The prestigious Dhrupad Sansthan in Bhopal, a residential music gurukul with accreditation to Unesco’s intangible cultural heritage committee, finds itself in the middle of a storm with two of its famed gurus — Ramakant Gundecha and Akhilesh Gundecha — accused of sexual harassment.
The allegations first surfaced in a Facebook post put up by a group titled, ‘Dhrupad Family Europe’, and emailed to the students of the musicians, highlighting alleged harassment by the two gurus for years. The Amsterdam-based yoga teacher who put up the post wrote that she was doing it on behalf of a friend who wanted to remain anonymous.
Ramakant, one half of the famous Gundecha brothers along with elder brother Umakant, died last year of a heart attack. Umakant heads the Dhrupad Sansthan. Akhilesh is their brother and a pakhawaj player, who accompanies them and often maestros such as Ut Z F Dagar, Ut Fahimuddin Dagar, Asgari Bai, and Ritwik Sanyal. Dhrupad is one of the oldest surviving classical music forms in India.
Signed by its Chairman Umakant, the Dhrupad Sansthan put out a statement saying they had set up an internal committee to look into the charges. “The committee shall look into the allegations levelled against Akhilesh Gundecha, and until the committee submits its report, without averting to the merits of the allegations, Akhilesh Gundecha has voluntarily recused himself from all the activities of Dhrupad Sansthan.”
The Sansthan said the committee would “strive to deliver justice without prejudice”, adding, “A safe environment and impartial teaching have always been the paramount concern at Dhrupad Sansthan.”
The Facebook post said the alleged victims of the two gurus had kept quiet due to threats. “We have been prisoners of this silence for fear of reprisals, for fear of your judgments, for believing the threatening words Ramakant and Akhilesh Gundecha would say to keep us silent. Fortunately enough, things are starting to change worldwide… They would threaten us saying they always get what they want and won’t accept ‘No’ as an answer,” the post said.
It claimed that many students were sexually propositioned, told to give in if they “ever wanted to have a career in music”, and that saying no would mean “trouble at the Gurukul”. The post also claimed that the gurus touched their students inappropriately.
A woman student of Akhilesh, who left the institute after a couple of months, told The Indian Express that he would keep talking about her looks and how lonely he was. “I ignored it initially. I told him that I was here to learn music with clean intentions. He would keep sending messages. When I confronted him once, albeit mildly, as he was my guru, my father’s age, and I really looked up to him, he said it wasn’t his fault and that he couldn’t help himself because of how I looked,” said the student.
She said in one-on-one sessions, Akhilesh would sit really close to students, sometimes behind them, and hold their hands to teach. “One knows when the touch is inappropriate. I was confused and uncomfortable,” she said, adding she had only told her family so far about what had happened and not anyone at the institute. She claimed hearing that a couple of students had confronted Akhilesh once, but he was reportedly unfazed, telling them, “You do whatever you want, go to the press if need be, nothing will happen to me.”
She claimed that many, particularly the students from small towns of India, put up with the misbehaviour because of their yearning to learn music. “They (the Gundechas) have the power to put you out of the music circuit. You don’t get any concerts and can’t have a career.”
A male student at the institute, who studied under Akhilesh, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, claimed that everyone around knew about the sexual misconduct. “We
knew some of our female friends were feeling disturbed but everyone was too scared to speak up. No one wants their careers ended,” he said.
Carnatic classical vocalist T M Krishna said Umakant should step down as chairman of the Dhrupad Sansthan. “It’s unfathomable that Mr Umakant had no clue about this… He can’t remain chairman if there has to be a fair investigation,” Krishna said, adding, “This is a very close-knit community and it’s socially limited. Everybody knows who is powerful and who calls the shots. So a lot of times people don’t talk. In any case sexual harassment is such a complicated space for those suffering.”
Born in Ujjain, Umakant and Ramakant learned dhrupad from Zia Fariduddin Dagar and his brother Zia Mohiuddin Dagar — cousins of the two significant forces in the second half of the 20th century, the senior Dagar Brothers (Nasir Moinuddin and Nasir Aminuddin) and the junior Dagar Brothers (Nasir Zahiruddin and Nasir Faiyazuddin). They began to perform four years later.
The Gundecha brothers would subsequently become a force to reckon with in the world of the rare art form. The two were awarded Padma Shri in 2012 and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 2017. While the meditative, leisurely pace of the music has caused it to lose takers in India, in the last few years, it has seen a revival due to the efforts of the Dagar family, and musicians such as Uday Bhawalkar, Ritwik Sanyal and the Gundechas. However, its most dedicated audience remains in Europe, where dhrupad concerts are held regularly. Most of the students at the Dhrupad Sansthan are also Europeans.
In 2018, at the height of the #MeTooMovement, sexual misconduct allegations had surfaced against some Carnatic classical musicians, with several women accusing them of
Krishna hoped the latest allegations would “lift the veil off” the Hindustani classical world. “Guru shishya parampara is beautiful but one needs to stop having the romanticised notion where a person is put on a pedestal. The power structures in it are skewed. And that’s a problem,” he said.
Situated on the outskirts of Bhopal, the Dhrupad Sansthan has a hostel facility and functions as a traditional gurukul with students staying on the premises and performing tasks such as cleaning the campus and washing utensils themselves besides learning music. Their new wing in 2019 was inaugurated by tabla maestro Ut Zakir Hussain. The institute has been empanelled by the ICCR, which sends foreign students to study music here. The institute is also associated with the American Institute of Indian Studies.