Free to Swing, to Strut, to Live

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The tightly packed tenements of Gali No 1 in Malwani look the worse for wear despite the cleansing rain. Mud is splattered everywhere and open gutters ooze sludge. For the women, visible through doorways and windows as they cook, clean and mind children, the rain brings yet more work, putting empty buckets under leaky roofs and sweeping tirelessly with their brooms. A version of this ordinary scene can be found in every pocket of the city. But Gali No 1 of Malwani in Malad, a western suburb of Mumbai, is not your usual neighbourhood, and the women here are not just ordinary women going about their domestic tasks. According to the State, these women are not “good” women. They are homewreckers and heartbreakers who lower public morality, encourage depravity and lead innocent men up the garden path to rob them blind. Eight years ago they were branded a scourge on society, “galat kaam karne wali, samaaj bigadne wali auratein”, and were banished, to protect us. After many years, the spotlight is shining on them once more. There is an air of commotion; some women stand in small groups and chat idly about the recent Supreme Court verdict. They swap information. “I hear CCTVs will be installed in all bars and girls will be separated from customers by a fence,” says one. Another suggests they should enroll for dance classes as the auditions will be tough, too many girls vying for the same spot.

Many years back, waves of bar girls settled in the shanties of Malwani, the ones who could not afford to live in Foras Road in the south of the city. There is strength in numbers and bar girls tend to live in their own community. The years in between the ban and its overturning have not been kind to the women who reside here. Many of them, uneducated and unskilled, were reduced to penury and almost all of them turned to sex work to support their families. Sonam, a former bar girl whose work seems to have worn her out so much that she looks older than her 37 years, grew up at Congress House, the biggest brothel located in the heart of the city’s red light district, where her grandmother was the leading light in the community of mujra performers. “My grandmother made a lot of money, she really knew how to dance, but she gambled it all away. She also liked chhavas (literally young cubs in Marathi, which translates to young lovers) who took all her money from her.” Sonam and her four sisters became professional mujra dancers from their teenage years to ensure a steady income for their family of 10. A witty and sharp woman, she is unembarrassed by the work she does. “All of us were talented dancers and never thought of dance as demeaning. It’s an art form and that is all we were selling.” Soon they moved to bars for better money, covering the distance from Town to Mira Road, dancing at iconic bars like Deepa, Night Lovers, Sridevi, Dilbar and Natraj. At the peak of her bar-dancing days, she would earn at least Rs 5,000 a night; on good days, it could be Rs 50,000 or more.

With her cotton suit and hair tied in a bun, Sonam passes as any other woman making ends meet in a tough city. The obvious weakness for gold — two thick chains around her neck, nose ring, ear studs and a ring on every alternate finger — is the only chink in her armour of conventionality. “The ban shook us up, we were all caught unprepared. I was fearful for the future of my children, my family, whether I would be able to feed them, educate them, keep a roof over all our heads. My mind was blank, and I was staring at an uncertain future. I finally contacted some of my customers from the bars and became a sex worker. At one time, a customer would call us a hundred times before we would even talk to him, now we are the ones who chase customers in desperation. During the bar days there was never any need to sell my body. I earned enough. I was happy.” Hers is a family of traditional dancers and entertainers from Lucknow, but she tells me this is the last generation to pursue the profession. Her daughter is studying to become a chartered accountant and her son is in school. “We are putting a stop to it. All our children are studying and God willing, they will find other jobs.”

Dance Bars, a world unique to the city of Mumbai with its dominant migrant culture, sprouted up sometime in the ’70s, directly influenced by the dancing in Hindi movies (which would later return the favour by drawing heavily from the world of dance bars), and were at one time the biggest draw for tourists and locals alike. Suketu Mehta wrote in Maximum City, a year before the ban, that they represent “the intersection of everything that makes the city fascinating: money, sex, love, death and show business”. He also drew the difference between dance bars and their perceived western counterpart, the strip clubs. “On a good night a dancer in a Bombay bar can make twice as much as a high-class stripper in a New York bar. The difference is that the dancer in Bombay doesn’t have to sleep with the customers, is forbidden to touch them in the bar, and wears more clothes on her body than the average Bombay secretary does on the broad public street.”

When such clear demarcation exists, why have Sonam, her sisters and 75,000 women of their ilk been made to bear the burden of our collective conscience and manufactured morality? Mumbai, in particular, has become a city that specialises in moral outrage. At the heart of the debate around dance bars, beyond the statistics and the economics — it is estimated that close to 40,000 men lost their jobs and the state lost an annual revenue of Rs 3,000 crore — is the issue of women’s rights, an issue that is both deep and divisive in our society. All arguments in India that concern gender issues confine women within a familiar dichotomy: the good woman and the bad woman. Or, as some of the pamphlets written by the protestors back when the bars were shut put it, Savitri versus Sweety, both constructs of male fantasies. Savitri is the good woman who stays at home and bears children, while Sweety, a creature of sweet delight, belongs to a darker world of pleasure. At the time of the crackdown, state home minister RR Patil, who almost single-handedly orchestrated the ban, had said the performances were considered “derogatory to the dignity of women and likely to deprave, corrupt or injure morality”. His stance was reflected not just by members of the state assembly but a huge chunk of the middle class, many of whom were women, who felt that Sweety the bar girl had no right to exist.

Her right to dignity is defended by Shagufta Raqfique. Rafique’s life story is like Bollywood fable: she is now a successful script writer at Vishesh Films, Mahesh Bhatt’s production company. When faced with dire financial conditions, she had in her youth turned to prostitution and later became a successful bar dancer. “In the society I lived in, the watchman would spit every time I passed, while members of the society made lewd comments. And all I could do was keep my head low and carry on with my work. The irony is that those who came to see me perform gave me more respect. The bar girl has no place in society. She is exploited at home by those who live off her, and at her workplace she is shortchanged by the bar owners who survive because of her.” She draws the comparison between bar girls and item girls in Hindi films. “There is more money in films and we associate it with some form of respectability, but ultimately both worlds are selling the image of a woman, so how is it any different?”

PATIL, in a recent interview, called those who oppose the ban pseudointellectuals, who would change their tune were a dance bar to open below their building or if their relative were to become a dancer. He found an unlikely supporter in feminist academic Madhu Kishwar, who in an editorial posed the same questions, despite being one of the earliest supporters of the bar girls’ union, demonstrating once again that opinion about gender issues in India is sharply divided. Rafique reacts to the argument, “This is such a fallacy. You can’t wish away these things or say that we should remove them from Bandra and put them in Mumbra. Besides, how do you know that men from your own family are not visiting dance bars? Who says it’s only for the underclass? I’ve had men throw bundles of notes at me; they were all from white collar backgrounds and posh areas.”

The Supreme Court verdict has been called a moral victory for the women’s movement in India, which was initially split in its reaction to bar girls and the particular challenge they presented. On the one hand was the issue of the objectification of women for the pleasure of men in a commercial environment where men are the sole profiteers. On the other was the issue of livelihood for thousands of women. Veena Gowda, part of the team of lawyers that represented the Bharatiya Bar Girls Union, calls it a landmark judgment. “The court saw the ban as an extremely classist and elitist distinction. It also said that the state must find a way to empower women, which is a divergence from the usual protectionist attitude towards women.” The tone of the judgement seems to reflect that the Court believes women should be free to make the choices they want. If they want to dance, then they cannot be forcibly rehabilitated and pushed into ‘respectable’ jobs, like making jewellery or sewing.

Varsha Kale, president of the Bharatiya Bar Girls Union whose incessant efforts on behalf of bar girls have finally paid off, says that fighting the hypocrisies in society feels like tilting at windmills. “Our battle was never really a legal one; we were fighting something bigger. We were battling the mindsets of people and the way men perceive women and often how women perceive other women.” The road ahead has further challenges, such as restoring the trust and confidence of those who were forced into sex work, and is changing society’s perspective of bar girls. These women cannot be viewed as prostitutes, but as performers who put their dance above all else.

Step by step, the various stakeholders — representatives of bar girls and bar owners along with the state — are working to lay down guidelines and put regulations in place. Sanmitra Trust is an NGO that has worked for decades for the welfare of bar girls. Prabha Desai of the Trust says that the most important step will be the rehabilitation of bar girls. “We need to ensure they are treated as workers who have access to loans, medical care and insurance, and, most importantly, minimum wages. Those who want to leave should have alternatives in place in terms of skills and training.”

(By some estimates there are close to 75,000 bar dancers in Mumbai.)

The Mumbai Bar Owners Association will soon start applying for licenses for dance bars. If the state cooperates — by no means a given since the government is weighing its options on how to keep the ban in place — this could mean the end of the ‘orchestra’ and ‘silent’ bars that replaced dance bars. Orchestra bars feature singers, while silent bars are simply pickup joints. On the day the ban is lifted, the Indiana Bar in Tardeo, which runs on an orchestra license, is filled to half capacity by its regular clientele: middle-aged men who work as traders, exporters, manufacturers and small time businessmen. On the stage three young, attractive girls sit under disco lights and try and meet the eye of the customers, as the male singers occasionally take the mike. For the most part, recycled Bollywood songs play loudly from the system and an atmosphere of ennui prevails.

Bharat Singh Thakur, the owner of Indiana, a slight, balding man with a moustache, surrounded by a retinue of burly men, hopes that his bar will soon go back to the days when there would be an hour-long wait to get inside. He refuses to reveal how much his business was affected by the ban and toes the politically correct line. “While we bar owners have suffered, it is nothing compared with what the dancers have been through. They have been through a tsunami. This time, for their sake we will make sure to work with all rules and regulations in place.”

When the bars reopen, there will be no place for an ageing dancer like Sonam. It is already too late for her and for many like her. She has taken on the role of mentor in the basti and young girls flock to her for advice as a new but uncertain future beckons. “Ab ladkiyon ka time vapas aa gaya hai,” she says.

Two of her protégées, Sheetal (26) and Shalu (24), are sisters who look alike with high cheekbones and long, lustrous hair, who belong to a family of performers and dancers from Rajasthan. They worked in bars for two years before the ban.

Shalu was only 14 when she started dancing, yet she imbues those days with nostalgia. “I would dance with all my heart. You should have seen me then, people would stop in their tracks as I walked by, my face shining with make-up, my beautiful clothes glittering. I found respect and money, which I haven’t found since.”

Even as they prepare to return to the new old world, none of the bar girls are stakeholders in the decision-making process and setting up of guidelines. They are in the dark about what lies ahead. Sheetal says, “The state is still against dancing. How do we know that we won’t be harassed by cops? Bar owners and managers get away, they have money and power. We are the ones who are vulnerable.” Since the ban, both of them have been in limbo, waiting for the day that they could dance and be free again. Meanwhile, they have been relying on customers who pay them for sex work, and support their brother and his family with that money. Sheetal has a six year- old daughter from a client, and she dreams of her little girl becoming a choreographer, like the ones on her favourite TV shows, Jhalak Dikhla Jaa and Dance India Dance. “I know she will inherit our dancing genes. But, I want her to dance in a world away from all this.” And so, her daughter will dance, just like her mother, but this time on her own terms.

sunaina@tehelka.com

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