In the midst of the grandeur and festivities of Durga Puja in Kolkata, there lies a poignant tale that connects the celestial Goddess Durga with the marginalized sex workers of Sonagachi, Kolkata's largest red-light district.
Why is it essential to share this narrative, you might ask? It's because Maa Durga symbolizes enlightenment and the triumph over ignorance, and our celebration of this divine goddess in her nine distinct forms cannot truly commence without acknowledging the untold significance of their story. This, I believe, is our collective responsibility.
Durga Puja in Kolkata is not merely a festival; it is an expression of the city's very soul, or as Bengalis fondly put it, "Pujo is not just a puja but emotion." It's a time when the "City of Joy," Kolkata, transforms into a kaleidoscope of colours, lights, and artistic splendour. At the heart of this celebration is the homecoming of Maa Durga, the celestial goddess, to her earthly abode.
As the people of Kolkata gather to revel in the vibrant atmosphere and the annual return of their goddess, there's one aspect that often goes unnoticed, and it extends beyond the boundaries of Kolkata.
This oversight pertains to a significant element that we, as a society, have been consistently neglecting. But before we delve into this, let's first understand the customs and origin of Durga Puja.
The picturesque neighbourhood of Kumartuli in Kolkata undergoes a dramatic transformation in the months leading up to Durga Puja. Its quaint streets and alleys come alive with bustling activity as a community of skilled artisans and idol makers collaborates to give life to the ten-armed goddess and her divine family, sculpting them from clay in preparation for the impending festivities.
These talented artisans, known as 'kumars,' are the masterminds behind the exquisite 'chinmayi' or clay idols, which, through rigorous ceremonies performed by priests during the five-day Durga Puja festival, are sanctified into 'mrinmoyi deities.
The journey of these clay idols commences with the clay itself, collected from various locations, including the banks of the Hooghly River near Uluberia, a small village near Kolkata. The clay from this region is highly prized for its suitability in crafting these exquisite works of art. However, the significance of this process goes beyond just clay.
In Hindu tradition, four essential elements are crucial for the creation of Goddess Durga's idol: clay from Ganga's banks, cow dung, cow urine, and soil from 'Nishiddho Pallis,' or regions outside brothels.
The use of soil from these 'forbidden' lanes is a captivating aspect of the ritual. This sacred soil, known as 'punya mati,' is believed to carry a special blessing. In the past, priests collected it, but nowadays, it is gathered by the idol maker many months before the celebrations.
According to this belief, when individuals venture into the lanes associated with desires and transgressions, they symbolically leave behind their virtues and piety at the doorstep, entering a realm of different human experiences. In this context, the soil from 'Nishiddho Pallis' is seen as sanctified, having absorbed the virtues of countless individuals who have temporarily shed their worldly inhibitions and moral boundaries.
Another intriguing facet of Durga Puja is rooted in Vedic culture and centers around the worship of the Navkanyas, or nine categories of women. Among these categories are a dancer/actress, a prostitute, a laundry girl, a Brahmin girl, a shudra, and a milkmaid.
According to this concept, worshipping the ten-armed goddess, Durga, remains incomplete without recognizing her various feminine personas. The act of collecting soil from 'Nishiddho Pallis' can be seen as a gesture to incorporate marginalized and outcast individuals into the fabric of autumnal festivals.
However, the irony lies in the fact that sex workers have never been allowed inside the Durga Puja pandals or anywhere near the idol. This raises significant questions about the contradictions within society's treatment of women.
It is imperative to acknowledge that many women enter the profession of prostitution due to systemic inequalities and the objectification of women by a male-dominated society.
Selectively acknowledging these women during Durga Puja, only to marginalize and silence them for the rest of the year, reflects a broader issue of society's tendency to compartmentalize and suppress stigmatized individuals.
We may dare to ask for their soil, but we seldom dare to include them as an integral part of our society. Sex workers are treated as if their presence would defile the pandal and render it unsuitable for Puja.
As a consequence of this ongoing exclusion, Sonagachi's sex workers have refrained from offering their soil for years.
Bharti De, the mentor and advisor of the Sex Workers’ Association Durbar Samonoy Committee, pointed out, “Durga’s idol is made from the clay of the sex worker’s courtyard, the event is held with their donations, but when the sex workers want to go to the Durga pandal, they are not allowed to enter. The question is that if our soil is sacred, our money is sacred, and the body consumed by so-called civilized men in the dark of the night is sacred, then why are we considered profane?”
The Sex Workers' Association Durbar Samonay Committee, established in 1995, holds a significant place in the history of India's sex worker community. This organization, comprising exclusively of sex workers, has advocated for the rights, dignity, and welfare of people involved in the trade.
Since 2017, they have even started organizing their own Durga Puja, aiming to shed light on the hypocrisy of a culture that simultaneously venerates a goddess and marginalizes her earthly counterparts by distancing them from a widely celebrated festival.
“We are not permitted to enter the pandal of the Durga idol, which is created from our courtyard's soil. So, why would we offer our courtyard for the ceremonial demands of a society that calls us profane, the emblem of evil, and maleficent?” questioned Reshma Kumari, a sex worker from Sonagachi.
Sonagachi is home to over 50,000 commercial sex workers, and some sources suggest that the number of unregistered sex workers could be as high as 1.35 lakhs. Considering these numbers, it is inhumane to exclude approximately two lakh individuals from a celebration when they play such a pivotal role.
Sonagachi's status as Asia's largest red-light district is not a title to be proud of. According to the Ministry of Women and Child Development reports, around 20,000 women and girls are trafficked for sexual exploitation in West Bengal annually.
These women are more likely to become victims of heinous crimes such as rape, violence, abuse, murder, and fatal sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS, compared to the general population. They have limited access to medical assistance, and most assaults go unnoticed.
Numerous films and documentaries have attempted to shed light on the predicament and daily struggles of Sonagachi's sex workers. Born into Brothels: Calcutta's Red Light Kids, a documentary directed by Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman, even won the Oscar for Best Documentary in 2005. Alia Bhatt recently received the National Film Award for her role in Gangubai Kathiawadi, where she portrayed a sex worker, further highlighting their ongoing battle.
When Gangubai asked, “Why are we treated this way? Why are we regarded as outcasts of society if we do not discriminate?” it became apparent that, as a society, we had failed to fulfil our obligations to this community.
Evidently, these women's plight is a direct result of a patriarchal society. What's praiseworthy is that we have chosen to keep them out of the spotlight during our celebrations rather than taking responsibility for their circumstances. We continue to exploit them, not just for our physical desires but also for our religious and spiritual needs.
However, we fail to acknowledge their rights and their existence and provide them with the credit they deserve. We label their children as Abhodro (shameless) and ourselves as Bhodro (Dignified), even though the men of our so-called dignified society obstruct their paths.
This raises a critical question: if individuals in our society leave their virtues at the doorstep of a sex worker, how are we any more dignified than them? If we are ignorant, can they truly be the only ones tainted with evil? It's a question that calls for deep reflection and change.