A sexual harassment scandal at Kolkata’s theatre group Mad About Drama (MAD) has opened the floodgates to several other types of complaints against the group’s members and its culture.
Last week, several women came forward to share stories of harassment by MAD’s now-former creative director Aritra Sengupta. Since then, the group has come under fire for alleged plagiarism, a toxic work culture and possible mishandling of finances.
One of the first accusations is plagiarism. In December 2016, MAD presented a play titled ‘Jigsaw’ but theatre practitioner Panchali Kar says the idea behind the play was originally hers. Kar had collaborated with MAD and Sengupta for a workshop during which she presented an idea for a play, however as she continued to develop her story, she says she had a nasty shock. “To my surprise I suddenly came across a poster of a new Mad About Drama production: Jigsaw. I saw the poster for the first time on 9th of December, 2016. No vote of thanks, no mention of my name. Nobody even connected with me personally,” says Kar.
MAD shared a Facebook post, responding to this allegation, saying, “We must make it clear that the idea for the project had been inspired from an immersive theatre experience that took place in Mumbai in 2015 and was very different from the idea that the accuser has claimed that we have plagiarised, who had not attended any show of JIGSAW. We wish her the best if she wants to go ahead with her idea.”
Money money money
Several former members and interns have also criticised MAD for its work culture, specifically the group’s policy on ticket sales.
MAD requires all its members, including interns, to sell a requisite number of tickets for its performances. If members fail to sell all the tickets allotted to them, they have to pay for the remaining ones from their own pockets. This policy has led many to believe that MAD’s internship programme exists more to sell tickets than to help youngsters hone their skills.
Rajasree Biswas, a former member, says “When I could not sell the required number of tickets, I was thrown out of the group. The members were rude, merciless. They asked me to come to their show [venue], they asked me to beg to the owners, if I want to continue the internship. When I appeared on the dreadful day, in front of the whole crew, they insulted me and asked me to leave.”
Another former intern who wished to remain anonymous said, “When you were unable to sell any of the tickets given to you (three or five for every intern and there were around 20 interns in my batch!) Soham [Majumdar] or Soumya [Mukherjee] would shout at you in a merciless manner, so much so, that many had to shed tears.”
A former intern-turned-member who also wished to remain anonymous thinks that MAD’s finances also warrant more scrutiny. The intern recounted being “directly involved with finance a couple of times (With Love [in] December 2016/ Codename: SRK [in] 2017)” when the group made “65 to 70k just with pre-booking”. He added, “Surprisingly all their plays have a budget of less than 20k and a turnover of more than 50k – as to where it all went was the rhetorical question on every member’s mind but no one expressed it, no one could.”
MAD did not respond to repeated attempts for a comment on these allegations, however, their Facebook post addressed the issue partially, “We have been questioned about our work ethics and work culture. All members and interns of M.A.D sell tickets irrespective of their role in the production because we collectively want to build an audience for theatre in Kolkata. We believe we have built a theatre audience not only for us but for the entire theatre community in Kolkata.”
The statement added, “Thirdly, we have always believed in paying people who work with us for the past three years. There has never been an incident where we have promised payment and not paid.
Every organisation has a philosophy and anyone is free to leave at any point if they do not agree with it. People losing their temper is common in a workplace, and especially in an environment where most of the people have toiled day and night to get a production in place, we tend to get emotional about it. But there is never any malice intended which hundreds of past and present members and interns would vouch for. However we apologise if anyone has been deeply affected by any sort of rash behaviour on our part.”
Sexual harassment seems to have been the tip of the iceberg within MAD’s community. Which just goes to show that much-loved, seemingly liberal spaces can conceal whole cans of worms without anyone’s knowledge. It appears that the group has dug itself into a hole that is near-impossible to climb out of, descending into what seems to be city-wide infamy.
Bulbul Rajagopal is a graduate student of Literature at the Department of English at Jadavpur University, Kolkata.
Featured image credit: SeRGioSVoX, Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0