Unmute, an independent online legal resource platform for safeguarding the rights of artistes in India, went live on Thursday, Aug 12, 2021.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought a complete halt to physical performances. As survival of the arts became a major issue a new phenomenon of exploring digital platforms emerged. Artistes started expressing their creative endeavours through various online platforms.
It was a new medium hitherto unexplored and came to highlight the disparate digital skills and capacity… unequal and unpredictable. It brought into focus copyright and plagiarism issues, mental health and drug abuse concerns, and until very recently, owing to the MeToo movement, the issue of sexual harassment in the arts world. What was first called out in Chennai in 2018—the Madras Music Academy debarred seven Carnatic musicians, named in various MeToo accounts, from performing at its Margazhi music festival in 2018, then it finally caught up with the rest of India, with the latest coming out in December 2020—the allegation against a renowned pakhawaj player.
As the stakeholders in the performing arts sector watched it all unfold, the deep inequity in the performing arts field was revealed. It became clear that the larger picture of arts and the law needed to be addressed.
A five-part series on "Arts and the Law: What they don't teach you in Arts School" was conceived in 2020 and rolled out as online audio-visual documentation of conversations by experts co-produced by Kri Foundation and the Visual Arts Gallery, India Habitat Centre, New Delhi (2020, Language English) which was followed by ShilpaKala Ebam Ain (2021, Language Bengali) addressing the specific needs felt by the arts community of West Bengal.
Armed with the valuable and enriching content that was generated from these various conversations and exchanges, Artsforward and Sruti Performing Troupe joined hands with Kri Foundation and other partners to create an online resource centre called Unmute - A Performer's Guide to Speaking Up - Laws, Rights, Resources (www.unmute.help).
This unique initiative was spearheaded by Delhi-based arts scholar Dr Arshiya Sethi, performer-arts manager Paramita Saha (Artsforward) and dancer-lawyer Somabha Bandopadhyay (Sruti Performing Troupe). The website will address the issues of rights and responsibilities of artists and art leaders in India.
The website will serve twin purposes. First, it will be a resource centre for information, reference material, guides to laws, rules and regulations, compelling research content, audio-visual documentation of expert conversations specific to the needs of the field of Arts in India.
Second, it will act as an independent advisory platform headed by a panel of representatives from both artistic and legal backgrounds—Prof Dr. Shameek Sen, Prof. Dr Kavita Singh, both professors at WBNUJS, organisational ethical practice advisor Asiya Shervani, sociologist, activist Urmi Basu and Samuho (a collective of women and non-binary performers—all of whom will serve as a soundboard and offer legal and organisational guidance. The website will act as a bridge for young artists of India seeking legal advice or help in the domain of Performance arts.
The founding members say, ‘The initiative is aimed at building a space for networking by performing arts organisations willing to create new and equitable workplace ethics by offering partner networks to be part of expert training sessions, offer handbooks and other POP material to address sexual harassment in institutions and other such issues that are not readily spoken about. For artistes, it aims to act as a forum to initiate discussions among fellow concerned artists.’
One difference between the English Arts and the Law and the ShilpaKala Ebam Ain series was that the former featured renowned legal professionals of India, while the latter had some of the best law professors and educators from the reputed law schools of India. This was done to open up possibilities for a long-term association with National Law Universities. This initiative has grown in the spirit of togetherness as a caring and sharing process by a large group of partner organisations.
The website belongs to the community as a resource centre for the rights and responsibilities of artistes and art leaders. The immediate focus for team Unmute is the issues of abuse of power and sexual harassment. So, while the website is an idea whose time has come, sexual harassment is an issue that needs immediate attention.
Issues that were chosen as the topic of webinars for Arts and the Law Series in 2020 were…
1. Abuse of Power: Sexual Harassment in Arts
2. Drug Use in the Arts, instigated by the entire brouhaha of the Sushant Singh Rajput case
3. Copying, Copyright and Plagiarism
4. Need for Contracts in Performing Arts Sector
5. Art, Obscenity, Prescriptions and Parampara
Issues chosen as topic of the webinars for ShilpaKala Ebam Ain in 2021:
1. Arts and the Abuse of Power: Harassment & Sexual Harassment
2. The Arts and IPR protection of traditional, cultural expression, classical, fine and folk art forms
3. Arts & Performers’ Rights and their protection through contracts
4. Arts and the limits to freedom of expression: When does art cross the line?
5. Arts & the Rights of LGBTQIA+ Artists
6. Arts on the rights of artists living with disability and trauma.
The valuable and enriching content that was generated through these webinars gave rise to the need for a website like Unmute.