Law and the world of performing arts
Initiative Called “Unmute” Hopes to Solve Issues of Sexual Harassment, Copyright, Contracts, Censorship and More
For most performers, legal issues remain a slippery slope that they often do not want to step on. It can be difficult to understand the nuances of drafting contracts, seeking help with copyright infringements, or seeking help with sexual harassment complaints. Digital assets such as NFTs are new concepts that have yet to find their place in our artistic comfort zones or common vocabularies for understanding creative work. Performing arts companies in the country remain largely unorganized, with “verbal agreements” rather than precise contracts that would respect artists’ rights and their professional commitments to projects and institutions.
When dancer-choreographer Raka Maitra moved from India to Singapore in 2004, she found the difference quite alarming. She worked as an associate artist with The Substation for a few years before founding her dance-theater institute, Chowk Productions, in 2014. âIt is important that we make the arts sustainable for today’s generation in order to make a full-time profession. This means suitable contracts, a monthly salary, and medical benefits for full-time artists working with a company. For dancers working on a project, hourly rates are important. This is the kind of conversation that young Indian performing artists here may find it difficult to initiate, given that they are supposed to perform for free, or instead of getting ‘a platform’, or ‘an exhibition. And health care is seen as an individual affair.
Raka points out that while most contemporary art companies in the West work with well-defined terms and conditions, Indian companies, even in Singapore, mostly subscribe to their home country model where there may be administrative staff on site. payroll but no arrangements for full-time artists. . âThe struggles for independent artists are everywhere similar; 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 artist, to speak out without fear and to fight inequalities. Building a community is the key, âshe says.
Community building efforts focused on artists’ rights have been sporadic and situational, and often run out of steam. Filling this gap in the performing arts, the âUnmuteâ initiative seeks to be one of those integrated resources on various issues related to the arts and law.
âIt’s important to create safer spaces for artists,â says Arshiya Sethi, dance specialist and activist, who spearheaded the initiative in the form of a series of online discussions in 2020. It turned out developed in workshops and panels (several in Bengali) with collaborators Paramita Saha, performer and artistic director, and Somabha Bandopadhay, scholar and Manipuri dancer. Gradually gaining ground in the performing arts community, âUnmuteâ now seeks to be a one-stop portal that compiles resources on legal aspects for artists, ranging from sexual harassment to drug addiction, copyright, contracts, censorship, etc.
It is not known if the #MeToo movement has really reached the classical arts in India. The condescending slap that casually slides up to the waist, the uninvited privacy while taking a note or moving well, there are many of those everyday moments that often leave artists confused as to whether to hijack. the look with reverence or shame. Expressing unease over borders crossed has not been easy, especially for young artists in a deeply hierarchical system.
As a result of the harassment cases that have rocked the classical music and dance communities over the past year, involving gurus and male performers from reputable artistic institutions, it was very urgent that this initiative also give the spotlight. priority to the question. âThe reason we focus so much on issues of sexual harassment is that it can be deeply traumatic for someone who has experienced it. It’s lonely and defeated, and most artists don’t know who to turn to, âsays Sethi. To ensure that mental health is addressed, counselors are present at most of these discussions.
However, there was resistance from various sides and initiating such discussions was difficult. Sethi remembers that during one of the first training sessions people were reluctant to join. They managed to convince 40 teacher-interpreters to participate, including 39 women. The gender imbalance persists, but after the training many people started to ask for help. âPeople have a lot of questions and there is a lack of clarity; they ask what can be interpreted exactly as harassment, if they come forward after many years; how their career will be impacted. She adds: âAs the initiative grows, it is important to question the power structure. “
Abuse of power
Having been in the performing arts for over two decades, Paramita says, âThe problem is, no one wants to address the elephant in the room, especially when it comes to abuse of power. . We continue to believe that it only happens to others, unaware that it can happen where we are. Speaking of going beyond the stereotype about where these issues are likely to arise, she says, âThese are not just conservative setups; The abuse of power also occurs in the most seemingly radical, progressive, young and contemporary art spaces. But it becomes difficult to take a stand, because as a community we have not created structures to allow people to question themselves and seek support.
In this context, Paramita believes that working with partner organizations through âUnmuteâ would be essential to provide training, help institutions to set up internal committees and other infrastructure to solve problems related to the law.
According to Somabha, performers are often unaware that there are laws that can help them, whether it’s understanding the terms of a contract or copyright issues. “Most performing artists don’t know the importance of contracts and get exploited.” She works at the crossroads of law and the performing arts. A performer, she grew up in a family of artists, and her legal research at the West Bengal National University of Legal Sciences, Kolkata (WBNUJS) gives her a two-sided perspective.
She says: âThere are three main issues that performers are reluctant to go to court – they don’t know that a law can protect them, they fear lawyers don’t understand their problems because they are unfamiliar with the art world, and their reputation and career may be in jeopardy.
Copyright remains a hotly contested issue in the performing arts, especially music and dance. There are several anecdotes about Hindustani musicians of yesteryear who refused to record their music and even omitted parts of their composition while singing in a concert for fear that it would be copied by the disciples of another gharana.
Giving an example of the complexities that make it difficult to negotiate copyright issues, Somabha says, âIn theater it is much easier to understand the idea of ââcopyright because the script can be protected; in music, more specific concepts of definition of copyright through notes, melody, lyrics have appeared recently. But what about dancing? How to protect a choreography, how to claim the copyright of dance movements? These are finer points that require more attention.
Opening up avenues for reflection and discussion, âUnmuteâ is a guide for performers, assuring performers of their rights, as well as the responsibilities that go with them. It’s 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 https://unmute.help/)
The author is a Delhi-based arts researcher and writer.