Karishma Dharni

Breaking Down Barriers – the ‘Lal Bhatti Express’

A performance by survivors of sexual exploitation and trafficking from Kranti NGO, Mumbai

From Mumbai, India, a troop of young female performers arrived in Southall as part of their UK-wide tour of the ‘Lal Bhatti Express’ – an interactive play devised by women from the Indian NGO, Kranti. Kranti seeks to empower girls from Mumbai’s red light areas to become agents of social change and it was evident from the performance how effectively this mission has been realised.

A play in three scenes

These young women were all survivors of sexual exploitation and trafficking – their mothers were sex workers and so they had all grown up in brothels, witnessing and experiencing all types of abuse and sexual violence. The play travelled through their pasts in 3 scenes – ‘PlayStation’, exploring childhood, memories and our true selves, ‘Genesis’, depicting relationships between mothers and daughters, and ‘Red Light Area’, providing an insight into the multifaceted emotions experienced by young women in Mumbai brothels.

Powerful insights into their own lived experiences

The entire audience was captivated and overwhelmed with how emotively, powerfully and perceptively the Lal Bhatti Express depicted the realities of the performers’ own lived experiences. They explicitly confronted their trauma, displaying scenes where male clients and police became exploitative and aggressive and discussing openly their evolving, complex relationships with their mothers who were all sex workers. They explored their initial sense of shame, seeing their mothers with multiple men, living a life and making choices they could not comprehend. The performers then traced how this developed into deep understanding, empathy and respect after realising their mothers’ strength and resilience, in the face of all the abuse and ostracisation they experienced as a result of their work.

The performers also used a powerful metaphor throughout the play, where different coloured patterned scarves were used to represent their past experiences. The audience were able to clearly follow their journeys as we saw the young women display the materials in different scenes – using them as set backgrounds whilst recounting their stories, wrestling with their trauma by violently trying to shake entangled scarves off their bodies, and eventually embracing and accepting themselves by wrapping the scarves around them and walking defiantly across the stage.

Above all, the Lal Bhatti Express is a vibrant, powerful and inspiring display of young female talent. They interspersed the very harsh realities of their experiences with humour, optimism and hope – epitomised by their beautiful unified singing throughout and involvement of audience members in a thought-provoking ‘game’, exploring the various identities and judgments that we all carry within us.

Obstacles to freedom and independence

Challenging, innovative and incredibly creative, the Lal Bhatti Express sought to change perspectives through sharing their own powerful life narratives and educating spectators on the experiences of sex workers and their daughters in Mumbai. One scene showed multiple state actors, for instance in health care, the police, education establishments, housing officers and employers, refusing to help these women due to the stigma attached to their backgrounds and long-standing preconceptions about the red-light district. This crucially displayed the numerous barriers acting against individuals associated with sex work and showcased how many obstacles these women had to break through in order to move away from their pasts, move on with their lives and realise a future full of opportunity.

Breaking down barriers

It was inspiring to see how all these young women had overcome these obstacles and realised their full potential. Some of the performers had gone on to study in America and were amongst the first women from their community to do so – for example, one young woman had already completed her undergraduate studies in New York and the other is due to start studying Psychology in Los Angeles this September. During the Q&A session, the young women explained how Kranti had helped them overcome such adversity, not just by getting them out of the brothels but by opening up a world of opportunity which has allowed them to express themselves freely as individuals creatively, intellectually and socially. This has helped them to flourish into confident young women who now wish to articulate their experiences of abuse to educate audiences across the world and to use art as a means of sharing their stories.

The young women also explained how they often perform in surrounding communities and other red-light areas in India, in an attempt to reach out and inspire other women have not yet been able to escape from sexual violence and exploitation. They said they have always been received positively and warmly wherever they have performed, as women watching have found the Lal Bhatti Express instils them with hope for their own futures. One performer highlighted that it is unfortunate there are not more NGOs like Kranti in India which specifically help young women escape brothels during their teenage years. She explained that other NGOs usually help young children by removing them from brothels and rehousing them in local hostels. However, once young girls become teenagers, they are sent back to live with their mothers, at an age where they are particularly vulnerable and at risk of being forced into sex work. This is extremely damaging to their development and ability to then live independent lives, as they feel tainted by their backgrounds. One woman explained that when she has made housing applications in India, she has concealed the fact she used to be a sex worker as this would have been an immediate reason for refusal. Sex workers are one of the most marginalised and vulnerable groups in India and therefore projects like the Lal Bhatti Express are seeking to change social perceptions, to erode the stigma and discrimination associated with sex workers and their children and eventually provide equal opportunities for all.

About Kranti NGO

Kranti wants to ensure that girls from red-light areas have access to education, training and opportunities to enable them to become leaders of the future. They do so through six main programmes – therapy, education, extra-curricular activities, social justice, workshops and theatre, and travel. Kranti believes that young women from these areas could become especially accomplished agents of social change due to their life experiences, which has equipped them with the resilience, innovation and compassion to inspire many others. It was clear from the Lal Bhatti Express performance these young women are already doing so with their optimism, vibrancy and ambition.

How you can support the project

If you would like to support the continued work of the Lal Bhatti Express and Kranti, please donate via their website.

 The ‘Lal Bhatti Express’ will also be performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival at St John’s Church, Princes Street, EH2 4BJ on August 5, 8, 9, 11, 12, 15 and 16 2017. Full details of how to purchase tickets can be found on the Edinburgh Film Festival website.

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