Sex Workers in Kolkata Celebrate Durga Puja

This photo-essay was created by Mirna Guha and Lauren Wilks. It was published by Routes on 7 November 2014.

Until last year, Kolkata’s sex workers were prevented from joining in with the city’s elaborate celebrations for Durga Puja – the most anticipated Hindu festival in the Bengali calendar. This photo-essay showcases snapshots from a sindurkhela (literally: ‘playing with vermillion’) organised by the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC) in the heart of Kolkata’s largest red-light district as part of this year’s Puja celebrations.

Community members and visitors admire the beautifully adorned pandal.

In Hinduism, Goddess Durga represents the embodiment of shakti, the divine feminine force that governs cosmic creation, existence and change. It is held that Durga emerged from the collective energies of all of the gods – including Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma – to vanquish the demon Mahishasura. Durga Puja (‘Pujo’ in Bengali) is the celebration of Durga’s annual visit to earth – understood to be her natal home – which takes place in September or October. During this time, communities around West Bengal construct elaborate pandals – temporary temples made from bamboo and cloth – to house clay idols depicting Durga slaying Mahishasura. The idols are worshipped for a number of days before being carried to the river Ganga for immersion.

Women from the community prepare Durga for her onward journey.

Historically, the social stigma surrounding sex work meant that sex workers were prohibited by police and community members from taking part in Kolkata’s famous Puja celebrations, despite the long-standing tradition that involves collecting clay from the doorstep of sex workers to use in the making of idols (the clay is thought to symbolise men’s virtue). However, after tireless campaigning by the DMSC – Kolkata’s first and largest sex workers’ collective – in 2013 the Calcutta High Court ruled that sex workers would be permitted to organise their own community Puja in Sonagachi, Kolkata’s main red-light area.

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This year’s Puja – organised by the DMSC – was a four-day affair starting on the 1st of October and ending with a sindurkhela ritual on the 4th. During sindurkhela, women smear each other’s faces with vermillion – a red-coloured power typically used to mark the foreheads of (‘respectable’) married women; the ritual signifies Durga’s impending farewell from earth and her natal family. In Sonagachi, however, people of all ages and backgrounds joined in the fun, smearing each other’s cheeks and foreheads in a statement of solidarity and hope for a fairer and safer future for sex workers.

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Next year, sex workers in Sonagachi will organise an even bigger Puja celebration. At the opening ceremony, Dr. Sashi Panja, State minister for Women and Child Development, pledged that efforts would be made to help DMSC organisers put together an especially large celebration for future Pujas.

The reverberating beats of the dhak (drum) are an important part of Puja celebrations. The dhak is a huge drum that is played during Puja and is sometimes embellished with long white or multi-coloured feathers.

However, while sex workers in Sonagachi this year celebrated, others across West Bengal – including in areas such as Kalighat, Boubazar in north Kolkata, Seoraphuli in Hooghly district and Durgapur in Burdwan district – were left disappointed after police refused them permission to host their own community Pujas. News of this decision came just days before the celebrations were set to commence, leaving organisers extremely frustrated. These communities will now have to apply for permission from either the Calcutta High Court or Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee before making plans to take part in next year’s Puja.

Women dance in front of Durga to the beats of the dhak.

Dr. Smarajit Jana of the DMSC explained that the police decision to bar sex workers from celebrating (with the exception of those residing in Sonagachi) marked a huge setback for the sex workers’ rights movement in India, and that while rejoicing in this year’s Puja organised by the DMSC, the fight very much continues.

A sweet-smelling, white smoke wafts through the air as women dance. The smoke comes from earthen pots called dhunochis, which are carried by women as they dance. Burning coconut shells are placed inside the pots along with powdered incense, known as dhuno, to create the smoke.

Established in the early 1990s, the DMSC today comprises some 65,000 sex worker members across West Bengal. It campaigns regionally, nationally and internationally for sex workers’ rights, but is best known for its HIV prevention work – particularly, the Sonagachi Project which uses a community development approach aimed at empowering sex workers.

Dhunochi dancers balance the dhunochis with the base placed on their palms, between their teeth or on their foreheads. They then swirl their bodies to the drum beats while carrying the burning dhunochis.

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