Profiling 5 Ex-Sex Workers Training To Be Hairstylists At Sapna Bhavnani’s ‘Paathshala’ [Interviews + Photos]

Class had already begun when we walked into the Pathshaala. Seven women were snipping and clipping away at the mannequin heads they each use for vocational training. It’s a wonderful sight in and of itself to watch women take their lives into their own hands and develop skills that could ensure their livelihood without dependency; but these seven women have more to gain from this than most. Run by renowned hairstylist Sapna Bhavnani, who’s developed a reputation for empowering women across varied socio-economic backgrounds, this group is a mix of women from marginalised communities and ex-sex workers of Mumbai that are being taught a new trade–hairstyling. “The mannequin heads have become their best friends, it’s who they learn and grow with,” Sapna tells us. “I even made them give them names.”

Amidst all the chatter and excitement, what remains is complete concentration on their work, as their instructor Karishma tells us they have a competition going on, the person who gets done with the cut and drying first gets a chocolate. But, it’s more than just about chocolate, as we start interacting with the women we learn a little more about them, not of about their days of sex work–that’s been left in the past and should not define the course of their future. Their complete focus is on moving forward, on making the most of the spectacular opportunity they have here, learning from Karishma and Sapna as they strive for financial independence with a new vocation, and a better way of life.

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Pathshaala is run by Sapna Bhavnani in collaboration with the Apne Aap Women’s Collective (AAWC), a non-profit working towards anti-trafficking. They all come from different walks of life, yet their stories are strikingly similar. Once class had ended, they were more at ease as they slowly started packing up and each got ready for their photoshoot. With constant joking-around and a giggle here and there, the bond they all had with each other was clear; while one would answer our questions, the others would stand nearby coaxing, troubling and poking fun, all in good spirit. A recent visit from a certain ‘Pavan sir’ created quite a stir and it was evident that the excitement surrounding his trip hadn’t died down yet, as they all had a story to tell about him.

We caught up with the women post class to capture portraits of their new, beaming selves and learn a little more about who they are, and how they feel about themselves today. Pathshaala will soon be hosting an array of vocational courses, including healthy cooking and candle-making, if you’d like to offer your own services, have suggestions, or would like a little more information about Pathshaala, you can reach out to Sapna.

[Note to readers--four women were completely comfortable with having their identity shown, while three others preferred to keep theirs only partially revealed. In keeping with their wishes, and respecting their personal interests, we have shot them accordingly] 

I. Name: Rani
Age: 27
Mannequin’s name: Rani Mukherjee (written in Bengali)

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What have you enjoyed learning the most at the academy? I have the most fun when I am cutting hair, I absolutely love styling it. I enjoy in-curl and out-curl blow-dry, but if I have to pick only one then definitely hair-styling.

Happiest memory in your life? I’m happiest here at the academy. My life is good now, I’m learning so much. Earlier, in the past…I had no interest in anything..now I learn so much, I’ve been given a chance to learn something new that’ll help me get a new job..I don’t want to think about the past, just that I am happy here and now.

If you had to dye your hair a really bright colour, which one would it be? Oh no! I would never colour my hair no matter what! Green is my favourite colour and if you ask me about clothes then I would have said that, but never my hair! Black is the best.

 Name one person who inspires you greatly and why? My husband has always supported me alot. I have two children, and right now he’s back in our village on his own with them. He works but he also takes care of them very well, and if it wasn’t for him then I don’t think I would be able to be here right now. He inspires me to push on and keep going even when it’s difficult.

What do you like most about yourself? My determination. Earlier I didn’t like anything so I didn’t want to do anything, but now I’ve become a lot more hardworking. This is what I want to do, I’ve learnt so much here and  now I’m not going to give up.

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II. Name: Kavita
Age: 30
Mannequin’s name: Devyani

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What have you enjoyed learning the most at the academy? It’s difficult but I really love cutting hair.

Happiest memory in your life? I don’t like talking about the past, I’m happy here.

If you had to dye your hair a really bright colour, which one would it be? Maroon.

Name one person who inspires you greatly and why? [Kavita chose not to answer the question]

What do you like most about yourself? I’m hardworking, whatever the task may be I always give it my best…I like that.

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III. Name: Shruti
Age: 28
Mannequin’s name: Deepika

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What have you enjoyed learning the most at the academy? I love blow-drying hair. You can use so many different styles.

Happiest memory in your life? My wedding day.

If you had to dye your hair a really bright colour, which one would it be? Red, it looks so good!

Name one person who inspires you greatly and why? My husband, he’s so loving and supporting, he doesn’t judge me at all. He encourages all my bad habits! My life completely changed after I met him and we got married.

What do you like most about yourself? I am a very free and happy-go-lucky person. I can make people feel comfortable very easily, I think that’s important.

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IV. Name: Neelam
Age: 23
Mannequin’s name: Disha

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What have you enjoyed learning the most at the academy? Here I learnt that there is so much you can do with hair, I liked learning how to shape and style it differently.

Happiest memory in your life? I’ve been happy since I started coming here. It was so nice when Pavan sir came and taught us…he told us so many new things, about healthy hair and the proteins…I learnt many new things.

If you had to dye your hair a really bright colour, which one would it be? Red

Name one person who inspires you greatly and why? Divya, my daughter. She gives me strength and support when she doesn’t even realise she’s doing it.

What do you like most about yourself? Everything!

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V. Name: Lalita
Age: 25
Mannequin’s name: Lalita

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What have you enjoyed learning the most at the academy? I love curling hair

Happiest memory in your life? Every time I’m in class, even when I get to spend time with my friends I am happy. Past is in the past.

If you had to dye your hair a really bright colour, which one would it be? Light gold

Name one person who inspires you greatly and why? Everyone in my family, I can’t pick one person. They’ve always been there for me when I need them. Even when things were bad we still managed to get along and be there for each other in some way.

What do you like most about yourself? I’m very good at puting make up, I love it. My friends make me do theirs all the time.

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Widening our scope in the group we turned to Pinky and Ashwani, two women who come from a different background than the rest. The friendship these two women have with the rest of the group is clearly strong, free of judgement and prejudice. They’ve all had their own hardships, and for them it’s not about who they were in the past anymore, they’re all together here today.

VI. Name: Pinky
Age: 25
Mannequin’s name: Pinky [She told us she named the doll after herself because she is her own favourite person and best friend.]

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What have you enjoyed learning the most at the academy? I have so much fun blow-drying hair, you can do it in so many ways.

Happiest memory in your life? My birthday. [We asked which one in particular] All of them! I’m always happy on my birthday, everyone comes together, we go out and have fun, and I get to be the center of attention!

If you had to dye your hair a really bright colour, which one would it be? Red

Name one person who inspires you greatly and why? My mother has more strength than anyone can even imagine. She’s been through so much herself and she tried to do the best she could for her family. I try to do the same as well.

What do you like most about yourself? I have a very good sense of style. I love dressing up and deciding other people’s outfits. 

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VII. Name: Ashwani
Age: 20
Mannequin’s name: Ashwani

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What have you enjoyed learning the most at the academy? Blow-drying is my favourite thing we’ve done till now. It looks quick and simple but it really isn’t.

Happiest memory in your life? The time I get to spend with my family is what all my happy memories are made of. We don’t get to see each other that often, so when we do I really make the most of it.

If you had to dye your hair a really bright colour, which one would it be? Blue

Name one person who inspires you greatly and why? My siblings, both my brother and sister. They’re both very different people, they see things and act in different ways from each other but when I need them they’re both always there for me.

What do you like most about yourself? My hair

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We’ve posted below a few images from our time spent at Pathshaala with all these lovely women. Scroll on to get a better sense of the space and their lessons.

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Words: Sara Hussain

All Images By Karan Khosla (@thekhos)

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