ANANYA BISWAL | 14 MAY, 2018
Viral Blog Encourages Others to Speak of Harassment in Kolkata’s Theatre Space
Kolkata based theatre group accused of workplace harassment.
KOLKATA: After a blog by a former employee of a Kolkata based theatre company, Mad about Drama (MAD) went viral, several other people took to Facebook to share their experiences in the theatre space.
The original post spoke about the emotional abuse and manipulation that the employee faced in the hands of MAD’s creative director (Aritra Sengupta) whom she was in a monogamous, consensual relationship with initially. “What started out as a regular, loving relationship soon evolved into a cycle of emotional and psychological abuse that I was subjected to” she wrote.
According to the post-dating May 4, 2018 the employee was in a “forced open” relationship with Sengupta. She further says, “I was constantly made to feel that unless I lead a certain lifestyle, I didn’t fit into his worldview of a perfect relationship. There came a point, when Aritra made it clear to me that he would not engage in further sexual activity with me unless I was sexually involved with someone else. I went into a state of clinical depression for six months due to this ongoing dilemma.”
You can read the full blogpost here.
Aishwarya, a former member of MAD spoke to The Citizen about her experience with the theatre group 4 years ago. She believes the company has some sort of a monopoly in the youth theatre scenario in Kolkata which is why they got away with complete impunity with all the homophobia, bullying and racial profiling that the environment bred. She said, “I was friends with Aritra Sengupta. We kissed sometimes, but nothing more. I kept telling myself, and maintained to this day, that it was all consensual, even though there were red flags all along. I had heard of his tendency to take advantage of young girls aspiring to be thespians, however I knew of only one such individual. When I’d confronted him about her, he admitted his guilt. He said he suffered from a disorder and that he had started getting help for it.”
She further said, “And it is not just him. Soham Majumdar once pushed me against a wall and kissed me untowardly in spite of knowing that I was romantically involved with someone else. It came completely out of the blue. I was young and naïve and thought that revealing that might create a rift within the group. When he spilled news of this while comparing my kiss to another’s, I was slut-shamed endlessly till my eventual departure from the group.” Aishwarya recollects how instead of doing anything to protect them, a senior female member of the group allegedly called her and another female member “du takar rendi” (cheap whore) behind their backs.
Nazrin, another former member of MAD who joined the institution in October 2013, spoke to The Citizen about her own experiences. She said, “I was part of MAD for quite a long time. Right from day one, I got weird vibes from the work environment. But I didn’t read much into the kind of negativity around. But just over a few months I got to see how they treat younger crew members. I wasn’t a part of any of it in the first few months but gradually I faced it. I realized if you belonged to a non-elite school or you are emotionally vulnerable they look down upon you without any consideration of your merit.” She also mentioned how it was very difficult for her and several other victims to stand up to the kind of abuse where they literally picked on their accents, family background, etc.
“There is one particular instance of shameless bullying where I felt ethically compelled to leave”, she said talking about her final departure from the theatre house. She further said, “Even when it came to production, they did not follow any work ethic at all. Auditions were rarely held and roles were assigned according the actors off-stage personalities”. Nazrin believes the workplace harassment continued even after she left as they started recruiting the school going interns who were new to the environment. The interns were young and naïve and the senior members yelled at them and put them down on many occasions to stroke their own egos.
Another 23 year old male spoke about MAD’s business model that was based on “labour exploitation” which he believes was toxic. “ I refuse to believe that forcing kids to sell tickets, not paying people and exploiting collaborating organization is the only way to push a group to profitability”, he said speaking to The Citizen. He had joined the company when he was 18 or 19 as a musician and though he hadn’t faced any sort of harassment personally he was aware of the unpleasant workplace environment. He further said, “Since I played an important part in one of their productions they were always nice to me. I was primarily against their business model which in my opinion was exploitative. They would ask other organizations who wanted to collaborate with them to sell certain amount of tickets and majority of the revenue was taken by them. Only a meagre amount of money was given to the collaborating organization. Which I felt was exploitative. I saw many kids being scolded needlessly which I did not like.”
Aritra Sengupta was suspended from MAD on March 12, 2018. In light of the blogposts and the huge number of Facebook posts where victims, witnesses and other members of the organization shared their accounts of workplace harassment, the Facebook page of MAD posted a statement.
It read: “Mad about Drama had made a statement earlier condemning the perpetration of sexual harassment by one of its members. We stand in solidarity with everyone who came out against him and hope that justice is served. However in light of all the recent allegations and doubts that have been doing the rounds on social media about M.A.D, we feel the need to address them.
We neither stand by nor shelter any sort of crimes related to sexual harassment within our organisation nor do we appropriate such behaviour. We have done whatever we can within our means to remove this member after a complaint was lodged with us by someone who had been working for our organisation as a freelancer via a letter dated 12.03.2018. Like many others we were unable to recognise his behavioural tendencies before and are deeply apologetic for not being able to do so. We shall cooperate in all our capacity if any legal action is taken against him.”
However the victims have accused the theatre group of shielding Aritra Sengupta for years because he was an instrumental part of MAD and provided good content. To quote one of the victim, “MAD is only now (4-5 years since they’ve known about all this) responding because of the movement and because they have an image to maintain and not, I daresay, because they care about these women.”