Trigger warning: Mentions of abuse
I must have been around 17 years of age when ‘Ghar’ first came out.
For someone who had never heard of Coke Studio, having stumbled upon this video was only puzzling. What I didn’t know was that this gorgeous video with this great assembly of instruments, a haunting voice and music that still warms the darkest parts of my heart would continue to have an unparalleled impact on how I chose to deal with grief henceforth.
I remember rushing to my father with a glee that did justice to the treasure I had just found. While most of my music has been passed on to me from my old man, my 17-year-old self found this new turning of tables quite satisfying. We heard the song together, again, and he smiled at me, a knowing smile that understood how I felt and all he said to me was, “I know.”
Between that day and today, amidst numerous bouts of sad, happy and pensive moments, Piyush Mishra’s stinging but comforting music has stayed with me.
It’s odd and wildly relieving how I’ve found a sense of belonging in his music. His music invites me, settles me, helps me find a corner for myself, understands me, holds my hand by voicing my deepest desires and emotions. I’ve found myself visiting Ghar during varying phases and emotions, and I’ve always felt at home, which is nice poetic justice. The song is a reality I aspire to have. When the world and its conditioning bog me down, Ghar gives me hope, reminds me of who I am. It makes me feel overjoyed and whole and alive and pure. It’s a song that really has held my hand in the darkest of times.
The imagery, theatrics and metaphors in Ek Bagal Mein Chand Hoga and Dabi Chawanni; the pain, affection and longing of Husna and the dream he promises in Ghar; his work lets you run wild with hope. It’s almost like Mishra catches the events exchanged in a duration of a few seconds and builds entire worlds out of them: as one hand approaches the other, lips move towards each other and more such events. For him, that’s where the music lies.
Most of the words in his music run on imagination and his songs mirror that practice. Maybe that’s why I connect with it so much because I sprint through my life in the same way.
Mishra is limitless, fearless, poignant and bold in the world he creates through his music. He somehow convinces you that your dreams are worth the rage and you need to fight for them. So, maybe it makes sense that anger is an underlying force in his art, driving his work, which is often passed to the consumer of that art, consciously or unconsciously. “Jo bhi create hua, usi gussey ke wajah se hua aur jo kuch destroy hua, woh bhi usi gussey ke wajah se hua,” he says.
Born in Gwalior, Mishra led a distorted, “unremarkable childhood” and grew up in “a very boring house”. With a deeply uncomfortable relationship with his father, and being an introvert, Mishra was elated when he found a way to communicate: through his plays. Much like his character in Tamasha, Mishra captivated people with his stories he told through action and music alike. Often called “irritable” or “disturbed”, around 1998 he began his “descent into alcoholism” which he confesses was harming him “physically, mentally, emotionally, ethically”, with an image he developed at “Mandi House of a respected artist who got drunk and spoke to himself”.
While separating the ‘art from the artist’ has become a larger discourse across social media, the struggle is more difficult to navigate than it sounds. Now that the hunky-dory part of his persona is over, I want to concentrate on the reason why this piece exists today. Sexual misconduct allegations were labelled against Piyush Mishra in the light of the #MeToo movement. Through this Facebook post, Ketaki Joshi discussed the details of her unpleasant, uncomfortable encounter with Mishra.
Responding to the accusation, Piyush Mishra said to Firstpost, “I read the allegations made about me and forwarded to me by a few journalists. I do not remember the stated incident as I was probably a few drinks down. Nevertheless, I would like to extend my apology for making the lady uncomfortable either with my words or actions.”
Before we unpack the messy intersection of the art and artist, it’s imperative to note that Mishra’s “supposed” apology above is in the third person; he chooses to not even address the apology to the person he harmed. Like a friend aptly said, it’s gaslighting. “It’s almost as if you’re saying that the survivor imagined it and an apology is being issued for what they thought happened as opposed to how the perpetrator sees it.”
Known for his “brutally honest” nature, Mishra has accepted on various occasions how his alcoholism wreaked havoc on his domestic life. He has, on multiple occasions, accepted to giving a hard time to his wife.
But here’s something surprising that probably got drowned in the noise of the #MeToo movement as it had just begun putting Bollywood to justice. Mishra had already, in 2014, in some way confessed to being the person Ketaki accused him of being. A point to note would be how Ketaki, in her post, also mentions her experience with Mishra occurring in the same year.
“I was severely alcoholic and that killed my morale. I was badly behaved and realised that girls would call me to say, ‘What happened to you last night sir? You said such bad things to me.’ But I would not even remember what I had said. That’s when I realised that there was a problem. I had too much anger, jealousy and the need for sex inside me. They say that alcoholics have the knack for having good wives. Priya observed everything with a lot of patience. Alcohol was just a symptom. The real problem was that I was a ganda, neech person who was morally corrupt. I was totally self-centred, not caring about either my wife or my older son. I told my wife how many girls I had brought into the house in her absence.”
Coming across this jolted me. While commenting on his personal life and why his wife put up with him lies outside the purview of my morality, why was this man not questioned and made answerable for what his allegedly brutally honest nature made him confess in the public domain? I can only think of the numerous women who must have been hurt, abused and traumatised when Mishra was projecting his own downfall through alcoholism on these women.
This also points at our media’s complicity and tacit nature to famous people’s crimes, which are often glorified and equated to a creative person’s “process” while creating their art. This circles me back to the main reason I attempted to write this piece: how then, do I consume art by someone who has traumatised and abused women?
“Why do I necessarily need to stop listening to the person if I’m able to appreciate the art while condemning the artists’ actions” is a question that has stayed.
A friend says, “Art itself is immortal. So it will survive in spite of what its maker does or doesn’t do. That, for me, is what I struggle to accept.”
But are the lines really as demarcated and clear as we think they are? Art is located in a much larger context in society. It is a manifestation of the artist’s energy and time. As Sruthi Radhakrishnan in an article for The Hindu says, “While the consumption of art is an individual incident, the celebration or castigation of the creator is a social event. The way we consume art has a performative aspect to it, now more than ever, with the democratised nature of our communication.”
Do we ever think about the fact that, maybe, the need to draw a line between art and artist stems from the age-old conditioning that art is supposed to have value in itself and hence good art must be appreciated? We try and exonerate the artist because even though we love the art, art is abstract and the artist is our closest human connection, even an embodiment of the art, and we are quick to defend them.
The debate between art and artists is secondary; the primary focus of the discourse should be that it has taken women centuries while being bogged down, shamed and put into corners by patriarchy, to come out with courage about their trauma and abuse and hence whatever we do cannot delegitimise their trauma.
I’ve tried to sit with this question for months, and I haven’t been able to fight my personal self. This article is an attempt to find an answer to the looming question that refuses to, on some nights, let me sleep.
When I listen to his music, it is overwhelming, intense and gripping. I’m often hypnotised by the accuracy with which his music befriends my heart. But every time I listen to it, it becomes impossible for me to reconcile it with his actions in 2018. That fundamentally jars me. I’ve always believed in never looking at incidents in isolation, and advocated seeing people’s actions as part of the larger stories that people’s lives tell.
To put it simply, not limiting judgment based on an action, but in the larger context of their life. And I fear even writing this because I know how outrageous this statement sounds, especially in the context of an institution (of patriarchy) that has subjugated and coerced women, including me, into centuries of oppression and prevented us from even attempting to be who we could and want to be.
But, I’m accepting it still because as a woman who has suffered abuse herself, this music is what I’ve held on to cope, heal and survive and not accepting it is discrediting my own trauma. However, I also realise that looking at the larger set of questions is crucial.
How do I reconcile with the fact that the songs I’ve often fallen asleep and cried myself to, are the ones that keep me up at night now?
How do I not analyse and see all his songs now through the lens of how he actually treats women?
For a man known to never keep his art without politics, how do I ignore the trauma he’s inflicted, by his own accord, on so many women, without acknowledging the politics of patriarchy?
Mishra likes to get philosophical with all things in his life, but can we really allow him to philosophise his way out of sexual misconduct and projection of his own supposed trauma?
These are hard questions with answers that really aren’t easy to find, and difficult to accept.
“Do we forgive artists at some point” is a question that encapsulates the intersection of crime, trauma and justice.
Should they be given a platform to apologise and promise to be better? A friend tells me how unhappy she was when Mishra wasn’t allowed to come to a premier social sciences institution to talk about his art, despite his willingness to “face the hostility, address, answer and discuss his misconduct.” She said, “We are quick as a society to cancel and accuse, we leave no space for the voice that promises correction action.”
This got me thinking about de-platforming the accused and where do we as a society stop penalising the person before legal intervention. So, should there be clear boundaries between social and legal justice?
Even if that de-platforming might harm them, why is it “unjust” for them to let go of the same power and position that allowed them to exploit women in the first place? Like a friend mentions, “This art that gives them a voice, a paycheck, admiration, shouldn’t it also put a pressure on them to be better humans? And what is the one saying me too getting anyway? I think she/he/they deserve at least or rejection of this artist’s work if nothing then at least a sign of protest.”
I think what’s also important to understand here is that it is not on me to forgive Piyush Mishra for his misconduct with Ketaki. So, it is also not on me to give him a second chance.
And just like in the court of law, pleading guilty doesn’t renounce punishment, Mishra’s apology cannot be his atonement.
Especially in a time where the jurisprudence of sexual harassment at work is only still evolving, along with the judgment women face while filing for abuse, accessing legal systems is not considered a solution for most. The inaccessible, cumbersome, unregulated legal processes surrounding only make it worse.
The lack of guarantee that ‘justice’ will be served only makes it more important for us to locate this justice in a social context.
Another crucial question that lingers is if we should continue to hold them accountable and reject engagement with them for the rest of their lives, despite an apology and a promise to be better? To this, the friend responds, “In case of a public apology and a promise to be better yes, the person deserves a second chance. We want a better place to live in of course. As long as this art is giving value to people it deserves space. And we definitely want people to grow out of their past mistakes and turn around their life.”
But as mentioned in this Vox article, “Forgiveness isn’t only about healing the past; it’s also about creating a different kind of future. Glorification of forgiveness that puts an undue burden on victims to re-traumatize themselves in order to heal a community. A woman is pressured to forgive her abuser, and thus becomes doubly victimized by the idea that his rehabilitation is her job.”
While “staying out of the limelight for 3 months and making a re-entry” is a ridiculous solution, we also do not want a forever solution of “they should never be allowed to have any sort of future”. The solution, according to me, lies somewhere in between and navigating it is a challenge. But what does true redemption mean anyway?
Who decides about who gets rehabilitated, or gets to return to public life, and when?
Maybe Lili Fa, in her article for Time, has found an answer. She says, “For many of these men, one of those consequences should be a withdrawal from public life. Redemption and forgiveness are not synonymous with a return to fame. Being forgiven of one’s sins does not mean full restoration to one’s previous seat of power, especially if that power was the platform and cover for abuse.”
Due to #MeToo being a people’s movement and the first of its kind, the discretion or choice on how to navigate their personal dilemmas viz a viz their morality and the pandemic of patriarchy lies on the individual; we will have to balance this based on how and what we envision justice to be.
At the cost of sounding borderline problematic, this has been a struggle – a constant, exhausting and demanding struggle. As a proponent of #MeToo and an advocate of the catharsis it has been for many women, it has still been very hard to navigate the movement amidst varying extreme opinions on how we react to things. Being a people’s movement, #MeToo has been wildly courageous, comforting and liberating for women, but it also has a thin space of uncertainty and confusion when it comes to processes.
So, while it’s clear that we choose women, their struggles and their trauma over everything else, I think it’s important to build safe spaces where we are not judged while transitioning into these choices because these are not just choices that can be made at the click of a button; sometimes, it’s about leaving years of comfort, and rightly so, to finally call out the institution that destroyed our lives and identities.
Today, it is tough for me to imagine this world without wondering how to make peace with a man who, while wronging one of our own, someone who was also his ardent fan, managed to undo the years of support that his art had bestowed on people like me.
So, till I find answers, I choose to consume his art “privately”, without burdening other people with my fandom.
Writer’s Note: I do not mean to trivialise the experiences of people who’ve had to survive abuse. This is purely to start a conversation that even I need help navigating. Please do share any points of contention you might have; I’d be more than willing to incorporate them in my thought process.