Decoding The Kalakshetra Muddle

By Sandhya Ravishankar 

The rumours began in September 2022 – W is a mistress of X. Y has been sleeping with Z. A has been making eyes at B. Students and teachers alike discussed these animatedly.  

Rekha Menen, a contract teacher in Kalakshetra, by many accounts, began to actively spread the rumour – that another teacher Haripadman had done some “bad” things and that no student should go to his house henceforth. She told several students that another teacher, Girish Madhu had confided in her about the same. 

The Chinese whispers began, effective and targeted with teachers themselves setting the narrative. 

In an institution where the power differential is vastly tilted in favour of teachers or gurus, and with little knowledge of the truth and the outside world, students believed blindly what they were told. 

The rumours that began in September 2022, solidified into certainty in the minds of students as teachers Nirmala Nagarajan, Nandini Nagaraj and Indhu Nideesh played their roles in disseminating them and revising them to be more sensational. Soon, the entire Bharatanatyam ecosystem was buzzing with allegations of sexual harassment. 

Enter Leela, CareSpaces & Agitprop Expert

By December 23 and 24, 2022, a former director of Kalakshetra, Leela Samson, known to be impulsive in her actions, posted these rumours on her Facebook account without bothering to verify them. 

Leela Samson had left the institution under a cloud, accused of misappropriating funds with a CBI case pending against her to date. 

Worse, she named students in her posts which she later deleted. 

Immediately thereafter, on December 24, 2022, an organisation called CareSpaces had jumped into the fray, calling students to write anonymously on their portal. 

CareSpaces was founded by Janani Ramesh, a student of Indhu Nideesh, and Neha Krishnamachary, an MIT Sloan graduate, in 2021. The organisation touts itself to be the “first-ever referral service organization dedicated to providing resources and actionable solutions towards addressing sexual and identity-oriented misconduct through education, accountability, & support.” 

The agitprop expert was just in time for the party. 

Since late 2022, CareSpaces has had a close association with Swarna Rajagopalan, founder of Prajnya Trust in Chennai. Prajnya and Swarna deal with issues relating to gender and they create campaigns to stop violence against women. 

Commendable, one would think. 

But the unassuming and soft spoken Swarna plays a far more interesting and embedded role in such protests. 

This is not Swarna’s first attempt at shaping and guiding a protest that is based on tenuous rumours. 

Rewind to the 2018 #MeToo movement when Professor Sadanand Menon of Asian College of Journalism was accused of sexual harassment and assault. Swarna, Nithyanand Jayaraman and author V Geetha had formed a self-appointed committee to “investigate” the allegations and they called multiple students of Sadanand Menon and coaxed them to file complaints with the college ICC. Nithyanand was, at the time, teaching at the college.  

They also advised students to wear black clothes in protest and demand that Sadanand Menon be sacked. The students and the media put enough pressure on the college management that Sadanand Menon was forced to resign. Menon has always maintained that the case was false and foisted. 

The next big case of sexual harassment by a teacher in a premier institute was the 2021 case against Commerce teacher G Rajagopal of Padma Seshadri Bala Bhavan school (PSBB) in Chennai. Swarna was, in fact, very active during this incident as well. 

In fact, strangely, she had worked with PSBB for at least two years on what was called the “Peace Project” before the scandal hit the media. Most of the complaints against the teacher Rajagopal, were found by the court to be false and motivated. Yet he was jailed for months under the POCSO Act and the draconian Goondas Act. 

Since late 2022, Swarna threw her weight behind the Kalakshetra protests. She collaborated with CareSpaces and provided the route map which the protesters had to follow in order to gain maximum impact. 

Nimmi Bursts Into The Limelight

A great dancer necessarily needs to be a great actor. And Nirmala Nagarajan, or Nimmi teacher as she is known, unleashed the performance of her life on the morning of March 30. 

Nimmi sat under the banyan tree, her body language that of righteous indignation, anger and pain. “That Haripadman put his hands out and grabbed and twisted the breasts of a student,” she cried, making it sound as though she had witnessed this personally. The lie she uttered was reinforced by Indhu Nideesh. She said that she became physically ill after hearing this story. 

Never mind that the other students did not even think to verify the veracity of Nimmi’s claim, they assimilated that as the truth and were galvanised to go sit in protest. 

Nimmi wields considerable power over the students and using a mixture of favouritism and threats, she ensures that all students follow her and do exactly what she wants them to. 

This protest too is not Nimmi’s first. 

While Swarna goes from institution to institution to guide protesters, Nimmi has been loyal to her need to cripple Kalakshetra from within. 

In 2012, as the tenure of Leela Samson as director came under a cloud, Nimmi saw her chance to strike. Just as she did in the recent protests, Nimmi used a mix of charm and threats and forced students to sign on blank sheets of paper. The trusting students did as their teacher said. 

What finally went out with their signatures attached, was a letter purportedly from the students demanding the resignation of Leela Samson. 

Another letter too went out – this one in support of Leela Samson, which was authored and signed by students. The teachers, led by Nimmi, forced the junior students to take back their signatures.

Old-timers say that when Nimmi first came to Kalakshetra in the mid-1990s, she was given a contract position which was a temporary one. Those in the know revealed that Nimmi walked up to Sankara Menon, who was the director at the time, and said to him quite theatrically – “If you don’t give me a permanent posting, I will commit suicide right in front of you.” 

An embattled Sankara Menon gave in. Nimmi had her way. And she still continues to do so. 

Friends Of Convenience

There are a number of other players in the Kalakshetra drama who have traditionally been at each other’s throats. They have, however, found common cause in their bitterness against the institution of Kalakshetra. 

One such example is that of Nandini Nagaraj, another teacher who was also a member of the IC at Kalakshetra. Nandini is said to detest Nimmi but has sided with her, perhaps in a bid to stay on the side of perceived power. 

Another example is that of dancer Anita Ratnam and musician TM Krishna. The two have had their claws out for each other in the past but they have buried their differences temporarily. The former may be nurturing ambition, the latter, anger and bitterness. After all, his book launch was stalled at the last minute when the current director of Kalakshetra realised that the content was too political in nature. 

And then of course, embedded reporters, media houses baying for blood but not the truth and the political parties who seek mileage from misery. 

The institution that is Kalakshetra may not survive the onslaught. 

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