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A commercial sex worker at her brothel in Kamathipura
A commercial sex worker at her brothel in Kamathipura

The changing face of Kamathipura

A photographer documents the transformation of Mumbai's oldest red-light district

When Mumbai photographer Sudharak Olwe first went to Mumbai’s oldest red-light district, Kamathipura, in 1990 on an assignment for a daily newspaper, the scene seemed to be straight out of a Bollywood film, with flashy lights, narrow lanes, women wearing gaudy saris and blingy jewellery waiting for customers, and pimps driving bargains.

Today, the area wears a different look, with new factories and buildings. “Now the whole area is decentralized, more so after the police crackdown, and non-governmental organizations’ intervention during the late 1990s. Even the sex workers are much more aware now; they have high aspirations and use mobile phones, and wear jeans. Although the pain and misery and the living conditions remain bad, the transformation is quite stark," says 48-year-old Olwe, who is exhibiting 35 images in an exhibition, 11th Lane, Kamathipura, from a collection of thousands of photographs he has taken over the years.

Marathi writer Namdeo Dhasal’s poems in the book Golpitha, about the area and plight of sex workers, inspired Olwe to take up the subject and photograph it whenever possible. Since then he has documented the women, their lovers, the pimps, the landscape, the buildings, and the lanes. “But this exhibition only has portraits of the women, because the idea is to show them as normal human beings, as somebody’s wife, mother, lover or friend," says Olwe.

From tight close-ups to sex workers sitting on the street, Olwe’s photographs range from the intimate to the anonymous. In one black and white image, a woman sits in a stuffy room staring at the camera with eyebrows arched, leaning against a wall covered with posters of film actors. Another one is a portrait, in colour, of a woman with a meek smile. There are also a few shots of women waiting for customers, seemingly oblivious to the camera. “But the women knew I was there. It was the result of the relationship I have formed with them over the years by going during festivals like Holi and Diwali, or by just talking to them about their lives," says Olwe. He uses a wide-angle lens, since most of the photographs have been taken between 10.30pm and 2.30am.

Although Kamathipura and its sex workers have been documented and photographed numerous times, Olwe feels that not enough has been done to showcase the plight of these women: “You won’t see any startling new facet of the sex workers or the area in my exhibition, but the simple message that the subject needs to be documented again and again, and I intend to do just that."

11th Lane, Kamathipura, 11am-7pm, is on till 26 March at Jehangir Art Gallery, 161, Kala Ghoda (22843989).

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