"It is the largest festival of Bengalis and when the rest of the city is celebrating why should we be left out? So, we decided that we should have our own puja pandal this time," Bharati Dey of Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Samiti (DMSC), who works for the rights of sex workers, told PTI here.
But the sex workers ran into difficulty when the Kolkata Police did not allow the pandal which would encroach on a portion of the foothpath. The sex workers challenged this in the Calcutta High Court and received permission to go ahead with the puja.
"We had a budget of Rs 2 lakh," Dey said. Around 7000 sex workers of Sonagachi, Asia's largest red light district in north Kolkata, contributed Rs 20 each while volunteers also contributed.
"We are following all the religious rituals. One of our staff who is a Brahmin agreed to conduct the puja. We also hired two 'dhakis' (drummers)," said the activist.
A six-feet high Durga idol has been procured for worship during the four day festival which begins from today.
With the festive mood gripping Sonagachi, sex workers from other red light areas at Kalighat, Titagarh and Domjur have been flocking to the pandal to get a glimpse of the goddess. "This is a big moral boost for all of them as they were never entertained at puja pandals. They are coming to participate in the puja even from the districts," Smarajit Jana of DMSS said.
On Ashtami, the second day of the pujas, the Sonagachi residents would offer 'anjali' to Durga, a privilege almost none of the sex workers received earlier.
'Prasad' would also be distributed to all sex workers in the area. 'Komalgandha', the cultural wing of DMSC comprising the children of sex workers, is organising cultural performances to showcase their talent in dance, drama and music. Sex workers say the puja has also left their clients surprised.
"Since the puja season is a holiday so the rush increases in brothels here. One of our regular clients even visited the pandal as he was very surprised to see what was going on," said a 26-year-old sex worker. Jana said, however, that sex workers are still facing resistance from local people around Sonagachi for organising such events.
"For us organising this puja is a means of empowering sex workers and ensure that they enjoy equal rights as other citizens," he said.
From next year, sex workers in a few other red-light areas in Kolkata and elsewhere in the state are also planning to have their own community puja pandals.