“My mother was a huge fan of dancing,” Sheetal Jain tells me over the phone, “She used to love dancing during Ganpati festivals.” I hear the same vivacity in Jain’s voice as she talks about how she discovered her love for the drums, currently she works as a facilitator at Taal, an organisation that allows her to do drum circles, but before we go into how she discovered her passion, it’s important to acknowledge how Sheetal got there. Sheetal was a daughter of a bar dancer-turned-sex worker, and had a life that led her to move from many hostels and NGOs in order to get education. Her triumphs in securing a scholarship to go abroad and study the drums is far more incredible when you look at her life story, especially one marred by sexual assault. Her mother’s occupation was only the catalyst in a life that shows promise.
“My mother fell in love with my father when she was 13 and got married. I was born shortly after, but we realised that he was already married to someone else.” A little after that, Sheetal’s mother left her father and moved into Mumbai’s notorious red light district, Kamathipura, where she began her life as a bar dancer. Unfortunately, with the closure of dance bars and cabarets, Sheetal’s mother was soon left out of work and with little to no options, she turned to sex work.
Sheetal’s life was a bit peripatetic there on in, bouncing between NGOs and schools — one day she was a second grader, then a fourth grader, only to be put back in the third grade. Studying became a challenge for her, as with no official birth certificate, traditional enrollment in schools became a hassle. While her mother worked, Sheetal was taken care of by her grandmother, and soon, Sheetal’s mother found a new man in her life, one that Sheetal herself grew quite fond of. Her stepfather treated her like one of his own, making sure she got into a few hostels and NGOs to encourage her education.
Her stepfather would often come pick her up from her hostels; one of which was in Goa, another in Jabalpur, but he made sure not to take her home directly, often taking her to a lodge before bringing her into Kamathipura. It was one of these excursions that Sheetal was first sexually abused. “I honestly don’t know what happened, I just remembered waking up without any clothes on.” This marked a period of confusion for Sheetal, who saw her stepfather as a surrogate father figure. He gave her a last name, a place to stay and treated her like his own daughter. “He gave me the same amount of love as my brother.” However, it happened again on a trip back from a hostel. “This time, I don’t know whether to use the word, but it was definitely rape. As a child, I reacted as any other child would and just took it. I was around 8 or 9 but I knew it was wrong. I justified it by telling myself that my father was loving me, that that was the way of showing love. I was asleep and he was touching me and I didn’t realize it was wrong till he suddenly jolted from bed and told me to put my clothes on and that’s when I realized something was wrong. He used to be quite affectionate with me and put me on his lap but I distanced myself from him after that.”
“At the time, my mother and I didn’t bond much. We didn’t share anything with each other and I felt like I had no one to rely on growing up. I had friends but they weren’t that close, and besides, we wouldn’t have talked about that kind of stuff anyway. So I kept it to myself,” she adds. I ask her if her relationship with mother has improved since then and she lights up. “Now we’re much better. One time I used to resent her because my education went for a toss and I was between schools. There was a lot of anger there.” This change she credits the NGO Kranti, which she joined in 2012.
“Kranti gave me therapy and a way to heal. It’s an NGO dedicated to children of sex workers, so I was able to meet with people who were like-minded and understood what I went through. After therapy, I was able to get rid of a lot of the anger.” After meeting with a personal counsellor, Sheetal was able to let go of her anger and her past, forging a path to forgiveness with her mother. Kranti was also able to forge a path for her education, where she was able to complete her lost years.
We now broach the subject of her drums. I’m curious to know exactly how she discovered that passion. “I was a little girl when I used to hear them play the drums at Ganpathi celebrations. I didn’t know I could ever do it or that it could be a dream. I always thought it was something that the boys would do, I had no idea girls could be a part of it, so when they asked me at Kranti what I’d like to do, I just said drums!” After practicing at jam sessions with Kranti, she got a half-scholarship to study for a year in Washington D.C.
She soon returned to Kranti after her stint in the US. She joined the theatre program at Kranti, as they often put on plays. “Kranti had even put on a play in the US that I was a part of,” she adds. “After I came back to India, I had no idea what to do, but Robin Didi (Founder of Kranti) had a company called Taal, I had workshopped with them and done a drum circle facilitator training session. I did an 8 month internship at Taal in Pune, but now they have started to pay me as a facilitator. Although I don’t really care about the payment, I just really want to learn and do more. What I want in the future is for my friends Shweta, Kavita and I to start a cafe in the red light area, where people like us who didn’t have opportunities have a way to express themselves creatively in a live venue, something like Social at Khar. People who previously used to bar dance or do mujras can now have the space to work here instead.”
I ask her what she plans to do about drums outside of her drum circle sessions, will she start a band? Maybe be a future rockstar? She responds shyly “I’m not that good yet! But maybe some day! In the US, we had regular band practice and I had bandmates, but here I’m still looking for people to collaborate with.” I end the interview with what her plans in the future are. “I haven’t seen the world yet, and me and my friends haven’t settled down so there’s still plenty to do, and plenty that I want to do.” On that positive note, we conclude the interview. If you’re already inspired by Sheetal, we suggest you take a look at some other talks she’s given below.
Video Courtesy of Ditto TV.
Watch Sheetal’s Drum Work here.
Feature Image Courtesy of Milaap.org