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The song, dance and sorrows of sex workers' lives

By Mirra Savara

VAMP, a sex workers' collective, aims to ensure that marginalised communities like women in prostitution and transgenders can assert, articulate and access their rights. They couldn't have come up with a better way of articulating their concerns than My Mother, The Gharwali, Her Maalak, His Wife, a play devised and performed by the sex workers themselves

My Mother, The Gharwali, Her Maalak, His Wife, by sex workers

I went to the play My Mother, The Gharwali, Her Maalak, His Wife, a play by the sex workers of Sangli and belonging to the group VAMP (Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad), out of curiosity. I didn't stop to think whether it was a well-directed play or a well-acted play...I was just curious about why a bunch of sex workers would be staging a play at all. Did it satisfy my curiosity? More about that later, and a bit about the play first.

It has a cast of over 20 actors. The women are all sex workers, the boys and girls children of sex workers. The set was simple, a few rooms at the back which are lit up for the 'private' scenes; the road in front on which the events of 24 hours in the lives of the sex workers of this galli play out, and on the side, the most important paanwallah.

The play has many characters. The sex workers, a transgender person, the gharwali (madam). The children. The clients. A lover. Policemen. The paanwallah. The seller of bangles.

Many scenes. All portraying different facets of the women's lives. The joys... there is music and dancing, and some really fun dancing by the transgender. The sorrows... a sex worker giving all her savings to her lover, who runs off with them. The harassment of the police. The experience of the girl-child in school when she is asked about her father. A song about condoms. The denial of basic rights, including the right to housing in the community and the right to vote.

What was to be depicted and how it was depicted was decided by the group itself.

VAMP is associated with Sangram, an organisation that started working with sex workers in Sangli in 1992 on (what else?) HIV/AIDS, which brought a number of NGOs to this community. What is unique about Sangram is its perspective, which is why and how they could conceive of this unique event, a play. As Meena Saraswathi Seshu, founder of Sangram, says, "People should believe that they can change things. It is not about a few activists fighting for other people's rights. Anybody who has imbibed this understanding should be able to go and fight for their own rights. That is the model." Working with this peer education model to empower sex workers, Sangram catalysed the formation in 1996 of VAMP, an independent peer education programme being run by sex workers themselves. The initiative spread to six districts in Maharashtra.


VAMP -Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad

The play was initiated three years ago when a theatre workshop was held by Divya Bhatia.

"Bollywood is part and parcel of the lives of people in the area, and some had dreams of acting and dancing in the films. So we had a theatre workshop. It was so much fun that we had several more. Then we worked on a play, which we performed at an NGO function. It was a great success. So then we thought, why not do it professionally? So here we are. Tomorrow we perform in Kolhapur," said Chanda Vajane who played Leena, the jilted woman whose lover ran away with her savings.

Rehearsals started a year ago after the script was ready in Hindi. It was initially written in Kannada and Marathi — the languages the sex workers speak — and was translated into Hindi by Smriti Nevatria. Sushama Deshpande directed the final production. "It was a great experience to see the energy that they brought to the show and the way they worked on and with the script to bring in the realism from their own lives," she said. Sangli, Satara, Before they performed in Mumbai and Pune, there was a build-up of publicity in the press, so it was a much talked about event. For many in the audience, it was the first opportunity to see sex workers, those loose, wanton, bad women who walk the streets in the infamous red- light areas, up close. It was the first opportunity to see exactly what their lives are about.

And it was refreshing to see no "victim, poor-me" story. There was song, dancing and laughter. There was sorrow too.... When the woman is ditched, when the children of sex workers speak of how their schoolmates respond, how the teachers humiliate, when you see how society sees sex workers and their kin.

From the children, the message was clear -- there is no difference between us, so why should we suffer?

Yes, there is one difference, and that was often brought out in smart one-liners: these are women who are not under the control of a man, most often, the husband. And yes, as some obviously married women said after the show, "sometimes their lives look much more interesting --they dress up, sing and dance, drink and go to the movies".

The play kept the interest of the audience, and the script was sufficiently filled with lines which brought a laugh.

Most interesting was that after the show all the actors were on the stage to answer any questions that the audience had. And at the show in Pune it seemed the questions would never stop. "I never thought I would be able to get up on stage and perform in a theatre... I know I can do it and feel now that I can do anything," said Durga Pujari, who played a sex worker. Raju Naik , who played the lover and is the son of one of the sex workers, said, "We love our mothers. To us she is not a sex worker, she is our mother and mothers do anything for their children." And Bhimmawa, who played the main gharwali, said, "A client has to wear a condom, no condom, no baithak (no sex). It's our life, and we have to be careful."

A middle-aged woman grabbed the mike to say, "I saw the play yesterday, and today I came just to give you all a standing ovation which you deserve. Thank you for sharing with us. My views have totally changed thanks to you."

That was a tribute really to all those who made it happen, who thought of this unique way to allow the women to tell their own stories, reveal their own truths. It was a unique way to get the middle class, those keepers of 'morality' who will only see sex workers as worthless bad women, to listen to the community. Thankfully, this performance turned the tables, not with posters and slogans made by the advertising industry, not with the discourse of PhDs from foreign institutions, but with communication from the grassroots. As a result, the communication was so much better. A clear pointer that we would have better communication if we took it out of the urban ivory towers.

Unfortunately, preceding the performance in Pune were a bunch of lectures about why the play is important, what the play says, blah blah blah It was quite unnecessary and seemed to suggest that the audience needed to be tutored, that the play was not strong enough to convey the message by itself. If there were questions from the audience, then those onstage were far more capable of answering them than those who delivered the lectures.

Will NGOs never learn to let go of the lectures? And learn from the play that there are different ways of articulating concerns? Hopefully this play will help introduce a new way of discussing concerns in a positive human rights perspective -- from the grassroots and in ways that are also entertaining.

As the VAMP collective says, "Save us from saviours. Our work takes many different forms, but they all have one common aim - to ensure that marginalised communities like women in prostitution and transgenders can assert, articulate and access their rights."

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(Mirra Savara is a writer and researcher on gender issues)

InfoChange News & Features, July 2008