December 2004 was a special month for Suman, Aruna, Poonam, Naaz and Mala. They were part of the festival, `Dhai Akshaar Pyar Ke' (renamed `Pearls of Love' in English), an event that brought several sex workers together to display their skills in classical music and dance.
The women, who came from Muzzafarpur (in Bihar), Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Rai Sena in Madhya Pradesh (MP), sang qawaalis, thumris and sufi songs and displayed their prowess in kathak and folk dances. The festival was organized by Guria, an NGO working in Varanasi to improve the lives of sex workers, making them aware of their rights, and supporting and educating their children.
Started by Ajeet Singh, 40-plus, a resident of Varanasi, Guria ('doll' in Hindi) began working for women in prostitution (a term Singh uses) in 1993. "Even during my student days, I felt women in red light areas didn't have options for another life. I saw some attempts made to train them in other professions, but this took a long time. Often the women lost interest and went back to their original profession," says Singh.
Initially, when he tried working with sex workers, Singh says, they were not convinced of his ideas. "They even abused me, but I continued talking to them," says Singh. However, he realized one big concern for all of them was their children. In 1993, Singh adopted the two daughters and a son of a sex worker and started educating them. He ran classes from home. Today, Guria reaches out to over 800 children (aged four-15 years) and educates them in its non-formal education centre, called the Guria School.
"In the beginning, the women felt that perhaps it would be better if their sons went to school and daughters worked with them. But we managed to convince them that even their daughters had a right to a better life," says Singh. The Guria School educates children of different age groups through a specially designed curriculum. Some of the children take admission in regular schools; those who don't, stay back and learn a craft or vocation.
Raised in a disadvantaged environment and without a father figure, many children suffer serious psychological problems. It requires a lot of patience to change their situation, feels Singh.
Besides working in the Shivdaspur red light area of Varanasi, Guria works with the Bedias, known for community-based prostitution in MP.
The Guria Mahotsav - as the festival was earlier called - began in 1995, when Singh decided to encourage the women to look for some alternative employment. "During my conversations with them, I realized that they were immensely talented. Some of them were very good dancers, while others were excellent singers. Some of the women were trained in classical music during their childhood." The women wanted to be appreciated for their talent. And the festival offered them a platform. "I decided that this was my solution for an alternative employment. Instead of training them in something new, I thought it better that their existing talents were shown to the world. The idea was to train them as professional performers and give them enough programmes so that they can earn a living like this."
"Initially, we received a lot of brickbats as people could not accept these women performing in `decent' surroundings. But the women were enthusiastic, were ready to face everything - even catcalls - and more festivals followed," says Singh. In various programmes, the audience included celebrities like the late poet Kaifi Azmi and wife Shaukat, filmmakers Mahesh Bhatt and Tanuja Chandra, activist and bureaucrat G R Khairnar and tabla maestro Pandit Kishen Maharaj.
So far, around 75-80 women are a part of the Varanasi festival group, while the Bedia community women form a team of around 25-30. They get Rs 1,000 (1US$=Rs 45) during the festival season. Singh says he wants to organize more festivals so that the women have a regular source of income.
The Guria team was also invited to the World Social Forum in 2004 (held in Mumbai). Singh recalls: "It was a major opportunity. My team was nervous, as this was for the first time they were performing in front of such a huge audience." The rechristening of the festival to 'Dhai Akhar Pyar Ke' sends out a clear message, he says - the women want love, and want to spread it around too.
Guria is funded by organizations like ActionAid, Asha and CRY. It is now trying to convince tourism officials in UP to include their concerts in the annual tourism festival.