Over the last year and a half, the #MeToo movement spread across social media worldwide like ink in water. For the first time in history, anyone with an internet connection could get a glimpse into the sheer scale of rampant, systemic harassment and abuse of power towards women in the workplace and outside. #MeToo took its time to get to India, but when it did, it hit like a tsunami. Bollywood bigwigs were predictably amongst the first to be exposed, and that included music industry juggernauts like Anu Malik and Kailash Kher who’ve had allegations pile up since the nineties to no effect. But because mainstream Indian music lives behind impenetrable and societally immune gates of Bollywood, Malik, Kher and the slew of musicians accused will in all likelihood continue to live freely without repercussion. Outside of Bollywood though, the fragmented independent music scene has been waging its own war in a tiny corner of the Internet—with allegations against Pune venue High Spirits’ owner Khodu Irani, as also that of Only Much Louder’s rampantly sexist work culture, taking over our Twitter timelines.
Now though, a handful of musicians and companies have decided to move forward the conversation—taking the hashtag from a moment online to a movement offline.
“Social media exhausted me to a point where I wanted to have real conversations with people where they’d be able to open up freely without judgement,” says Anahita Dawar, a fresh-out-of-college musician with a degree in performance arts and a three-person band called The Marionettes. She points out an important point of concern. “There isn’t a clear definition of “workplace” in a community like this., Interpersonal relationships can exist in a formal or informal space depending on whether you’re in an office or at a show. Dawar realised that a lot of women didn’t know how to talk about those blurred lines, and they were feeling distressed because they constantly felt the need to justify themselves, and lacked IRL avenues to address what they felt about the movement, and the music and performance scene. So she took action by organising the offline events she realised people so badly craved, and organised her first meet-up in Delhi, in December 2018. She’s had two more so far in 2019.
The groups are small (between 10-20 women) but as Dawar puts it, “We achieved more in a single discussion than anything online.” So far, the groups are women-only but Dawar is aiming to open upcoming meetings up for men and underrepresented communities as well, to have a more inclusive, unified dialogue. Her groups have expressed what they’ve been through and how they felt. They’ve tried to figure out the first steps required to make the scene a safer place: how to raise awareness without alienation and get more women involved. “There’s still a long way to go,” says Dawar, “but this is a comfortable space to start that change.” In her meets, she also discusses the obvious, everyday sexism towards women. Like the time when she was starting out as a vocalist, and was called to a venue that “wanted a female on stage”. She carted herself over, performed and left but the experience still makes her uncomfortable. “The only reason I was called for that gig was because they needed some kind of exhibition of sexuality.”
Like Dawar, Suyasha Sengupta aka Plastic Parvati—a Toto Award-winning musician who used to be the vocalist for Kolkata band Ganesh Talkies (on hiatus)—is trying to shift the conversation to the What Next part of #MeToo. “Social media was just the first wave,” she tells VICE. “It’s time for integrated dialogues about sex and consent, and creating a healthy working environment for people of every gender.” Sengupta held an independent workshop with the completely ignored LGBTQ+ community in Kolkata during pride week last year, with a second facilitated by Rana Ghose of REProduce. “The workshops discuss gender, consent and mental health in a general way,” she says. The attendees were mostly young boys and girls in high school or college. “While the workshops are open to all age groups, I prefer reaching out to teenagers, especially young girls since they are the most vulnerable.”
Sengupta’s workshops start with an informal introduction to break the ice. She then discusses gender and sexuality as a spectrum, the importance of mental health, the meaning of “consent” and practicing safe sex. “The way I've designed the modules, they are highly interactive so the participants are uninhibited and feel like they are in a safe space,” she adds. Sengupta is still changing her modules based on feedback she gets from the participants. “I've observed some very basic problems such as a lack of correct information,” she says, adding that it stems from the lack of sex-ed in schools and Indian parents refusing to talk to their kids about sex. A lot of what kids learn comes from porn, and Sengupta’s workshops undo false learning, and build from the ground up.
Sengupta defines a ‘healthy working environment’ as one where women aren’t boxed into categories, citing her own example of interacting with the male-dominated scene. “I’m not really taken seriously. I wouldn’t be incorporated in technical conversations. Even reviews about the band would focus on the way I presented myself and reduce me to a vocalist.” She says, “It made me go into a shell.”
Levelling the Playing Field
Male musicians, sound engineers, promoters and venue managers dominate the independent music industry in India. The lopsided representation was what pushed Sarah Chawla, co-founder of music portal Wild City and the Magnetic Fields Festival to hold an exclusively female workshop series, called ‘The Selector Pro: Women in Electronic Music’, to teach women the basics of the industry. They partnered with the British Council in India for the ongoing project. In fact, they’re in the middle of hosting one currently, stretching into the weekend following Women’s Day.
Wild City had been criticised for staying mum about #MeToo (full disclosure: I worked with Wild City for three years). Chawla knows the key figures accused, both Khodu Irani and Vijay Nair. She said that the allegations surprised and upset her but what was really shocking was people questioning authenticity of the victim’s claims being questioned. “The number of women who falsely accuse is tiny —it’s crazy that people think they’re lying.” Chawla’s aim with The Selector Pro series was to address the issue in a tangible way, and use skill building to create an equal-opportunity platform for women to enter into an often-alienating workspace. They’ve addressed the the unavoidable #MeToo claims during the process. A workshop in October had feminist writer and publisher Urvashi Butalia talk to women directly about the #MeToo movement in India, and its relationship with the law and society. Aside from the workshops and ‘Inspiration Tours’, the team is also addressing venues directly, by hosting gender sensitisation and information workshops for the people who run the nightlife industry: venues, security firms, and the like.
The information they’ve gathered can prove vital to addressing the issues that underlie harassment in the music industry. Wild City shared some of the data from a survey they sent out about a year ago at the start of their workshop series with me. Taken by about 400 people, it was temperature-test of sorts to figure how many women would be interested in workshops like these, and what they thought the industry needed. That data addresses the key questions about why women are so discouraged to enter the industry, obstacles and barriers, key findings and impact. Of course, the survey was limited to a section of society that engages with the independent scene so it only targets a certain class of Indians in largely urban areas (for now). Wild City has also recently partnered with the British Council for an even more comprehensive report that has gathered data from over 3,000 Indian women. Once released, it will probably be the most extensive source of data regarding women in the industry available anywhere.
A lack of confidence, a feeling that they’re not entitled to participate, stereotypes about women, and tech are among many barriers for women, according to the findings of the survey. Predictably, safety is an issue as well, particularly in New Delhi, while family concerns are a bigger source of anxiety in Mumbai. A majority of women who filled out the form also wanted all-female learning environments. They felt stereotyped and therefore judged for asking certain questions in mixed-learning environments. With their own role-models teaching them skills, be it in electronic music or otherwise, the series became an accelerated learning environment for women. These female-only workshops also encouraged confidence and an extremely supportive work environment—according to members of the Coven Code, a female DJ group that grew out of the workshops.
The industry is growing. Spotify just landed and India ranked 19th in global sales in 2017 according to Indian Music Industry (IMI). The industry is poised for unprecedented growth. But when it comes to having a level playing field—open and safe for women as well as talented people from different castes, classes, sexualities—the Indian music industry is a dangerous place. High Spirits is still functional, and OML is doing very well—NH7 Weekender 2018 having played to some of its biggest audiences ever. To stay completely silent and mute is like sitting and doing a crossword on a park bench while someone is screaming for help and being beaten three feet away. This isn’t a question of arbitrary morality; it’s a question of rights. Collecting data about women who aren’t online, and talking openly offline both, in female-only and integrated (between men, women and everyone on the spectrum) spaces, seem to be the next step for #MeToo. Only then can we think about institutional and systemic changes, because those are rendered moot when society hasn’t caught up. For their part, men have an even easier job arguably—to listen and try to understand before getting caught up in their own discomfort.
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