Thursday, March 27, 2014

Kamathipura through Olwe's eyes

- By Deepa Krishnan

Yesterday I took a friend to Jehangir Art Gallery, to see Sudharak Olwe's photos of Kamathipura.
These photos took him 10 years to produce. They are gritty and truthful and painful; they are also a starkly beautiful, aesthetic commentary on Mumbai.
Sudharak has photographed 11th Lane, Kamathipura and the people who inhabit it. There are street scenes, portraits, photos of daily life, festivals and events. There is joy, intimacy, bravado, sullenness and despair. Above all, there are stories. Each photograph feels like a frame in a movie - it makes you stop and think about what is happening in the scene, or has happened just before.
As I saw the photos, I remembered my visit to Pune's Budhwar Peth red-light district with a non-profit called Saheli. It was about 5 years ago; but it's not the sort of thing you forget. Seeing the brothels - the narrow dirty stained beds sandwiched between thin wooden ply partitions - was a misery and trial beyond words. 

Unlike other non-profits, Saheli is collectively run by the commercial sex workers themselves. There are a couple of social workers, who help with the day to day affairs, document the work, intercede with the police, etc. But the primary decisions regarding all key issues are taken by the women sex workers.

I learnt about the different ways in which girls end up in prostitution. Most had been trafficked. In many cases, the brothel owners had loaned or paid money to the girl's family, and the girl was the guarantee/pledge. The girl must first repay her family's loan if she ever wants to leave. I also learnt how impossible it was to repay the debt. The earnings from prostitution were meagre (rates began at 20 rupees), and half of that went to the brothel keeper. The women had to pay their own living expenses, pay for their children, and often send money back home. The interest rates were very high, and the debt usually just kept piling up astronomically. Finally, it was all about money. If you had money, it was actually possible to leave.

When Saheli was formed, the first thing the women did was to organise a community kitchen. I learnt that real estate in the brothel area was so precious that every six foot area possible was converted into a bed. The restaurants in the area had also been converted to brothels. Hence the community kitchen, which cooked home-style food, and also provided an alternative occupation to some retired sex workers.

After setting up a community kitchen, the next thing the women put in place was a creche for their children. A commercial sex worker is usually a single-parent, working in a dangerous environment. Children are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, so they badly need facilities to keep the children safe. The Saheli creche works as a Day and Night creche.
Photo source: Saheli
The photo below is from my visit to the Saheli office. The woman in blue is Tejaswi, she is one of the social workers at Saheli, and she did most of the talking. That's me in the brown saree, listening to her. The girl in yellow is also a volunteer with Saheli. I have not posted photos of the sex workers that I met. Behind us are crates of condoms.
Walking through the brothels of Budhwar Peth was truly difficult. Even though we were escorted by one of the senior sex workers who worked at Saheli, I felt like an unwelcome intruder (which is exactly what I was). Being able to speak Marathi helped a little. I was at least able to sit down and talk to people, rather than just walk around staring. 

During one of the chats, a brothel 'madam' gave me one of her big red bindis. She impulsively stuck it on my forehead (you can see it on the photo). I walked through the rest of the day feeling like I had been branded. In the bus back to Mumbai, I did not dare take the bindi off. It seemed as if by the act of taking it off, I was telling myself to forget Budhwar Peth. The bindi stayed stuck on my bathroom mirror for a year, reminding me of that dark world which 'respectable' women don't acknowledge.

4 comments:

Dadoji said...

Prerana does similar work in Mumbai. I support Prerana. If interested and not aware of them (however unlikely) you may want to look them up.

Haddock said...

Having studied in a college close to Kamathipura (opp Alexandra theater) I had wandered into these lanes at times, taking short cuts to go to the near by theaters. An experience for first timers who had no idea that such a place existed.

Anonymous said...

i just tried living the life women forced into prostitution live... its so impossible to even think of it .

swapnil bagade said...

Its really sad to hear thier storiez .. May god give them stranght