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.
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.”