Children of Mumbai sex workers to perform at Brave Festival in Poland

Updated: Feb 04, 2018, 11:52 IST | Anju Maskeri

Come June, six daughters of sex workers will head to the Brave Festival to perform a clowning piece inspired from their own lives

(From left) Rupesh Tillu, Manju Vyas and Kalyan Choudhury with the girls at Apne Aap Women's Collective, Kamathipura. Pic/Atul Kamble
(From left) Rupesh Tillu, Manju Vyas and Kalyan Choudhury with the girls at Apne Aap Women's Collective, Kamathipura. Pic/Atul Kamble

Ten-year-old Shilpa, daughter of a sex worker, has never stepped out of the narrow confines of Kamathipura. Therefore, last week, when Manju Vyas, CEO of Apne Aap Women's Collective (AAWC), a city-based anti-trafficking organisation, told her that she would be travelling to Poland, Shilpa's first question was whether it was located close to Dadar. "Using a world map, we helped them understand their current location and the country they would be heading to," says Vyas, a member of the NGO that seeks to empower sex workers and prevent the cycle of intergenerational prostitution among their daughters.

This June, Shilpa and five other children from Kamathipura, will attend the 25-day Brave Festival in Poland, that aims to introduce, integrate and start a collaboration of artistic groups of children from different countries. "We have been teaching theatre to the children at AAWC centres in Kamathipura and Khetwadi since 2012. Gzregorz Bral, founder of the Brave Festival, had known about the project and decided to visit us last year. He was so moved by their performance that he extended an invitation to the festival," says Rupesh Tillu, a fellow with Clowns Without Borders Sweden, an organisation that offers humour as a means of psychological support to communities that have suffered trauma. It was founded in 1996.

Humour to the rescue
While the theatrical piece is rooted in reality, Tillu wants it told minus the sobs. "Through a clown's perspective, we will talk about what it means for a girl child to grow up in a red-light area like Kamathipura. The idea is to inject humour into the piece because there's enough misery in their lives already," adds Tillu who has been clowning for over 10 years. The first time the children performed for an audience was in 2016 in a community hall in the area. The children asked for their mothers to be present. "By the end of the show, everybody was crying tears of joy; the kids, their mothers and us. The mothers couldn't believe that their children were this talented," recalls Vyas.

In the last two weeks, Vyas, along with other members of AAWC, has been doing the rounds of government offices to get the children's passports processed. Acquiring documents and dealing with ambiguous family backgrounds have made their job far from easy. "We faced tremendous resistance from the families regarding the idea of going to Poland. Many sex workers have live-in partners who claim to be the father of the children and they take all decisions. One man refused to allow the child to go. He wanted to know how much she would be paid for it. We had to make him understand that there's no money involved and it's only for the welfare of the child," says Vyas. The age of the children at the centre ranges from eight to 15. While four girls out of the six live at the centre, the remaining are enrolled for day-care only. "We first seek the mother's consent. Once they realise that our intention is to protect the child, they agree," she adds.

Clowning: A creative outlet
Kalyan Choudhury, a 32-year-old clowning artist and Tillu's ex-student and colleague, who visits the centre twice a week to provide drama lessons, says theatre has played a cathartic role in the lives of the girls. "While some were violent initially, others shied away even from speaking. It took me months to break the ice with them," he says. The trick, he soon realised, was to shower them with affection. "Pampering thawed all the resistance because I learnt that all they need is love and attention. There's nobody to care for them," he says. He gives the example of nine-year-old Sana, who did not utter a single word for several months at the centre. "Ultimately, I asked her to sit back and watch the others perform. Slowly, the shyness waned and she began to participate in the activities. Today, she's one of the most confident and talkative girls around," he laughs.

*Names of the girls have been changed to protect identity

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