The Last Dai in Badshapur: A Photo Story

Rosemary Sherrod, accompanied by photographer Kelly Jobe, had the opportunity to document the story of a village dai ('dai' is the Hindi word for midwife) in Badshapur, Gurgaon, India. Badshapur is a village nestled behind the towering buildings that have overtaken Gurgaon's skyline over the past two decades. As the villagers' farmland has been sold off to corporations, their rural way of life has quickly faded away. With the loss of land and influx of wealthy residents, farmers have turned to domestic work and driving to sustain their livelihoods.  

Urbanization has not only affected jobs - it has touched almost every part of their lives. For the dai that we interviewed, it has largely contributed to the dying off of her profession. Childbirth was formerly a practice performed almost exclusively at home, attended by a local dai and the woman's mother-in-law. Now, women are heading to government hospitals where care is often compromised due to understaffing and a lack of resources. For two days, we documented the life of the last living dai in Badshapur - a woman has delivered babies for over 50 years, and carries each of their stories with her.

“I have three brothers and three sisters. My dad was a farmer. We were not educated. We all worked in the field with our father." Ram Rakhi's arranged married took place when she was 11 years of age. She and one of her sisters were “married into the same house,” meaning that they were married to brothers.  Today, both widowed sisters continue to live on the ancestral land of their husband’s family.

Situated between modernity and tradition, 30 to 40 story apartment complexes and the ruins of a medieval fort border Ram Rakhi’s village home. Reflecting on her childhood, she looks at the sky, lit up with lights coming from the high rise buildings and reminisces: “As far as you can see, this used to be fields of wheat and mustard.” With the influence of urbanization, Ram Rakhi knows that her grandchildren might never experience or even remember when everyone in the village worked together to produce their own food.

The only remnant of her ancestral farmland is owned by an outsider, a man whose name she doesn’t even know. Now, these two village women are employed to work 8 hours for $3.00 a day. “We no longer grow our own food but have to go to the market to buy it,” she laments, “and there is no strength in that food.”

“I do all the inside work and all of the outside work. I am not scared of work. I work harder than many of these younger women." We witnessed the truth of these words as we watched her clean, cook, collect water, and care for both her grandchildren and neighboring children. Her advanced years did not exempt her the strenuous tasks of gathering wood or carrying bricks.

“Who taught you midwifery?" I asked. “No one has been my guru. It is a natural gift that God gave me.” As a little girl, she was interested in the midwifery work that her mother’s sister-in-law did. “Like a stubborn child, I would want go with her whenever she was delivering a baby.”

A teacher at heart, Ram Rakhi demonstrates one of the methods she uses to determine the position of the baby. She pours oil on a woman's navel to see the path which it trickles down her stomach. "If the oil falls straight, the baby is straight," she pronounces confidently. 

A teacher at heart, Ram Rakhi demonstrates one of the methods she uses to determine the position of the baby. She pours oil on a woman's navel to see the path which it trickles down her stomach. "If the oil falls straight, the baby is straight," she pronounces confidently. 

Demonstrating a purity practice, she talks about the stigma associated with village midwives. "When my son was young, someone told him 'your mother works with dirt, so she is dirty.' Some people would not eat from my hand or drink water from me. I told my son to come and look at me through the mesh when I helped a woman deliver her baby. I let him see that I covered my face and did not touch anything dirty. I would not let my body heat get on anything,” she said. "I wanted my son to see that my work is not dirty."

More than a midwife, Ram Rakhi is the first person village families come to when children are sick. This evening a grandmother brings her infant grandson to the midwife. After exchanging a few words, Ram Rakhi massages and makes adjustments to the child's position. Within a few minutes, the cries of pain subside and the baby rests in the dai's arms. “He will be fine now,” she says as she hands the baby back to his grandmother. Just another day in the life of this midwife.

More than a midwife, Ram Rakhi is the first person village families come to when children are sick. This evening a grandmother brings her infant grandson to the midwife. After exchanging a few words, Ram Rakhi massages and makes adjustments to the child's position. Within a few minutes, the cries of pain subside and the baby rests in the dai's arms. “He will be fine now,” she says as she hands the baby back to his grandmother. Just another day in the life of this midwife.

“If I were educated," was Ram Rakhi’s repeated refrain during our interviews. “I have been a midwife for 50 years and even though I am not educated, I am very clever.”  She believes that education could have allowed her to be paid adequately for her work so that she could fix her “broken house” as well as earned her more respect from people. Above, she is giving the sign of “shame” as she tells how some people have treated her even after she has helped them. “Even if they slap me I will keep doing good for people until I die.”  

“There was another midwife, but she died and I am the only midwife here. Now young women are starting to go to the hospital. But if you don’t have money to eat, how will you pay to go the hospital? Then they come to me and I deliver.”

The work of the dai is often hereditary, passed on from mother-in-law to daughter-in-law. Ram Rakhi knows that her work will not continue to the next generation. “All the young girls go to school and think they know all about medicine; they are not interested in my ways.” As she walks away, the wisdom of a lifetime of serving women through childbirth goes with her. 

"How many of these children did you deliver?” I asked as more and more children crowded around to hear what we were talking about. A wide smile spread over her face and with pride, she answered, “I delivered all of them."

"How many of these children did you deliver?” I asked as more and more children crowded around to hear what we were talking about. A wide smile spread over her face and with pride, she answered, “I delivered all of them."