For two widows of Vrindavan who have lived most of their lives on the margins of the society, it was nothing short of a miracle when they were invited to one of Europe’s biggest photography exhibition – the Montier-en-Der photography festival in France this month.
The two women - 93-year-old Manu Ghosh and 70-year-old Gaurvani Sheel - were representing Vrindavan widows who were the subjects of some of the exhibits shown at the festival from November 17 to 21.
Ghosh and Sheel live in Meerasahabhagini ashram in Vrindavan. They spent about a week in the small city of Montier-en-Der, about 200 km from Paris, and participated in the various conferences and lectures associated with the festival. Well known social reformer and founder of Sulabh International Dr Bindeshwar Pathak was the force that made the visit possible for them.
On returning to India on Tuesday, Ghosh said that the trip was not just a ‘foreign tour’ for them but ‘an experience of being given respect on an International platform’.
“I got the chance to represent thousands of widows of Vrindavan and Varanasi at the International festival,” she said.
By some estimate there are more than 6000 widows in Vrindavan, mostly from West Bengal. Many of them live in abject condition, usually in ashrams.
But many others need to beg to pay for rented accommodation and have to fend off unscrupulous landlords and other men. Most of the widows who land in Vrindavan have usually been ostracised in their home villages or have been sent away by their husbands’ families to prevent them from inheriting money or property.
Speaking to HT, Dr Pathak said, “Manu Ghosh is known for being a volunteer. She speaks about the cause of the widows and has travelled to various places in India for representing the widows of Vrindavan and Varanasi. She and Gaurvani Sheel, both are from West Bengal and share a bonding due to their origin and common fate. They make for a formidable combination.”
He added, “Earlier, we had successfully organised Holi and Dipawali festivals for these widows in Vrindavan. When we came across this opportunity of this foreign trip for these widows, we were happy that they were not neglected anymore.”
Dr Pathak’s Sulabh International is an NGO works towards promoting low-cost sanitation and organises activities for the welfare of these widows.
“Our NGO Sulabh takes care of the needs of these widows in Vrindavan and organises religious and cultural festivals for them such as Durga Puja festivities or tourism trips to Delhi and other places. In addition, we regularly organise Diwali and Holi festivals for them,” he said.