The Me Too Movement in Indian Art
A series of accusations of sexual harassment and complicity made against various influential figures in the Indian art industry, the Me Too movement found a foothold in India in 2018. It is considered to have been initiated by Indian artist Jaishri Abichandani in 2017 in New York, and was followed by allegations being made mostly by women against male artists and curators through anonymous posts on social media. Beyond the art world, the Me Too movement began earlier in 2017 as a solidarity label (#MeToo) for public testimonies by women of sexual assault and coercion by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. The phrase “Me Too” was first used on social media in 2006 by activist Tarana Burke to highlight sexual assault against women of colour in the USA, and since 2017, it began to be used in other public-facing industries such as politics and media. In the Indian art world, the movement sparked discussions on the patriarchal industry and its unregulated structure.
In October 2017, shortly after the opening of a retrospective exhibition of the works of Raghubir Singh at the Met Breuer, New York, Jaishri Abichandani published a Facebook post accusing Singh of sexually assaulting her in 1995. In December, Abichandani and several others held a performance protest against Singh’s show before the Met Breuer. These events initiated conversations on social media around artistic legacy, power dynamics and the role of institutions in supporting them.
In October 2018, several more public accusations were made on social media against prominent figures in Indian art. Most of these were posted through an anonymous whistleblower account called Scene and Herd (@herdsceneand), which aggregated personal narratives by survivors, whose identities were protected, to engage in broader discussions on power and gender. The first accusation was shared by a reporter who accused photographer Pablo Bartholomew of harassing her over the phone. Soon after, artist Amaaya Dasgupta accused photographer Shahid Datawala of sexual harassment in 2016. Around the same time, Scene and Herd published a series of posts in which they started to name the accused in survivors’ accounts and included artists, curators and gallerists, scholars and academics. The first named was Rahul Bhattacharya, a curator who had a previous history of sexual harassment while serving on the faculty of the Gujarat National Law University, Gandhinagar, and was accused of financially exploiting young women artists. This was followed by allegations against Jatin Das, an artist who already had a reputation of serial sexual harassment; Valsan Kolleri, a sculptor who allegedly harassed a woman during the Kochi-Muziris Biennale; Riyas Komu, who was accused of manipulating and sexually assaulting young artists; Mir Imtiyaz Ali, accused of intimidation and prolonged sexual harassment of a student; and Binoy Varghese, who was called out for predatory behaviour towards a younger artist and student. Others accused included Balagopalan Bethur, Edson Beny Dias, Harendra Mahato, Subodh Gupta and Sumesh Sharma.
Art institutions handled the allegations in different ways, often based on their relationship with the accused party and the positions they occupy in the respective organisations. Artists such as Gupta and Komu resigned from their offices in the KHOJ International Artists Association and the Kochi Biennale Foundation, respectively, with the latter being removed as curator of the Young Subcontinent program at the Serendipity Arts Festival. Sharma ended his association with Clark House Initiative, and Gaurav Bhatia left his post at Sotheby’s. Exhibitions of the accused, such as Datawala’s Datura at TARQ, Mumbai, were closed down, and invitations to events were withdrawn.
On 21 December, a group of art practitioners — notably Rosalyn D’Mello, Natasha Ginwala, Dayanita Singh and Sumir Tagra — drafted a statement demanding safer and more reliable regulatory pathways for survivors of sexual harassment in the art world. The statement was later digitally signed by hundreds of artists and other practitioners.
Soon after the allegations against Komu, the Kochi Biennale Foundation (KBF) consulted with cyber forensics experts to attempt to discover the identity of those running Scene and Herd, but dropped this line of investigation after outcry from the Indian art community. After Komu stepped down from his posts at the Foundation, the KBF set up an Internal Complaints Committee, asking victims to step forward and lodge formal complaints. However, no complaints were received and Komu was offered his post back in January 2019, but he declined. In September 2019, Subodh Gupta filed a defamation lawsuit in the Delhi High Court against Scene and Herd, demanding financial compensation of INR 5 crores as well as a public disclosure of the account user’s identity. The court passed an order asking Facebook to remove the posts naming Gupta from Instagram and receive the account holder’s identity in a sealed envelope. The case ended in early February 2020, when the court allowed the account to retain its anonymity while keeping the defamatory posts off Instagram.
The Me Too movement highlighted several key issues — the value of anonymity in building confidence among victims; the lack of redressal systems, such as internal complaints committees, in the art world; and the complicity of the art world, driven by the success of high-value artists. Several organisations have since established clearer policies on sexual harassment, including zero-tolerance and safe-space assurances.
Deodhar, Neerja. “#MeToo in India: Kiran Nagarkar, Pablo Bartholomew Named in Accusations; Photographer Responds with Statement.” Firstpost, October 12, 2018. https://www.firstpost.com/india/metoo-in-india-kiran-nagarkar-pablo-bartholomew-named-in-accusations-photographer-responds-with-statement-5329741.html.
D’Mello, Rosalyn. “Indian Art World’s #MeToo Reckoning: Forging an Equitable Future Demands a Sisterhood of Feminist Killjoys.” Firstpost, October 29, 2019. https://www.firstpost.com/living/indian-art-worlds-metoo-reckoning-forging-an-equitable-future-demands-a-sisterhood-of-feminist-killjoys-7558961.html.
D’Mello, Rosalyn. “Indian Art World’s #MeToo Reckoning: Toxic Patriarchal Conditioning Must Be Dismantled for True Change.” Firstpost, October 26, 2019. https://www.firstpost.com/living/indian-art-worlds-metoo-reckoning-toxic-patriarchal-conditioning-must-be-dismantled-for-true-change-7547871.html.
Fernando, Benita. “Time’s Up for Picasso.” Livemint, October 29, 2018. https://www.livemint.com/Leisure/cwQAziskoLZXcicmhcED4H/Times-up-for-Picasso.html.
Firstpost. “#MeToo: South Asian Art Community Issues Statement About Creating Safe Spaces to Report Harassment,” December 22, 2018. https://www.firstpost.com/india/metoo-south-asian-art-community-issues-statement-about-creating-safe-spaces-to-report-harassment-5776031.html.
Frank, Priscilla. “Artist Stages Protest at Met Breuer Where Her Alleged Abuser’s Work is on View.” HuffPost, December 06, 2017. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/raghubir-singh-protest-me-too_n_5a21dce3e4b03350e0b6d61f.
Mandhani, Apoorva. “What Artist Subodh Gupta’s Case Against Anonymous #MeToo Posts Achieved — and Didn’t.” The Print, February 21, 2020. https://theprint.in/india/what-artist-subodh-guptas-case-against-anonymous-metoo-posts-achieved-and-didnt/368411/.
Ohlheiser, Abby. “The Woman Behind ‘Me Too’ Knew the Power of the Phrase When She Created It — 10 Years Ago.” The Washington Post, October 19, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2017/10/19/the-woman-behind-me-too-knew-the-power-of-the-phrase-when-she-created-it-10-years-ago/.
The Economic Times. “#MeToo: Artist Subodh Gupta Accused of Repeated Sexual Misconduct in Instagram Post,” December 13, 2018. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/magazines/panache/metoo-artist-subodh-gupta-accused-of-repeated-sexual-misconduct-through-instagram-post/articleshow/67077198.cms.
The Hindu. “Riyas Komu Severs Ties with KBF,” March 20, 2019. https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/kerala/riyas-komu-severs-ties-with-kbf/article26593949.ece.
The New Indian Express. “#MeToo Allegation on Riyas Komu: Biennale Foundation Consults Cyber Experts,” December 02, 2018. https://www.newindianexpress.com/states/kerala/2018/dec/03/metoo-allegation-biennale-consults-cyber-experts-1906388.html.
The Times of India. “Sex Scandal Rocks Law Campus,” November 20, 2005. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/ahmedabad/sex-scandal-rocks-law-campus/articleshow/1301918.cms.