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Reclaiming Arts, Breaking Barriers: Lutfa And Mousumi’s Journey Towards Change

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The story of gender empowerment in India is not a particularly happy one. Gender discrimination pervades all levels of society, women’s rights continue to be denied through social, cultural and political instruments which normalize their exploitation and commodification. Most girls suffer life-long vulnerability and face adverse consequences for non-compliance to social norms.

My experience of working in rural India suggests that the strongest factors working against women’s empowerment are rooted in their own family values and expectations, lack of education, and lack of economic independence. All these create a vicious cycle of subjugation that perpetuates through generations.

But through my work with Banglanatak dot com, a national NGO using culture for sustainable and inclusive community development, I have also encountered individuals who have fought to overcome these obstacles.

This article is based on the life of two such young underprivileged rural women from different regions of West Bengal whose life stories can inspire greater change and thus need to be told.

Mousumi Chaudhury’s Story: First Girl In Her Community To Join Chau Training

Women’s rights under the Constitution of India include equality, dignity, and freedom from discrimination. However, India’s progress towards ensuring these rights has been far from encouraging. Crimes and injustices against women are on the rise, and traditional institutions that have historically sanctioned the subordination of women remain as strong as ever.

At the same time, there are exceptional young women who have dared to live as they chose, and whose life stories can surely motivate other women to strive.

This article is the second in a series of three such stories of young underprivileged rural women from different regions of West Bengal who were supported by Banglanatak dot com, a national NGO using culture for sustainable and inclusive community development.

Mousumi Chaudhury, now 25 years old, was born in the remote Maldi village in Purulia to a family practising Chau.

Image provided by the author.

Purulia Chau is a traditional martial arts-based masked dance form of Purulia. From a very young age, Mousumi had seen her father, Jagannath Chaudhury (a renowned Chau performer) and his team go out to perform overnight in local Chau-dance events. When they returned, they would discuss their performances, compare skill levels, and plan for upcoming shows. Mousumi did not understand much but liked listening to them.

Her grandfather would also tell her folk tales and mythological stories, the most common themes for Chau dance-dramas, which would transport the little girl into a world of unfettered imagination.

When she grew a little older, studying in class IV, her grandfather took her to watch a show for the first time where her father was performing. At night, amid a thick audience and dazzling floodlights, she excitedly waited for her father’s entry. When his name was announced two characters entered the arena – Lord Karthik and Lord Ganesha! They were dressed in godly attire and ornaments, and their huge masks with glittering headgears reinforced their divine presence.

Mousumi looked at them in awe having no idea where her father was, as she had believed until then that the Gods come down from heaven to perform at Chau drama and return to heaven after their performance! Once her grandfather explained to her, she was mesmerized by her father’s performance and fell in love with this age-old folk form. At home, she would often observe her father’s rehearsals and try out Chau steps on her own.

Puralia Chau, a dance form. Photo: Dance N Inspire

Once she insisted on washing her father’s Chau costume and came to know of the many parts of the outfit including the necessary embellishments and ornaments and their names. She was further drawn into the nuances of the form.

After a few years, Banglanatak dot com came to work in their village. When they initiated regular training workshops for young local boys to learn from community masters of the art form, Mousumi found her calling and became the first girl in her community ever to join Chau training. Following her example, a few other girls joined as well. Mousumi’s father supported her and taught the group giving equal attention to boys and girls.

Even though she had her parents’ support, the elders in the village did not welcome this shift in their tradition and insisted that girls should focus on their traditional roles. Such normative opinions instead of restricting her increased her determination to excel.

Her days became busier as she would balance school and studies, providing tuitions to smaller children, and practising Chau dance stringently, hoping to make it her career. More social hindrances and stigma arose as she started going out of the village to perform at events with the women’s group that she led.

In her words, “People believe that women are incapable of achieving their goals. As a woman, they wanted me to abandon such high aspirations, for I shall be unable to meet those. But my vision is different. I believe that women are not only capable of accomplishing daunting tasks but can also excel in them.”

Her dreams were boundless, and her courage took her forward. She finished college, started teaching Chau dance to women in other villages, and travelled beyond village boundaries with her identity as a Dancer to national and international events.

Her mother was happy but her father never expressed his happiness. Rather, he played the role of a teacher/ ‘Guru’ continuously pushing Mousumi to do better and excel in Chau dance. After becoming financially independent, she married a person of her choice.

Being a Classical dancer himself, her husband understands and supports her career and passion. She won the Grand Prize for Young Practitioner, as part of the 2019 Asia-Pacific Storytelling Contest by ICHCAP (The International Information and Networking Centre for Intangible Cultural Heritage under the auspices of UNESCO).

However, not everything in her career has been rosy.

She had got an opportunity in 2017 to perform Chau dance in a Bollywood movie based on a Woman Chau dancer. It was special for her because she was the first woman to break the myth that Purulia Chau is essentially a male dance. The film crew had come to her village to shoot Mousumi and her women team’s performance, making the whole village proud, who had gathered to applaud her!

The scene constituted Mousumi performing and then opening her mask to reveal that she is a woman. When the movie was released and Mousumi went to watch it with her father, she found that after her dance as she takes off the mask, the person behind it is not her but the female star of the film.

Dismayed by this deception, she waited to find her name in the acknowledgements at the end of the movie, but there weren’t any. She felt humiliated and betrayed. This exploitation, however, could not put her down but made her stronger to reclaim her identity and rights as a professional Purulia Chau dancer.

She has been a source of strength inspiring other girls to take charge of their own lives. She is currently planning to do higher studies on the history and evolution of Chau dance at Sidho-Kanho-Birsha University in Purulia, where she also occasionally teaches as a part-time teacher. She hopes to establish an academic course on Chau for all interested learners and build opportunities to access knowledge and training by other aspiring girls.

Story Of Lutfa Sultana

Women in rural India indicates that young girls are mainly pushed into a life of exploitation and suffering by their own families fraught with fear of social stigma and ostracism if they do not comply with the normative frameworks of patriarchy. However, there are still exceptional women who refuse to follow the socially permissible path and break free from misogyny, by their own worth.

This story is the third in a series on three young underprivileged rural women from different regions of West Bengal who were supported by Banglanatak dot com, a national NGO using culture for sustainable and inclusive community development.

Lutfa Sultana aka Rini was born in a rural Muslim family, where from an early age she saw her mother Lovely being ill-treated, especially after her father suffered brain damage and lost his job.

Eventually, Lovely was thrown out by her family, and she returned to her parents’ village Nanoor in Birbhum district of West Bengal with her three daughters. Rini started growing up with her mother, sisters and grandmother. Their traditional skill was making Kantha (a centuries-old tradition of patchwork stitching to make quilts for daily use in eastern India, which evolved into an embroidery craft).

Image provided by the author.

Rini’s grandmother would finish one piece of Kantha quilt overnight in the light of an oil lamp and sell those to local agents at very nominal prices. Lovely also made Katha for selling, but due to lack of regular markets and demands, she took up tailoring work which she believed would give more consistent income and earned rupees 10-20 per day.

Rini started learning handiwork from her grandmother and became extremely good at it. Her grandmother also motivated Rini to study. Although illiterate herself, she would take Rini to her maternal home where the younger generations were getting an education, to motivate Rini to do the same. She would also borrow books from various people or children studying in private schools and bring those for Rini to read and learn from.

Though both her mother and grandmother always emphasized the importance of education for a good life, Rini could not silently watch them suffer, and to reduce their economic burden, she took up Kantha assignments secretly. She would work in school after classes to finish orders. For a whole month’s work, she earned only Rs 80/- which she gave to her mother to buy her schoolbooks and pay for her education.

Kantha Art. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Though her mother was happy, she did not like Rini’s education being compromised. But Rini was determined and assured her family that she would do both with equal commitment and not neglect her education. As her Kantha work was exquisite, her mother agreed to bring small orders for her when available. When she was sixteen, there was an attempt to marry her, but she rejected the idea and refused the proposals.

Days passed with grit and courage until it was time for Rini’s elder sister to be married. Her dowry required significant loans and pawning whatever gold they had. To address their dwindling finances, Lovely decided to sell her kidney and made her daughter her guardian in the paperwork. Rini, then in her teens, could not come to terms with such an extreme step but endured the pain silently.

During this time, Lovely got an opportunity for the first time from the local government to attend a handicraft fair in Goa. She went with her Kantha work upon the insistence of the local officials. This marked a turning point in their lives as she earned a considerable profit there. She felt convinced that she could take their traditional Kantha work forward to earn a living and repay all her loans.

It was around this time that Banglanatak dot com intervened, offering workshops and market outreach to the Kantha artists, and Lovely grabbed the opportunity. Rini, studying in high school at the time, insisted on showing her work to the NGO’s design team. With some reluctance, they decided to give Rini one small sampling work without much hope but were pleasantly surprised. Rini started receiving orders from urban markets and gradually built her own network.

Her first trip to Kolkata was like a dream and there was no turning back. She has since gone to NIFT to teach and has travelled internationally to showcase her work. Throughout her college and graduation studies, she continued her Kantha work and grew as a young entrepreneur helping her mother in her business. Her creative skills along with her education gave her an edge over others to establish herself in the market, and she has been earning an average of Rs 20,000 per month.

Photo: Rural Craft Hub Nanoor Birbhum

“The kanthas I sew are not just pieces of cloth. They are my dreams and aspirations sewn together. When I look back at my journey, I feel proud of my success and the respect that I have earned for myself and my mother. Women always go through several hurdles, but I think that our determination and effort can help us survive. It is our courage which helps us sail through,” shared Rini.

Today, Rini is married to a family who encourages her to work, aspire and dream. However, she has also been the victim of cynicism and social stigma when she stepped out of her village for exhibitions for the first time. Many tried to shatter her morale, but her mother supported her and told her not to pay attention to what others are saying but to move forward confidently. At the age of 27, she is financially independent, an entrepreneur and thinking of building her own exclusive brand.

Rini feels grateful for her mother’s selfless dedication towards preparing her for a happy future. Lovely is a proud mother today who always narrates Rini’s journey to success.

I never wanted my daughter to go through the hardships of life that I had to face. I made sure that she went to school and college. I am a proud mother today because my daughter is promoting the heritage of our community- Kantha with such elan. She is not only good at her craft but a social entrepreneur providing income opportunities to several other women.  At times, I feel she is everything that my younger self wanted to be but couldn’t be due to the circumstances. Today, I live my dreams through her,” shared a proud Lovely.

Rini’s determination, courage and ability to think have led her to unprecedented success today. Her life story not only shows her own indomitable spirit but also illustrates how cultural rootedness builds self-confidence and self-esteem leading to independent identity development, a thread that she shares with the two other women whose stories have been published earlier.

This article has been written by Madhura Dutta from West Bengal for Charkha Features.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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