members of the community said if these issues were not dealt with appropriately, it would lead to a skewed perception of the community. "We will be meeting to discuss further course of action," said a member, who did not wish to be named. "We have been told that there are two options - either we form a committee registered by the law or we have an informal committee with representatives of the fraternity. As of now, nothing is fixed. But it is too soon to comment. we will consult with the rest of the community as well before reaching a decision."
While the Act mandates that every organisation that has over 10 employees should have an Internal Complaints Committee to deal with issues of sexual harassment, experts feel implementing the same for registered theatre groups would be 'tricky.'
"Though it is a workplace, there is no structure," explained an advocate. "There is no 'employment' in the sense that is recognised by the law. While lack of promotion, loss of pay and even dismissal are awarded to those found guilty under the Act, what can one do in a situation like this where there is no formal structure in place? It is because of this that it gets complex."
When it comes to issues like harassment, survivors often find it hard to complain either because of fear or shame. Others refrain for fear of losing out on roles and work since it is a small community. Members said if these issues were not dealt with, it would lead to a skewed perception of the community