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Daughters of Mumbai’s Sex Workers Take to the Stage at Edinburgh Fringe

In Lal Batti Express, women and girls from India’s red-light districts share their experiences of trauma and healing. Now they’re taking their stories to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for the first time.

Written by James McLaughlin, Priti Salian Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

BANGALORE, India  Audiences at the Edinburgh Fringe, the largest arts festival in the world, may think they’ve seen everything. But this year, women and girls from the red-light district of Mumbai will be treading the boards for the first time in the festival’s 70-year history.

Their play, “Lal Batti Express” (Red-Light Express), includes dancing, singing and storytelling. The 15 actors, aged between 15 and 23, are appearing as part of the Fringe’s Just Festival, which focuses on social justice issues. All the actors have been helped by an NGOKranti, which works to turn sex workers’ daughters into agents of social change. They call themselves “Krantikaris,” or revolutionaries.

Written by the performers themselves, the play follows the lives of sex workers’ daughters, moving from their birth to growing up in a brothel to joining Kranti. Many of the actors on stage have harrowing pasts and a history of abuse, violence and depression.

A United Nations report has found there are 3 million commercial sex workers in India, of which 40 percent are estimated to be children.

“For sex workers and their families, discrimination exists at every level, including education, healthcare, housing, job opportunities and even access to a bank loan or a passport,” said Robin Chaurasiya, Kranti’s cofounder.

Kranti has supported the women and girls with psychotherapy and an education program customized to their needs.

Sandhya Nair, who is appearing in the play, says theater has helped her to loosen up about the wounds life has given her.

“Keeping things within makes you angry. And when you’re angry, you can’t give love. Opening up heals you,” she said.

‘My mom still faces violence’: actors share the real stories of their lives with the audience in Lal Batti Express. (James McLaughlin)

Nair, 20, is excited to go on to study theater in her freshman year at Wagner College in New York. It’s a long way from Kamathipura, Mumbai’s oldest red-light district, where Nair has lived for most of her life.

“I have always faced discrimination by society for my background and dark complexion,” she said.

But she won’t be the first to make the transition. In 2014, one of the oldest Krantikari, Shweta Katti, was admitted to Bard College in New York, making her the first girl from an Indian red-light district to study abroad. Katti received the U.N. Youth Courage Award in 2014.

Kranti places a lot of emphasis on the importance of accepting the girls’ roots. “The girls’ relationship with their moms is an important thread that runs throughout the play,” theater practitioner and trainer for Kranti, Jaya Iyer, said.

Rani Patil, 16, shares her real fears with the audience. “My mom is HIV positive and I’m always scared of losing her,” she says in the play.

“She is my mom and I love her immensely, whatever she may be doing,” she told News Deeply.

The 50-minute Fringe performance is interactive. Last month, during one of their shows in the U.K., where they have been touring since June, a viewer shared that his mother was in an abusive relationship with his father until her death, despite all his efforts to encourage her to leave. One of the actors, Sheetal Jain, identified this as her mother’s story too.

“Such interactions throughout the play help people realize that sex workers’ daughters are also people living in the same situations like you and me,” Chaurasiya said.

The Krantikaris also share their success stories toward healing in the play. Pinky Sheikh, 20, talks about accepting her disturbing past: She was forced into marriage at the age of 9 and repeatedly abused, physically and sexually, by both her husband and uncle. She had to abort her pregnancy a year later at the age of 10.

Sheikh tells the audience, “When I first came to Kranti six years ago, I was very angry. I used to cut myself and do other harmful things. But slowly, therapy and medicine helped me learn that the only success that matters in life is to be able to love yourself.”

Patil says she has let go of her anger at her stepfather, who beat her every single day she lived with him. “The biggest gift we can give ourselves and others is forgiveness,” she said.

While their achievements may be stellar, Krantikaris dream of working for the marginalized communities. Nair wants to create her own facility where sex workers’ children can learn to express themselves through theater.

“I want to spend my life loving and healing,” she said.

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