“When I was 10, I was asked, ‘Kitna leti hai?’.”
The venue is set up like a proscenium theatre; chairs all facing one direction, fabric hanging in long rectangles, like curtains. From behind this a group of girls emerges, sometimes together, sometimes one at a time, telling stories of life in Mumbai’s red light area, Kamathipura.
But this isn’t just any performance. This is a night of exceptions. For, the girls are children of sex workers, sharing first-hand experiences. The oldest ones are teenagers; the youngest actor just 12.
And, this is the unlikeliest of stages. It is safe to say that Lakme Fashion Week has never seen a show like this.
Fashion, globally, has discovered its conscience like never before. It has embraced the plus-size and the transgender model, made statements against racism and skin-tone bias. But while it no longer is that industry which just sends fair, skinny models down the ramp in whimsical clothes, a “fashion show” continues to remain the same: models walking silently down a ramp, with a steely expression that must not acknowledge the rows of people looking at them. Even the designer, and the showstopper celebrity walk in silence, though they are allowed to wave and smile, and break the invisible wall separating them and the crowd.
But can a fashion show be more? Can a model reach out beyond the stage and connect with its audience? Can it use the ramp to tell a story? At a time when fashion is trying to get more “real”, wearable, and tell stories of weavers and craftsmen and lost traditions, why can’t the ramp evolve too? On the night of February 2, 2017, it briefly did.
Delhi-based designer Mandeep Nagi teamed up with Kranti, a Mumbai-based NGO that works to empower girls from red light areas. But, instead of just getting the girls to model her clothes, she got them to perform a skit, an abridged version of a larger piece they’ve performed in India and abroad. “We did a shorter piece because of the time constraint. And also because some of the girls are in the US right now,” Bani Das, one of the co-founders of Kranti told me later.
And so it began. “When you think of sex workers, you think, ‘Bechara’,” said Robin Chaurasaiya, one of the other co-founders. “They’re here to tell you what they think.”
With the chorus of “lal batti”, the girls walked on to stage. And then they took turns to tell their stories, and those of their mothers. These are stories of being married off early, of being sold into the flesh by their husbands, of being forced to have unprotected sex, of being exploited by the powerful – cops, politicians, businessmen. And of NGOs that teach them skills like weaving and “making papad”, but discourages them from aiming grander aspirations.
The stories are chilling, because these aren’t just actors relaying second-hand stories. But as they comically shout “papad belo-ing, papad belo-ing”, the crowd laughs along. And, in the end, when they share their personal success stories – of world travel, of going to boarding school in Nainital, of some, in turn, taking up volunteering work – the crowd cheers them. In the end, beyond their origins in Kamathipura, and undeniable hardships, their stories and aspirations are, for the lack of a better word, normal.
Watch: From Mumbai’s red-light area to Lakme Fashion Week ramp
At one point, mid-performance, the girls walk into the audience with a mic and ask the audience to share their stories from when they were 10 years old. There, the wall is well and truly broken. Perhaps the larger fashion fraternity needs to think about doing it too.