Nidhi Dugar spends an evening with members of a band formed by the children of sex workers in Kolkata’s prostitution district.
During the day, this is just another street in Kolkata. Men soap their bodies in a public bath. A juice vendor slices through a watermelon. A chaiwallah pours tea into clay kulhars. Women in petticoats wash their clothes under the standpipe. And people swarm into shops tucked between crumbling multi-storied buildings, for cheap jewellery, hairclips, glitter and other trinkets.
But as things slip into the silence of the night, other wares start going on sale. Peeling off their saris and squeezing themselves into tight-fitting blouses, women get ready for work. Breasts bulging and stomachs protruding, they pile on layers of makeup — foundation to conceal blemishes in their skin, lipsticks in all shades of red, nail polish when they can afford it. They pose outside doorways, below winking fairy-light garlands, the rooms behind them shielded only by flimsy, dirty curtains. In the lurid light of streets, they look a lot like office workers waiting impassively at a bus stop.
It’s close to noon and Sonagachi, Kolkata’s centuries-old prostitution district, is stirring after yet another late night. While I wait amidst the rowdy banter for my guide to take me to my interviewees, I hear the faint tinkle of ghungroos along with the beat of the drums and the strum of a guitar. It isn’t a Bollywood beat. The fusion of metallic bells, classical vocals and drums produces something more startling — maybe more like Rabindra Sangeet composed by a prog-rock band.
A thin voice floats down from the terrace of the two-storied building behind me. “That’s Mita Mondal, the lead vocalist of Durbar band,” says Ratan Dolur, programme coordinator of the band and my guide for the evening. Ratan is a sex worker’s child, a matchstick-thin boy in jeans, a ‘Tommy Hilfiger’ cap, and with gutkha-stained teeth. “Come,” he says, “let me introduce you to the band.”
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Initiated by jouno kormi santan (sex workers’ children) of Sonagachi a few months ago, the Durbar band practices twice a week atop the dilapidated Avinash clinic, which is run by Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), a collective of sex workers in West Bengal. Women wait for their turn to consult the doctor at this free health centre for the sex workers, stocked with boxes of Nirodh condoms and piles of paperwork.
“That’s Nazia,” says Ratan, responding to my gaze pointed at a delicate-looking girl in white salwar kameez. “She came from Agra just yesterday and is here to register herself at the clinic.” Another lady in a cotton nightgown waits with a small girl in a frock, the zipper at the back pulled together by safety pins. She is here to register her sister’s daughter for singing classes with Durbar band.
A narrow staircase leads up to the terrace. In a tube-lit room, guitarists, tabla players and drummers shake their heads like wound-up toys. Mita Mondal, the lead vocalist croons into a mike, occasionally going off key. At first, the spontaneous song from her brightly coated lips sounds awkward, but soon gains thrust with the vigour she imparts to it. The conga player misses a rhythm or two. The guitarist struggles with the chords. But everything falls into place when Mondal begins singing the Durbar anthem, the anthem of the collective that glues Sonagachi workers together. Amra jouno kormi santan. Amra likhchi, amra padchi, amra gachi gaan. (We are the children of sex workers. We will write, we will read, we will sing songs.) Everybody mouths the well-rehearsed refrain with an outburst of concerted energy.
“Mita’s first big performance was in Delhi, at a conference of LGBT activists,” says Ratan proudly. I catch up with Mita between practice sessions. She speaks with her eyes mostly, big and bright. She traces the silver hemline of her long blouse. “That was also the first time she got onto a flight,” Ratan smirks.
“It’s a dream all the children in Sonagachi dream,” says a clean-shaven boy wearing a pair of green pants so tight, they seem to be sewed on. He speaks in a low, mellifluous voice and keeps running his hand through his highlighted hair, which flops to the corner of his eyes. Rushu often dances to the band’s tunes at shows. “We even have a song for it. It’s a song that’s been echoing in the lanes of Sonagachi for many years now, given fresh beats by our band.” Dadago ki jaane chadoile hamare... (Wow, what a beautiful vessel we have boarded...), croons Mita after I press her a bit.
“These are some of our original compositions,” says Ratan. “But the crowds never let us go before we are done with singing the Bengali heartthrob Dev’s songs from his super hit film Paglu. Even Jeet’s 100 per cent Love is a super hit with all age groups.”
“So what’s her story?” I ask Ratan, as the band prepares for its next recital. “DMSC has a regulatory authority which prevents sex slavery in the district. Mita was rescued by them, given a job as a receptionist at the NGO’s headquarters and encouraged to hone her singing skills,” he says. “We started this band in 2006, mostly out of frustration of not getting work anywhere. And even if we got opportunities, we were stigmatised. Only because we live in a red light area and are children of our mothers. Working mothers.”
People have come forward to help Durbar band find its footing. While Kalyan Sen Borat, the famous music director of Bengali films, helps them get familiar with their instruments (mostly donated by the customers of sex workers), Ranjan Chakraborty, another stalwart, contributes to the lyrics. The ensemble often gets invited to perform at paid shows at pujos held in Kolkata throughout the year. They also perform at weddings, schools and conferences within the city.
“We also use songs to spread awareness,” says Ratan, and turns to the band. “Let’s play that Surjo song for madam.” Mita, accompanied by tabla and ghungroo, sings ‘Surjo sona yo akhoni bidai’, penned by the father of a dying HIV-positive child in Sonagachi, asking his child to not leave him just yet. The song doesn’t preach. It’s just quietly bitter, and heightened with the heart that the band puts into this song.
This colourful terrace party comes across as a zone that is liberated from the moral scruples of the greater society that surrounds Sonagachi. Here, taboos are taboo and the fringe of Kolkata life — sex workers, their children, cross-dressers and transgenders — are comfortably cocooned through their commingling. Much has changed for this prostitution district. Phrases like AGM (annual general meeting), Geneva Conference, donor agencies, advocacy and human rights are uttered easily. And the Durbar band wonderfully symbolises this change.
“We want to sing and make songs for Bengali films,” says Mita hesitantly, when we talk about the future. “It’s a far-fetched dream, but then this is Sonagachi, the land of the golden tree. One can afford to dream here.” Would she be willing to move out? “Na na, this is home,” she says. And the rest nod in agreement. “Wherever we might be, the yearning for a home and family remains. Anyway, you don’t expect us to find work in the parliament, do you?”