True Colours

Eleven women speak out against Jatin Das’s sexual misconduct

01 November, 2018

ONE SUMMER EVENING IN 2004, Nisha Bora was attending a dinner hosted by her father-in-law in Delhi’s India International Centre. Among those present at the event was the prestigious painter and sculptor Jatin Das. Bora’s family introduced her to him and in the course of the conversation Das asked her if she would be willing to help sort out his work material over the next few days. The 28-year-old, who had a few days free, thought it would be an “honour to work with a brilliant artist” and was happy to jump on board. The reason for her excitement was also the fact that he was the prominent actor Nandita Das’s father.

Bora’s first day at work, in his house, passed without incident. Das mostly spoke about “his big dream for his art school in Orissa,” while his baby wailed in the background and she organised his work. On her way out, Das gifted her a poster from one of his solo shows abroad and an autographed book on his pankha project—a collection of hand fans. The next day, Bora visited Das in his studio in south Delhi, which she recalled as being “a wonderfully cluttered space filled with creative energy.” He was drinking. She declined his invitation to drink with him.

Suddenly, Das attempted to grab her. She evaded him the first time, but he caught hold of her again and kissed her on the lips. Bora pushed him away. “Come on, it would be nice,” he said. He seemed perplexed at her resistance. She picked up her bag and rushed home. A few days later, Nandita Das called Bora up, telling her that her father had given her the number. He had suggested that Bora would be able to find him a “young, female assistant.” Bora recalled that she mumbled something about not doing work “like that.”

Bora barely spoke of the incident to anyone for 14 years.

However, on 16 October 2018, emboldened by the various women in the media industry who had started naming their harassers online, Bora broke her silence. Her testimony—posted to Twitter—prompted a series of similar allegations from several different women. “Today, the brazenness of the man is making me breathless,” she wrote. Her decision to name Das was prompted by the need to show her children that “they do not need to be diminished by the violence of others.”

More public testimonies followed. Garusha Katoch, who was 20 years old when she started her internship at the Jatin Das Centre of Art in 2013, posted a detailed account of how Das had hugged and attempted to kiss her on her third day at work. “I can’t describe what I felt like, I really have no words for it even now,” Katoch told me. “The thing that bothers me with the Jatin Das story is that none of this is a secret, it is not even like there was a whisper network attached to him, it was freaking normal talk. Everybody knew,” Shree Paradkar, an Indo-Canadian journalist who had interviewed Das in the mid-1990s, told me when we spoke over the phone. Her account was first published on the digital news website The Wire.

Many other women were still to speak out. Some were reaching out privately to Bora in solidarity; still others were contemplating their decision to make public experiences that had left them traumatised; and some had spoken with or were in the process of contacting news publications. Among them was Tanvi Mishra, the creative director of The Caravan.

I first learnt about Mishra’s encounter with Das from a conversation I had with her when we were both sharing a ride home, in late 2017. The magazine had carried a short feature on an exhibition by Das in its Showcase section. Mishra had been angry with the inclusion, but was aware that it was a probable consequence of the long secrecy around Das’s reputation. She had been conflicted over whether she should have escalated the issue formally. The source for her unease, unknown to most people within the magazine at that time, was her own experience with Das. Since my first interview with Mishra in July 2018, I spoke to ten other women who had been associated with Das professionally, including Bora, Paradkar and Katoch. Six of these women preferred to stay anonymous. Even as I was filing the story, more accounts were spilling out of the “can of worms,” as Bora referred to it in one of her tweets.

Jatin Das is the recipient of several awards, including the Padma Bhushan, one of the highest civilian awards in the country. Yasbant Negi / The India Today Group / Getty Images

AN ARTICLE IN THE NEW INDIAN EXPRESS, published a month before Bora’s revelation, described Jatin Das as “how painters are supposed to be: eccentric, noticeable and a passionate outsider.” That, until now, has been the preferred public narrative about him. His stature within the art world is undisputed. Das has held more than 60 solo shows, in the country and internationally, in his over 50-year-long career. He is the recipient of several awards, including the Padma Bhushan, one of the highest civilian awards in the country. The Parliament House contains a large mural that he painted. He is invited to lecture at various universities and according to his resume, he “acts as an advisor to many government and private art and cultural bodies.”

And yet, Das has often expressed his disregard for worldly rewards and commercial interests. “There is now a sea change in the art world,” he declared in an interview to a news agency last year. “People talk about art market and art business.” Das drew a distinction between the idealism infused in his earlier years as an artist and what he perceived as a compromised vision of the younger artists working for their “bread and butter.” “It is all hype and high society, and it has become a glamorous world now,” he said.

It is the same art fraternity, however, that has for so long protected his public reputation. A loose and informal network, the Indian art world is heavily reliant on personal connections and patronage. Das sits comfortably within its channels of influence and power. “Jatin Das, and men like him, controls who gets commissioned,” Vidisha, an artist who has spent over a decade in the industry, told me. For years now, reputed galleries have found it a privilege to showcase his work and fellow artists have lavished him with praise. “The art industry is dominated by upper-caste people, and they have always lived in these sort of privileged bubbles,” Vidisha said.

These have bolstered the mythology of an eccentric man, given to whims and fancies, to whom the usual rules do not apply. The artist, we are to believe, is capable of greatness only if we are capable of accepting the artistic temperament. The veneration of this temperament has for several decades, if not longer, protected innumerable men, in various positions of power, across creative industries: painters, theatre artistes, musicians, filmmakers, writers, advertising professionals. The burden of this cultural impunity is usually borne by the women in their lives—who have often had to sideline their own creative ambitions and professional dreams.

The 11 women I spoke to encountered Das across disparate time periods—from the 1990s to 2015. Their allegations ranged from unwanted sexual advances, suggestive comments and innuendo, to emotional harassment and inappropriate workplace behaviour. Yet, some aspects in their stories were so similar that it was not uncommon for me to discover near-identical details in different accounts that had been recorded independently. Each of these accounts has been corroborated by family members or friends the women confided in.

Almost all the women I spoke with got the internships or research positions through private introductions, word of mouth, or direct offers made by Das. They were all less than half his age when they met him—the oldest among them was in her early thirties. They had encountered him at an impressionable stage when they were just entering the workforce. More often than not, Das hired them without comprehensive enquiries into their professional expertise and skill sets, based on a single meeting or encounter.

Almost all of them noted an overbearing familiarity in Das’s manner—switching from paternalism to petulance when his demands were not met. He framed any expression of discomfort with his behaviour as a symptom of their regressive values. Depending on the outlook that was most convenient to him, the women he allegedly harassed were left to play catch-up, with either his progressive ideals or his inclination for traditional structures. It was a clever, if not deliberate tactic: it goaded the women into self-doubt and absolved him of all wrongdoing.

In almost each account, there is a sense that he was trying to cultivate the young women, treating them as his muses, even as he extracted all sorts of labour out of them. He took the liberty to instruct at least two of them on how to travel, where to live and what clothes to wear. Three women, other than Bora, Katoch and Paradkar, said he forcibly kissed and hugged them without their consent.

The women, on their part, were looking to him for guidance and mentorship, not assessing him with the caution that they would reserve for a potential predator. Many of them felt powerless in responding to him the way they would have with any other man, not only because of his exalted public status, but also in deference to his age—he is 76 years old.

When the women were first confronted with Das’s peculiarities, they were caught off guard. However, not all of them wanted to jeopardise what was presented to them as a good career opportunity. Besides, if women professionals were to start declining every job offer from every man they felt even the slightest discomfort with, there would barely be any options left. In hindsight, many of these women wondered if they should have identified the oddities for what they really were: red flags for what was to follow.

Together, these testimonies paint a stark picture of a man who believed himself to be so protected by his celebrity that he had not stopped to think of the consequences that his actions would have on the women he harassed, much less the consequences that they could lead to for him.

SHREE PARADKAR FIRST MET DAS in the mid 1990s, when she was a young reporter working with the Times of India office in Bengaluru. She was introduced to him at a cultural event by a senior colleague, who called Das an artist “next to MF Hussain.”

Paradkar recalled Das took her number at the event. In the days that followed, he would call her regularly. “He would call at 11.30 pm or 12 am, and I sort of put it down to an artist’s eccentricity,” she said. He was not inappropriate in any of these conversations. On the contrary, he was one of the few men who appeared to be interested in her intellect. Das advised her to inculcate the habit of maintaining a diary in which she would write down four lines about her day, assuring her that it would “lead to poetry.” “He would tell me that I had a lot of potential, and that I was so bright, bright, bright,” Paradkar said. “He would keep using the word ‘bright.’”

Das’s behaviour had seemed particularly uplifting against the backdrop of the blunt sexism that Paradkar was facing in her office at that time. Within her first few weeks at the newspaper, a male colleague had sent her a note which said something on the lines of, “It’s not your skills but your charm that has ingratiated you into this current position.” She had laughed it off. “There are all these unconscious cues that you take, about how you’re not smart enough. And then you start to recognise your place, and you try not to appear too bright or too intimidating,” Paradkar said. “And this was so ingrained, that I was pathetically grateful to a man who seemed to be asking me to develop my brain, and my skills, and my mind.”

Later, Das flew down to Bengaluru from Delhi. Paradkar decided to interview him for the paper. They had agreed that the meeting would take place in the lobby of the Windsor Manor hotel where he was staying. But, when she reached, Das requested her to come to his room. Paradkar remembered a “tiny alarm bell” going off in her head, which she quickly dismissed by telling herself that he was a man of considerable standing, and that she did not need to worry about whether his intentions were anything but platonic.

She entered his room and he greeted her with a hug. Das placed a cream sari with a red border against her shoulder—a present that he said would look beautiful against her skin. He also gave her a print of one of his paintings, on which he had inscribed a message, part of which she remembered as being, “And the smile that stretches beyond spring.”

During the interview, Das suddenly got up to use the washroom right after Paradkar asked him a question. She remembered not hearing the sound of a flush, and wondering why he had left so suddenly. When he came out, she looked up expectantly, waiting for an answer. Das bent down and tried to kiss Paradkar. Shocked, she quickly turned away. He kissed her on the cheek, very close to her mouth, on her jawline and her neck. She said no. “Why not?” Das asked her. “Come on, just a little one.” She said no again, but he would not listen. Paradkar pushed Das off. “I used to work out and I was fit, and when I pushed him, he felt a bit frail. And then he stumbled into his chair, and I immediately felt guilty, because I thought, ‘Oh my god, I pushed an old man.’”

Paradkar remembered the entire episode as an out-of-body experience, “like I was observing myself.” She did not want to go back to the newsroom without the story, citing what had happened as a reason. “Because again, my trouble with that was, there was going to be some level of, ‘You asked for it.’” Paradkar completed the interview. When she was leaving, Das handed her the gifts.

She left the hotel, and instead of taking a left to head towards her office, she took a right and reached a dead end. “I stopped and I was starting to feel this heaving, my breath was catching,” she said. “Oh my god, I can’t have a complete breakdown in the middle of nowhere,” she remembered thinking. She collected herself and rushed to a friend’s house. “I just cried, and just howled away,” Paradkar said. “I told her what happened, and she comforted me.” She filed the interview. It was published within a few days.

Nearly a decade later, like Paradkar, a young college woman who went to meet Das also imagined that she would have no reason to worry about him, given his age and prominence. She was seeking to work on a project as part of her undergraduate course requirement, when she heard that Das wanted to employ someone who would design a book on his pankha project. Before she was to meet Das in his studio in Shahpur Jat, the college student went for another interview she had lined up with a stalwart in the graphic design industry. As soon as she got out of the meeting, the designer sent her a string of sleazy messages. Infuriated, she went to meet Das having dismissed that opportunity and assuming that she would find a safer work environment with the artist.

The meeting lasted several hours. Very little of it, she recalled, was related to work. Das opined about several things—music, culture, films—in their conversation. He told her that this was the beginning of a “special relationship,” in which he would help her develop emotionally and spiritually. Just as he had advised Paradkar to maintain a diary, he told the college student to write a poem everyday. Like Paradkar, she was initially gratified. “It looked like he was going to be a guide or a mentor sort of figure for me, and it felt nice,” she said. “Now I feel like that was part of some sort of grooming process.”

Throughout the meeting, the college student tried to introduce Das to her work, with little success. “There was no interest in my work, he didn’t even look at it,” she said. “And I just kept explaining my projects and everything to him. Like an idiot.”

As evening approached, the employees in Das’s office began leaving. He invited the student to look through some of the paintings that he was sending for an exhibition and asked her to help him name them. Soon after this exercise, Das got a call from someone in his office that appeared to deeply upset him. When he got off the phone, the student was alarmed to see tears in his eyes.

Das reached out and pulled the woman into a hug that was “really tight.” He kissed her on her cheek. Even as she was processing his actions, Das held her neck in both his hands and tried to kiss her on her lips. The woman pulled herself back. “It just happened so fast,” she said. “What are you doing?” she asked him. “I am just being affectionate,” he responded.

She was trembling with anger as she walked home.

Das called her for several days from various numbers. She hung up as soon as she heard his voice. When she joined another firm for her project, Das appeared to have found out and called the office landline. Unable to refuse, she took the call. “I am very angry with you for disappearing after we had that meeting and you haven’t ever called me back,” she remembered Das telling her. The college student told him to never contact her ever again.

IN 2015, a 26-year-old upcoming artist had just returned to India after pursuing an educational opportunity abroad, and was attending an event with her mother. Das, too, was present there. Having known of and studied his work, the woman went up to Das and introduced herself to him. (An older woman at the event spotted the two in conversation and later cautioned the young woman to be careful around him, a warning that would be repeated to her by many others even before she met him again.)

The next day, several acquaintances and friends of the woman’s family called up to say that Das was trying to get in touch with the young woman urgently. The woman was intrigued and decided to visit Das’s office in Mehrauli the next day. She thought that she could show Das some of her own art work when they spoke, that they would discuss the profession.

The interview turned out to be the “most bizarre four hours” of her life. During the first hour, he kept sending her off to go look at his artwork and come back, while he talked to two other women.

When the meeting did start, Das told the woman that the first time he had met her—a day before this conversation—he had “peered into her soul” and known that she would work for him.

He then went on to ask the woman about the meaning of her name, but when she offered an explanation, he immediately cut her off. “Honestly, in those four hours I got like 20 words in,” the woman said. “Considering anything I was saying, he would say, ‘No, that’s wrong.’ Like he said, ‘What does your name mean,’ I said this, and then he would say, ‘No, that’s wrong, I’ll tell you.’”

Shortly into the conversation, Das started bemoaning the absence of a particular young woman who used to work with him in his office. She had stopped coming because her brother was uncomfortable with the manner in which her work with Das had proceeded. “This always happens, I don’t know why,” Das said to the upcoming artist.

Das told her, without waiting to know whether or not she was open to the opportunity, that he had decided that she would work for him. He decreed certain conditions—instead of the car she had used to travel that day, she would take the bus for her commute henceforth. He would not allow her to assist him from the very beginning of her tenure. Instead, he told her, she would spend the first few months sweeping and mopping his office.

“Everyday you’re going to dress differently,” she recalled Das telling her. “The same way, today you wore a pant and shirt, tomorrow you wear a kurta-pyjama, day-after you wear a lehenga-choli, and so on.” “I just kept saying okay and thank you to everything, because it was just so strange, what was happening,” the woman told me. “By that time, I was just like, ‘this guy is completely insane.’” The questions that were going through her head were, “Why would he want to do that,” and “How do I get out of here?”

Das then proceeded to take the woman’s phone number, that of her mother, and the number of the landline phone in their house. Soon after, he started taking photographs of the woman. Each time he clicked a photograph, Das said, “Meow-Meow.”

The woman remembered “making a bunch of excuses” to leave, each of which was met with a refusal. Finally, when, after getting several calls from her parents, she told Das that she needed to walk her dog, he approved. “That’s good, you should walk your dog, this excuse I like,” he told her. When she got home that night, her mother recalled, she looked “really shaken.” Her parents initially assumed that the interview had not gone well.

Later, she confided in her mother, who was anguished at the fact that her daughter had been unable to stand up for herself.

“The only thing that I didn’t tell my mom that day was about the photographs, because I just felt so weird about that, especially that,” the woman recalled. “I told her a week later, I think. That for me was the strangest part, it was the most intrusive thing, you know.” For a few days after the interview, her mother told me, the woman was so dreading hearing from Das again that she refused to pick up any calls from any unknown number on either her phone, or the landline. The woman had sent Das an email to inform him that she would not be able to work with him.

THOSE WHO DID DECIDE TO WORK with Das found him to be an erratic, moody, unpredictable boss.

A 24-year-old woman was working at a gallery when she first met Das in 2011. He gave her his business card and asked her to join when she wanted to move on to bigger things. As a professional, she remembered feeling “grossly underused” in her workplace. She quit her job at the gallery in a few months and agreed to work for Das as a researcher and archivist. The woman soon realised that her work there would not be what she had expected. It was subject to his whims, which could change at a speed impossible to keep up with. When there was not much to do, he would make her redo his resume over and over again.

According to her, Das would repeatedly blur professional and personal boundaries. She recalled one instance when a young woman had joined the office. She had come to the workplace in a salwar-kurta with a dupatta that was pleated and placed across her body. Das immediately berated the young woman and demanded that she take the dupatta off—“Yeh nikalo, take it off”—dismissing it as a symbol of patriarchal structures that held women back. “She was petrified, she got very scared and she stopped coming from the next day,” the woman told me.

Over time, Das began asking the woman to do other chores. “Before I knew it, I was taking care of his kid in the studio, babysitting him,” she said. “And not just me, everyone was doing it. I was bringing back the lunch from his house, or speaking to the cook about what was to be cooked for the day.” The woman recalled thinking, “I am not his partner, his daughter, or his housekeeper. Why am I doing all this, what am I doing here right now?” Her friend told me that she recalled the woman telling her at the time that Das had said “think of yourself as a grihini”—a Bengali term that “translates into a housewife of some sort, who does her work, but also keeps the place pretty.”

On two to three occasions, Das called the woman to his house for a drink or dinner after work. His voice would get “softer” as she described it, and he would initiate more intimate conversation about her life and partner. On one occasion, Das who used to compliment her on her voice, asked her to sing. She did. He put his hand on hers, and she wondered if she should pull it away or whether she was reading far too much into the gesture of a man who was many years her senior.

During another such evening, the woman remembered that Das told her he was an old man who needed to be taken care of. There was an enforced intimacy in the sentence, which she then dismissed, but found very off-putting over time. Similarly, Katoch told me how strange she felt when Das had said to her on the second day of her joining: “I smoke a lot don’t I? You should stop me the next time.” “I am not your wife, your secretary or anybody to stop you from smoking,” Katoch remembered thinking. “It just threw me off.” The next day, Das suggested she move in with him to save rent.

Another woman echoed a similar feeling of aversion when she recollected Das’s “partly coaxing, partly entitled and partly pleading” manner during an interview in 2014. “Theoretically I know what’s happening, but professionally I can’t say no, because I was just not trained to say no.” She witnessed Das repeatedly addressing a young intern as “baby.” In the course of the conversation, Das began employing the term to refer to her as well.

At one point, Das asked her if she would close her eyes and let him approach her. When she laughed it off, he responded sharply, telling her that her response was symptomatic of modern women who were incapable of trust. “No, I don’t want to be around this person at all,” she remembered deciding. She thought “you are not just going to employ me for archiving, you are going to make me do this, do that, run around and be involved in your life in a way that I have no interest in.”

Within the workspace, he was watchful to the point of being invasive. The woman from the gallery recalled that employees who spent too much time—more than a couple of minutes—on the phone in the balcony of the office were immediately reprimanded. Since it was an open space, he was privy to most of the conversations between them, and if any extended interactions took place within rooms such as the kitchen that were out of his sight, he would call out to them.

According to the woman who worked at the gallery, Das was given to flashes of rage, which were debilitating for those they were aimed at. She eventually summoned the courage to take issue with him on the way that he spoke during one such episode. He brooded, packed his things, and left. “I could not fight with him—for a better job, for a better opportunity, for a better salary,” the woman said. When she finally got another job, it was a relief.

Also in 2011, a 22-year-old journalist freelancing with a prominent newspaper was introduced to Das by an award-winning filmmaker. Like the others, she too was hired instantly, without talk of remuneration or any talk of the skills that would equip her for the role. Not wanting to jeopardise the opportunity, she decided to bring up the salary later. “Okay, I am just starting out, and I need to start somewhere good,”’ she remembered thinking. “You know, you are always told that you just need that one big break.”

The journalist recalled that Das kept breaching her personal space. As she was working on the computer, she recalled that “he was sitting this close to me, this close that I was sure he could smell my breath, and I knew I could smell his.” The woman did not speak out, because it was her first or second professional experience, and she was worried about being branded a “touch-me-not,” someone who was so conservative and unused to an office atmosphere that she recoiled at the slightest graze. She remembered feeling increasingly uncomfortable around him. He spoke to her about the importance of experimenting with one’s body at a young age—a conversation that left her distinctly self-conscious.

Once when the journalist had completed a task Das had assigned her on the computer, he ran his hand across her cheek. The woman was stunned. “Inside I burned, I was so angry,” she said.

On what would be her last day, Das insisted on dropping her to the main road when she was preparing to leave. The woman broached the subject of her remuneration in the car. It had been a few days since she had joined. When she told Das that it would be difficult for her to manage expenses within the salary that he was offering her—Rs 10,000 in her recollection—he lost his temper.

He screamed at her, admonishing her and young people like her for valuing money over the skills that they were privileged to be learning through their work with him. “I don’t know what all he said,” the woman told me. “The way he was screaming it felt like he was kicking me out of the car with the impact of his anger.” That night, she went to a friend’s place and confided in her and her mother. The friend’s mother told the woman that years earlier, she had worked with Das too. She did not get into details of her experience, but said that it was uncomfortable enough for her to have left abruptly.

Like her, for all the women I spoke to—for reasons ranging from comments that were inappropriate to outright physical advances—there came a time when moving on to the next day was simply not an option.

IN 2004, a woman was assisting Das with an exhibition. She recalled that she was working with a group of women, all of whom, save one, were in their early twenties. In the initial period of the assignment, they worked from his house, before moving on to the site of the exhibition. The woman said that Das’s wife was often around during this time, but she noticed that when his wife wasn’t there, Das would ask her personal questions that he did not otherwise venture into.

When Das told the woman that they had to go to his Shahpur Jat studio for work, she did not read much into it.

At the studio, Das began taking photographs of the woman. He was effusive in his compliments on her appearance. “You don’t take offence to such things, you think that an artist, a person who knows beauty, thinks that you are pretty,” she told me.“That is something, and you take it as a compliment.” “Look here, look there,” she remembered Das instructed her as he shot the photos, “You’ve got the sky in your eyes.”

After taking the photographs, Das sat down with the woman in the studio. He said to her, “You know, I feel this soul connection with you.” A remark strikingly similar to the one he made to the upcoming artist more than ten years later. The woman felt wary about what was to follow. She was not alarmed. She remembered thinking, “You can talk whatever the hell you want, as long as you are not abusing me. Get it out of your system”

Annoyed by his clumsy come on nonetheless, the woman asked Das if he had told his wife about this connection that he felt. “No, no, no,” he said, “This is our little secret.”

Das gave her a hug and tried to pull her into an embrace. “He kissed me on my cheek, he almost kissed me on my lips, and that’s when I mustered the courage to push him away,” the woman recalled. Her body language had become, and although she had not voiced her protestations or cried out for help, Das appeared to have understood that he would not be able to force himself on her a second time. He backed off. The woman could not recall what happened before or after. “When somebody is kissing and hugging you like that, after a while, your body is just in shock,” she told me.

Tanvi Mishra recalled a similar experience of shock. She was 19 years old in 2006 when she began interning at Das’s studio, to help sort out his archives. On the second or third day, she was on her way out when Das engaged her in small talk. A young boy was playing nearby. Without warning and without her consent, Das drew her into a hug. “I remember the moment,” she said. Mishra recalled being aware of Das’s largeness as a man, and feeling uncomfortable with the sensation of his stomach on hers. “I know that both his hands were around me, like you’re engulfed,” she said. “All of this happened so fast. I would know even now, if someone did this to me, that this is wrong. It was that sense of touch.”

But what Das said to Mishra, as he hugged her, stayed with her as much as the physical violation did. “You like this, don’t you,” she recalled him saying. “I was a nervous person anyway around him. In that moment, I didn’t have the confidence or strength to really resist it, I felt overpowered.” She walked out of the studio immediately after, but as soon as she got out of the room, she broke into a sprint. She did not stop running till she found a small shop at the corner of the street that had a phone. She was sobbing when she called a close friend.

The paralysis that both women felt was not only a result of the non-consensual sexual advance, but also the fact that it was Das who had done so. The woman who worked for the exhibition said, “Because I have certain respect for that guy, you start thinking, ‘How am I supposed to react to this?’ Right when it is happening also … he is coming onto me, he is touching my body, and he is hugging me, and he is kissing my cheek and he is going for my lips, and I am still thinking, ‘What is the correct way to react here.’”

Mishra spoke about “the sense of power” Das had to have had to act this way. “You are a big artist, I am a nobody from college.” It was “the sense of confidence that existed on his part” that particularly angered her. She felt it “in those words” as much as the touch. It compelled her to question her role in an encounter in which she had no agency. Mishra said, “I was standing there. I physically existed there. So … is that what he was interpreting as my being party to it? Is it only when you scream and shout and you push someone and say, ‘No, no, no’—is that when you’re not party to it?” she said. After talking about it to her mother, Mishra decided not to return to the studio. She recalled the disappointment of having to leave the internship this way. “There is also a sense of sadness at the opportunity having gone away,” Mishra said. “Because it looked so great before. I thought I was doing fine.”

“I don’t respect the guy anymore. He might get whatever awards he is getting, but he doesn’t deserve them. In my eyes, he doesn’t deserve them,” the woman who worked with Das on the exhibition told me. She never told her parents. As a young woman who was just stepping into the world, she did not want this incident to define the limits of her independence. Apart from confiding some aspects of the incident to a few people, this was the first time she had described her experience to anyone in detail.

IN AUGUST 2015, a 25-year-old woman was taking a break from work with her colleagues on the staircase of a building comprising several offices, including Das’s. Das stepped out to speak to them about his search for an assistant for a book that he was writing on a renowned architect. It was a curious request to make of a group of women he barely knew, but she was happy to help.

The woman told him that a friend of hers would fit the profile he had outlined, and asked him for a brief. Das told her that he had it typed out, but had not taken a print-out. He asked her to drop by his office, once she was done with work, so that he could hand her a copy.

Five minutes into our conversation on the phone, the woman berated herself for being “extremely, extremely stupid,” and going to Das’s studio at all. After giving her the document, Das tried to convince her to join him for the assignment. She was gratified by his offer but declined. Nevertheless, she was excited for her friend and the fact that she would find a promising mentor in Das.

She remembered him telling her, “Submit yourself to me, and I will make something extraordinary of you.” The woman is Bengali, and she recalled that Das had said this to her in the language. “Because he was using very vernacular language, it sounded even more off when it was happening, so that is when I started feeling really, really uncomfortable,” she said.

Das asked the woman to pose for photographs that he said he wanted to use for portraits. While he was shooting, he told her that she should keep her hair tied because her neck was beautiful. As with the upcoming artist, he also told her to dress in a different outfit everyday, although he did not go as far as to specify the kind of attire.

The woman’s discomfort was apparent. In what she thought was a gesture to put her at ease, Das asked her if she would like to see his paintings, which were stored in the back of the room. While she was looking at his artwork, he crept up from behind her.“I was standing there, and he kind of came from the back, and then he held me and started kissing my neck,” she said. The woman panicked. She turned around and said that she had to leave because her colleagues were expecting her in office, took her phone from the table in the centre of the room, and hastily left.

Once outside, the woman hunted for a private corner to take a moment. She couldn’t go back to her workplace because she knew it would not be empty. She finally went into an ATM booth. “I remember the ATM in particular, because it was very weird, the idea that you had nowhere to go, it was very depressing,” she told me. A colleague found her there, and consoled her, telling her that it was not her fault.

For the next week or so, Das tried to contact her, either by dropping into her office, or over telephone. A few months later, he ran into her friends and her during one of their breaks. He told them that there was a poetry-reading event at a nearby restaurant and invited them. None of the woman’s friends responded, they all knew what had happened. She remembered telling him, “I don’t think any of us will make it, we are all busy.” Das looked her in the eye. “Some opportunities only come to you once in a lifetime, you should learn when to grab it,” he said. They never met again.

THERE HAS BEEN NO CLOSURE or acknowledgement in any of these cases. There was no internal complaints committee that the women could have approached within what was essentially a one-man-run operation. Police complaints were not an option given the bad faith in which the justice system appeared to deal with such matters. Till now, as far as Das was concerned, his routine harassment of women had been just that: a part of a routine that did not tarnish his reputation or interfere with his larger-than-life persona.

Yet, for many of these women, their encounter with Das had left an impact that they carried with them. Despite being a freelancer for a large part of her career, Mishra stayed away, for the most part, from any opportunities that involved working in people’s personal spaces. Similarly, the journalist who worked with Das in 2011, found that over time, several experiences, including the one involving Das had caused her to prefer to be seen as intimidating, than to be perceived as weak.

More than half of the women who spoke to me experienced anxiety after they recounted their experiences. The journalist’s mental health issues—anxiety and depression—were exacerbated after she first spoke about her experience with another reporter. Paradkar wrote to me in a message on Twitter, “After the shock in the initial days, it was not like the trauma of being physically brutalised. It was more of a slow burn.”

What made this predicament worse, was that Das’s reputation appeared to be a known fact, but one that the women discovered only after they began telling other people about their own experiences. Mishra told a friend’s mother about her internship with Das soon after the incident. The older woman told her, “This is an open secret in the art world, I am not surprised.” “I know I have told other people and people have reacted as though it is not something new that they are hearing, not about men in general, but about him,” Mishra said, “And it has always stayed with me … people are really comfortable saying that it is an open secret, but he is still a pretty powerful person.”

The woman who worked at the gallery said that she knew of artists and gallery owners who mentioned knowing that Das had a tendency to behave a certain way, but none who were willing to call him out. “I did see the normalisation of all of it,” she said. “And that’s my problem with the Indian art industry because, normalisation comes from the fact that artists are called quirky.”

Many of the women expressed self reproach. Paradkar said, “I felt very foolish, I felt like a fool. I was already not only not smart at journalism—which is what I was being told through all the cues I was getting—I was not even smart at reading men. That made me feel very foolish.”

“That guilt will always stay with me, that I should have just known and not gone,” said the woman who went to get the job description for her friend. The woman who worked for Das’s exhibition said the incident left her thinking “Okay, was I wrong somewhere? Did I give an idea that it was okay to try something funny with me?” She is married now, and has two daughters. “I will never let them blame themselves for anything that goes wrong which is not their fault,” she told me while speaking of the dreams she has for her children’s future. This gave her pause. “Then, why have you been blaming yourself?” she asked. “Knowing what we know, seeing what we have seen in so many cases, you know that you were not at the wrong place at the wrong time. You were just with the wrong person.”

But even as the women agonised over the control they could have exercised in a situation that was defined by their lack of control, no such introspection appeared to be forthcoming from Das. He dismissed Bora’s allegations as “vulgar,” claiming that he had never met her and that “there is a game being played,” within which, allegations were being made “for the fun of it.” In response to Paradkar’s account in The Wire, he said that he was “deeply anguished” by the allegations, and apologised “if any woman has experienced any kind of discomfort because of me…it was never my intention.” Das did not respond to a detailed set of questions TheCaravan sent.

What consequences Das might face, if any, over the multiple allegations that several women have come forward with remains unclear. Bora wrote to me, shortly after our interview: “Who takes the next step? Should this individual be allowed to hold the country’s third highest civilian award? If yes, what does it say about us as a country?”

As Paradkar pointed out, it wasn’t just the art industry that needed introspection. “I am hoping now that the art world, the journalism world, all the industries will treat this as not just a PR exercise, but take a good, deep look at what they consider essential in terms of nurturing their talent, their creativity, their productivity,” she said.

Recounting the feature in The Caravan that had led to our first conversation about Das, Mishra said, “I realised that I had just made my peace with him being in the inside pages and I wouldn’t have to see him, but my institution had vetted him, right? And that is how this gets propagated. And I was a part of that process. And if I couldn’t take that stance, how will others?” She continued, “My hope is that it will not remain hidden anymore, because the fact that it was hidden is what enables people to do this, and it protects their position in society … Somebody spoke out first. And we talk about it, and we celebrate it—we never really think about doing it ourselves. But one person will not be enough to bring about a change.”