Mary Ellen Mark, chronicler of society’s sad underbellies, died last month, aged 75. An ugly world she photographed limps on.
Altamont and Falkland Roads are just a couple of miles away from one another in downtown Bombay. However, they seemed to belong to different worlds. Magnates, celebrities, and ambassadors live in the upscale residential neighborhood around Altamont Road. Less exulted is the area around Falkland Road, known as Kamathipura, one of the largest red-light districts in the world. Frequented by lower classes since the days of British rule, the area remains a brutal epicenter of abuse, exploitation, and sex trafficking even in independent India. Laws and diktats of the authorities stopped outside the so-called Fuckland’s labyrinthine network of brothels, warrens, and cages.
To this world arrived Mary Ellen Mark in 1968. She would go on to become a humanistic portrayer of the society’s harsher corners — street-gangs, runaway children, psychiatric patients — and the scenes she witnessed in Bombay haunted her and she kept returning to document the district in a book that The New York Times called, “intimate but not bawdy, sad but not damning, and more seductive in its passionate mix of colors than in its offerings of flesh”.
Viewed as an interloping foreigner, she was unwelcome and the reception was downright hostile. She remembered: “Each time met with hostility and aggression. The women threw garbage and water and pinched me. Crowds of men would gather around me. Once a pickpocket took my address book; another time I was hit in the face by a drunken man. Needless to say, I never managed to take very good photographs.” But she persevered and during a visit in October 1978, stayed in the district for two months, befriending prostitutes, pimps, madams, and transvestites alike.
That project, released as Falkland Road: Prostitutes of Bombay, was a haunting chronicle of abject lives. Girls were kidnapped from their families in rural villages. Desperate families who didn’t want female offsprings sold them off to brothels. Pimps preyed on young and attractive beggargirls. Girls as young as thirteen were forced into prostitution, and into cages to prevent them from escaping. Neglect — and worse fates — beckoned children born to prostitutes within the district. Photos, taken in vivid colors in dramatic contrast from Mark’s black-and-white usual, showed filthy mattresses surrounded by filthier walls.
Many others followed Mark’s footsteps to document the district (see a great modern expose here). The area had survived to this day, although many whose lives Mark documented didn’t, as AIDS took its toll in the following decade. Due to increased awareness, international aid organizations were allowed to set up anti-trafficking shelters and children’s homes. There are estimated 20,000 sex workers in Kamathipura today — although down for its dizzying heights (of 50,000) in the 1990s. Now the area is overlooked by gleaming skyscrapers, and the area’s recent redevelopment plans mean Kamathipura’s days might be numbered. However, the unholy network of pimps, madams, and traffickers will simply move somewhere else, with their cages and virgin auctions.
(Most of the photos from the book are on her website here).