The painted girls

Vishwas Kulkarni meets with a troupe of prostitutes, who may not be auditioned for a Chandni Bar, but have a growing fan base for their dramatics nonetheless…

Vishwas Kulkarni, for Mumbai Mirror.

Raju Naik, Sangli resident and all of 30 years of age, didn’t see himself becoming a stage actor. It just so happens that his mother is a prostitute and he wanted to tell her tale, along with her colleagues. “My mother took good care of me. I failed my Std XII but education was never an issue; money for books and travelling to school was freely provided. Yet I, like many of my ilk, was always haunted by one question: ‘Why did I come out of this womb?'”

Meena Seshu has created an empowered world for prostitutes with SANGRAM, an organisation based in Maharashtra’s south-western district of Sangli, a critical hub for prostitution. Bordering Karnataka and being a major junction for inter-state transport between three states (Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Goa), Sangli earned an unlikely infamy in the early ’90s: the highest rate of AIDS infection in Maharashtra. “A lot of NGOs started gravitating towards Sangli to sort things out, and naturally sex workers were integrated as part of a larger plan,” says Seshu, who has worked with sex workers for 17 years.

My Mother, The Gharwali, Her Maalak, His Wife would have been any regular NGO production — a performance tagged with a social message — were it not for its cast. All its leading ladies were prostitutes, and all the leading men were the kids of prostitutes, issues that have emerged from a prolific profession. A raucous, happy-go-lucky entourage thus offered us a candid sneak-peak into life in a red-light district, something that made Mandi look a tad glossy perhaps, despite Shabana Azmi’s endearing performance. It was, however, the Q&A session that followed which had some members from the audience in tears, socialites congratulating the cast in broken Hindi, the works — My Mother, The Gharwali, Her Maalak, His Wife strikes a chord somewhere, despite the awkward voyeurism with which the audience consumes this reality.

“The idea is to break the mould. As opposed to viewing our prostitutes as the tortured dregs of society or, worse still, a moral malaise, we are presenting a different image here,” said Bishakha Datta of Point of View, a partnering concern in this production.

“We are very happy, we love our lives!” said an insistent Anjana Lokarkar, a 36-year-old prostitute, to the audience, a statement that evoked guffaws and affectionate applause from the audience. “The biggest crises for our sex workers are self-esteem and dignity issues. We have had to erode years of humiliation, a lifetime almost of feeling inadequate. If this is a celebration, it is coming after a lot of moral, psychological, and emotional dusting,” says Seshu.

The play in many ways evokes the tinny zeal that defines college skits: a camaraderie featuring all the usual suspects. But because it isn’t Kareena Kapoor playing Chameli or Tabu doing a Chandni Bar, you actually begin to pick the talent that works for you. Someone who steals the show is Durgappa Golar, a 40-year-old madam, who plays a hard-talking brothel owner, i.e., herself. Since 1992, Golar has been working with over 5511 prostitutes spread across seven districts: Sangli, Karad, Kolhapur, Satara, Sholapur, Bagalkot and Belgaum. “All the gundagiri, police harassment, the raids, the paanwallah at the corner: it’s all real. We are picturing our lives authentically,” says Golar. New media artist Vishal Rawlley, who designed the sets, throws some light on the interactive potential of having sex workers playing themselves. “There is a tremendous energy that comes from the cast and the crew here. For instance, for one of the inaugural stagings of the play, we erected the set at a fairly decent Sangli hotel and invited a whole bunch of locals. By the end, there were not only hoots and encores, but one of the sex workers had to repeat her Kajra Re number again. Then the audience began pouring on the stage and dancing as well,” says Rawlley.

Even if our stars were playing themselves here, some heavy-duty rehearsals were mandatory — despite performing in Hindi, the language by itself is alien to this crew; most questions during the Q&A had to be translated into Marathi or Kannada, depending on which side of the border one belonged to. “Speaking in Hindi literally meant mugging the lines over a three-month period,” says director Sushama Deshpande. “The challenge was to get them to say their lines in Hindi so that their story could become accessible to India. This cast has proved that it is up for any challenge, in life or otherwise,” says Deshpande.

A visit to the green room after the show to exchange your usual congratulatory mwahs reveals a tightly-knit ecosystem indeed; a world that is optimistic, well-organised and speaks a unique dialect of Marathi altogether. “You know I’ve worked with them for over 17 years, but they all have an inner dialogue that no one is allowed into. For example, if they are referring to an outsider, they say “Changla gharcha aahe (he is from a good house). But if they suspect someone is from their world, they say “gharguti (homely) aahe,” says Seshu and begins to introduce her budding starlets.

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