The impulse to produce a play is an important one. It is a crucial stage of cooperative and creative ownership of one’s own narratives. For a collective of sex workers in Sangli, a rural community on the border of India’s Maharashtra province, this impulse has become a critical part of organizing and advocating for their rights. Veshya AIDS Mukabala Parishad, meaning “Sex Workers Free From Injustice” and known as VAMP, is a subset of SANGRAM, an organization fighting the AIDS epidemic in India by empowering sex workers, rural women and girls, women widowed by the disease, and other marginalized groups. Personal agency has been a rallying cry around much of VAMP’s work, and theatre is one means of expression that its members have embraced.
In March, I visited Sangli with Catherine Sameh, the associate director of the Barnard Center for Research on Women, and Barnard’s six Global Symposium Student Fellows. We were accompanied by Sushama Deshpande, a well-known professional of the Marathi stage, who directed VAMP’s most recent play, “Hum Aur Tum Sab” (Us and You All). During our day-long visit we had the opportunity to watch the performance, speak with members of VAMP, and also visit their galli, or street, where they live and work.
In the 1990s, when the AIDS crisis was imminent in India, five sex workers banded together to form VAMP at the urging of grassroots activist Meena Seshu, who now runs SANGRAM. Since then, the collective has grown impressively, setting up extensive condom distribution networks, district-wide door–to-door awareness campaigns, access to medical care for the infected, and HIV/AIDS testing facilities. After nearly two decades at work, positive cases among the local population have dropped from an estimated ten percent down to less than two percent. Vamp has also managed to implement certain stipulations within its district: girls must be 18 or older to enter the profession, no middlemen take cuts, and sex workers directly negotiate their terms of engagements.
In recent years, theatre has become another aspect of VAMP’s efforts to educate and empower. Previous productions were performed in Marathi, but the play we watched was deliberately in Hindi, the national language. It recounts the history of VAMP, from its formation in 1996 to its present day challenges of growing its membership and organizing the informal sector of sex workers.
Hum Aur Tum Sab is episodic, stylistically simple, and direct. Various characters slip in and out of the narrator role, weaving a chronological story. The sets are minimal, portable and symbolic, with the colorful, painted doorways serving as the crucial gateway between the public and the private world. We are seldom taken inside into the depths of this personal space. We see only the sex workers retreat into it – mostly in times of distress - and remerge with redoubled numbers. Rhythms of communal life are apparent: card-playing becomes a marker of relaxed leisurely sisterhood. The actors often sit in circular formation, exchanging stories amongst themselves as much as with the audience. With a background score of Hindi film songs lending the lushness of old Bollywood, the overall mood of the piece is joyous and celebratory, a paean to VAMP’s unapologetic and deserved pride in its own history.
Hum Aur Tum Sab amply and ably conveys the disturbing aspects of VAMP’s saga, too. They angrily recount constant police brutality, violence of clients, the stigmatization of their children in schools, and their invisibility in the spectrum of electoral politics. The male roles in the piece are played by men who are the children of sex workers and now volunteer their time at VAMP. They acknowledge their deep discomfort in performing mostly negative roles of abusive men in various capacities of power. Personal stories of rape, family rejection, and coercion to prostitution are woven into the larger narrative. But again and again we are returned to the larger and more beneficial story of mass organization.
Members of VAMP aspire to tour their play in prominent venues throughout India and beyond. The more mainstream an audience Hum Aur Tum Sab reaches, the more their side of the story will be heard. And the more members they can retain in VAMP, the better they will be able to regulate their chosen profession. While prostitution itself is still illegal in India, VAMP and its cohorts thus continue to negotiate a complex terrain of local policy, social persecution and economic compulsion to demonstrate remarkable political will to mobilization. —by Shayoni Mitra, assistant professor in theatre
Photographs by Shilpa Guha ’12 and Shayoni Mitra