Photographs by Shilpa Guha ’12 and Shayoni Mitra
The impulse to produce a play is an important one. It is a crucial stage of cooperative and creative ownership of ones’ 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,” 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 members have embraced theatre as one means of expression.
In March, I visited Sangli with Catherine Sameh, the associate director of BCRW, 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 daylong visit we watched the performance, spoke with members of VAMP, and visited their galli, or street, where they live and work.
In the 1990s, when the AIDS crisis was imminent in India, five sex workers formed VAMP at the urging of grassroots activist Meena Seshu, who now runs SANGRAM. The collective has grown impressively, setting up extensive condom distribution networks, awareness campaigns, access to medical care for the infected, and HIV/AIDS testing facilities. After nearly two decades, positive cases among the local population have dropped to less than two percent. VAMP has also managed to implement stipulations within its district: girls must be 18 or older to enter the profession, no middlemen take cuts, and sex workers negotiate their own terms.
Recently, 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 the present challenges of growing membership and organizing 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. Sets are minimal, portable and symbolic, with the colorful, painted doorways serving as the crucial gateway between the public and the private world. 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 and the audience. With a background score of Hindi film songs lending the lushness of old Bollywood, the overall mood of the piece is celebratory.
Hum Aur Tum Sab amply and ably conveys the disturbing aspects of VAMP’s saga: constant police brutality, violence of clients, the stigmatization of their children in schools, and their invisibility in the spectrum of electoral politics. Men who are the children of sex workers and now volunteer their time at VAMP play male roles. 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 greater narrative, but we are returned to the larger and more beneficial story of mass organization.
VAMP members aspire to tour their play throughout India and beyond. The more mainstream an audience Hum Aur Tum Sab reaches, the more their the story will be heard. And the more members they can retain in VAMP, the better they will be able to regulate their profession. While prostitution is still illegal in India, VAMP and its cohorts continue to negotiate a complex terrain of local policy, social persecution, and economic compulsion to demonstrate remarkable political will to mobilization.