Law and the world of performing arts

An initiative called ‘Unmute’ hopes to address issues of sexual harassment, copyright, contracts, censorship and more

For most performing artistes, legal concerns remain slippery ground that they are often unwilling to tread. It may be difficult to wrap one’s head around the nuances of drawing up contracts, claiming support for copyright violations or reaching out for help in sexual harassment complaints. Digital assets like NFTs are new concepts that haven’t yet found their way into our artistic comfort zones or common vocabularies for understanding creative work. Performing arts companies in the country remain largely unorganised, with ‘verbal understandings’ rather than precise contracts that would uphold the rights of artistes and their professional commitments to projects and institutions.

When dancer-choreographer Raka Maitra relocated from India to Singapore in 2004, she found the difference quite alarming. She worked as an associate artiste with The Substation for a few years before establishing her dance-theatre institute, Chowk Productions, in 2014. “It is important that we make the arts sustainable for today’s generation to make it a full-time profession. This means proper contracts, a monthly salary, and medical benefits for full-time artistes working with a company. For dancers working on a project, hourly rates are important.” This is the kind of conversation that young Indian performing artistes here may find difficult to even initiate, given that they are expected to perform for free, or in lieu of getting ‘a platform’, or ‘exposure,’ and healthcare is considered an individual affair.

Raka points out that while most contemporary art companies in the West work with well-charted terms and conditions, Indian companies even in Singapore mostly subscribe to the model back home where there may have administrative staff on the payroll but no arrangement for full-time performers. “The struggles for independent artistes are similar everywhere; in India there is also the traditional structure where one is bound by invisible rules. For things to change, it is important to know your rights as an artiste, to speak up without fear, and address inequalities. Building a community is key,” she says.

Efforts at community-building geared towards artistes’ rights have been sporadic and situational, and have often petered out. Addressing this gap in the performing arts, the initiative ‘Unmute’ seeks to be one such integrated resource on various issues around arts and the law.

Gaining traction

“It is important to create safer spaces for artistes,” says dance scholar and activist Arshiya Sethi, who spearheaded the initiative as a series of online discussions in 2020. It expanded into workshops and panels (several in Bengali) with collaborators Paramita Saha, performer and arts manager, and Somabha Bandopadhay, scholar and Manipuri dancer. Gradually gaining traction in the performing arts community, ‘Unmute’ now seeks to be a one-point portal that compiles resources on legal aspects for artistes, ranging from sexual harassment, substance abuse, copyright, contracts, censorship and more.

It is unclear whether the #MeToo movement truly ever reached the classical arts in India. The patronising pat that casually slides down to the waist, the uninvited intimacy while getting a note or move right, there are many such everyday moments that often leave artistes confused about whether to look away in reverence or shame. Articulating discomfort about boundaries being crossed has not been easy, especially for young artistes in a deeply hierarchical system.

In the wake of the harassment cases that stirred the classical music and dance communities in the past year, which implicated male gurus and performers from esteemed arts institutions, it was most urgent for this initiative too to prioritise the issue. “The reason we are focusing so much on issues of sexual harassment is because it can be deeply traumatising for someone who has gone through it. It is lonely and defeating, and mostly artistes do not know whom to turn to,” says Sethi. To ensure that mental health is addressed, counsellors are present at most of these discussions.

However, there has been resistance from various quarters and taking up such discussions has been challenging. Sethi recalls that in one of the first training sessions people were hesitant to join. They managed to persuade 40 performer-teachers to participate, of which 39 were women. The gender skew remains, but after the training many individuals started reaching out to her for support. “People have many questions and there is lack of clarity; they ask what exactly can be construed as harassment, if they come out after many years have passed; how their careers will be impacted.” She adds, “As the initiative gains momentum, challenging the power structure is important.”

Abuse of power

Having been in the performing arts field for more than two decades, Paramita says, “The problem is that no one wants to address the elephant in the room, especially when it comes to abuse of power. We keep believing that it only happens to other people, overlooking that it may be happening right where we are.” Speaking about going beyond the stereotype about where these issues are likely to crop up, she says, “It’s not only conservative set-ups; abuse of power happens in the most apparently radical, progressive, young and contemporary arts spaces too. But it becomes difficult to take a stand, because as a community we have not created structures to enable people to question and seek support.”

In this context, Paramita believes that working with partner organisations through ‘Unmute’ would be key in providing training, helping institutions set up internal committees and other infrastructure to address issues pertaining to the law.

Legal lexicon

According to Somabha, performers are often unaware that there are laws that can help them — whether it is understanding the terms of a contract or copyright issues. “Most performing artistes don’t know the importance of contracts and get exploited.” She works at the intersections of law and performing arts. A performer, she was brought up in a family of artistes and her research in law at the West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata (WBNUJS), give her perspective from both the ends.

She says, “There are three main problems because of which performers hesitate to approach the court — they are unaware that a law may protect them, they fear that lawyers will not understand their issues since they are not familiar with the art world, and that their reputation and career may be jeopardised.”

Copyright remains a much-contested issue in the field of performing arts, especially music and dance. There are several anecdotes about yesteryear Hindustani musicians who refused to record their music and would even omit certain sections of their composition while singing in a concert for fear that it may be copied by disciples of another gharana.

Giving an example of the intricacies that make it difficult to negotiate copyright issues, Somabha says, “In theatre, it is much easier to understand the idea of copyright because the script can be protected; in music, more specific concepts of defining copyright through notes, melody, lyrics have emerged recently. But what about dance? How do you protect a choreography, how do you claim copyright for dance movements? These are finer points that need more attention.”

Opening avenues for such reflection and discussion, ‘Unmute’ is a performer’s guide, assuring performers of their rights, as well as the responsibilities that go with it. It is in tune with the need of the hour — to break the culture of silence and create more democratic structures in the performing arts.

(The resource can be accessed at )

The author is a Delhi-based arts researcher and writer.

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