On July 21, 2005, the Bill to ban the dance bars in Maharashtra was passed unanimously at the end of a ‘marathon debate’. It was a sad day for some of us paltry group of women activists, who had supported the bar dancers and opposed the ban. We were far outnumbered by the pro-ban group, the ‘Dance Bar Virodhi Manch’ who had submitted 150,000 signatures to the Maharashtra state assembly insisting on the closure of dance bars. The ban comes into effect from August 15.
We were sad, not because we were outnumbered, not even because the Bill was passed unanimously, but because of the manner in which an important issue relating to women was discussed, the comments that were passed on the floor of the House, by our elected representatives, who are under the constitutional mandate to protect the dignity of women! Subsequently, we have heard rumours that some of these comments have been withdrawn and will not be reflected in the reported proceedings. But this cannot obviate the fact that this is the way our elected representatives think about women.
One of the comments was aimed at us. ‘These women who are opposing the ban, we will make their mothers dance….’ (The comments have to be translated into Marathi to gauge its impact.) During the campaign we had been asked, ‘Will you send your daughter to dance in a bar?’ But on the floor of the House, the situation had regressed, from our daughters to our mothers! They sniggered: “Isha Koppikar… she is an atom bomb, atom bomb…” This evoked great deal of laughter and cheer… “The dancers wear only 20 per cent clothes”… More laughter and cheering… “These women who dance naked (nanga nach), they don’t deserve any sympathy”. A round of applause.
An esteemed member narrated an incident of his friend’s daughter whohad committed suicide because she did not get a job. He said it was more dignified to commit suicide than dance in bars. And the House applauded! The message for women is clear: If you happen to be born in a poor family, you are better off dead! Yet another congratulated the Deputy Home Minister for taking this bold and revolutionary step, but this was not enough. He urged that “hotels with three stars… five stars, disco dancing …belly dancing … all that is vulgar… every thing should be banned, except Bharatnatyam and Kathak.”
|effect this ban, when through its own admission out of around
1300 dance bars only 307 are legal and authorized, is something we will
have to wait and watch.
Liquor and Entertainment
The bar dancer is a part of the city’s thriving nightlife. Bombay never sleeps. The city is hailed as the crowning glory of the nation’s entertainment industry. From the time when the East India Company developed Mumbai as a port and built a fort in the seventeenth century, Bombay has been a city of migrants. Migrants come to the city in search of livelihoods and with the workers have come the entertainers.
The traders, the sailors, the dockworkers, the construction labourers and the mill hands - all needed to be ‘entertained’. So the government marked areas for entertainment called ‘play houses’ which are referred to in the local parlance even today as ‘pilay house’ areas.Folk theatre, dance and music performances and, later, silent movie theatres all grew around the ‘play houses’ and so did the sex trade. Hence Kamathipura - a name which denoted the dwelling place of a community of construction labourers, the Kamtis of Andhra Pradesh, later came to signal the sex trade or ‘red light’ district of the old Bombay city. Within the red light district there were also places for performance of traditional and classical dance and music, and the mujra houses.
The city of migrants — predominantly male migrants — also needed cheap eating-places. To cater to their needs initially there were Irani restaurants, Chilia (Muslim) restaurants and later South Indian (Udupi) joints and Punjabi dhabas.
The prevalence of dance bars is linked not only to the restaurant industry and the entertainment business, but also to the state policy on the sale of liquor After Independence, during the fifties, when Morarji Desai was Chief Minister, the State of Bombay was under prohibition and restaurants could not serve liquor. But after Maharashtra severed its links with the Gujarat side of the erstwhile Bombay Presidency, the newly formed state reviewed its liquor policy and the prohibition era was transformed into the ‘permit’ era. A place where beer was served was called a ‘permit room’. Only a person who had obtained a ‘permit’ could sit in a permit room and drink beer.
But gradually, the term ‘permit room’ lost its meaning and
the government went all out to promote liquor sale in hotels and restaurants.
It was during this period, sometime in the seventies, that permit rooms
and beer bars started introducing innovative devices to beat their competitors
— live orchestra, mimicry and ‘ladies service bars’
where women from the red light district were employed as waitresses.
Soon the sale of liquor and consequently the profit margins of the owners recorded an upward trend. This encouraged the owners of other Irani ‘permit room’ restaurants, South Indian eateries and Punjabi dhabas to convert their places into dance bars. Coincidentally, during the same period, the mujra culture in Mumbai was facing loss of patronage and was on the decline. As the waitresses in the ‘ladies service bars’ during this early period were from Kamathipura, which also housed the mujras, this new demand for bar dancers reached these traditional dancers and many sought jobs in dance bars. Even for daughters of sex workers, this was a step forward — from brothel prostitution to dance bars. Soon the phenomenon of ‘dance bars’ spread from South Bombay to Central Bombay, to the Western and Central suburbs, to the satellite cities of New Bombay and Panvel, and from there, along the arterial roads, to other smaller cities and towns of Maharashtra. From a mere 24 dance bars in 1985-86, the number increased tenfolds within a decade to around 210. The next decade 1995-2005 witnessed yet another phenomenal increase. As per a rough estimate, presently there are around 1300 dance bars in Maharashtra.
As the demand grew, women from traditional dancing / performance communities of different parts ofIndia, who were facing a decline in patronage of their age-old profession, flocked to Mumbai (and later to the smaller cities) to work in dance bars. These women from traditional communities have been victims of the conflicting forces of modernization. Women are the primary breadwinners in these communities. But after the Zamindari system introduced by the British was abolished, they lost their zamindar patrons and were reduced to penury. Even the few developmental schemes and welfare policies of the government bypassed many of these communities. From their villages, many moved to cities, towns and along national highways in search of a livelihood. The dance bars provided women from these communities an opportunity to adapt their strategies to suit the demands of the new economy.
Apart from these traditional dancing communities, women from other poor communities also began to seek work in these bars as dancers. These women are mainly daughters of mill workers. With the sole earner having lost his job after the closure of the textile mills, young girls with more supple bodies and the sex appeal of their youth entered the job market to support their families. Similarly endowed women who had worked as domestic maids, or in other exploitative conditions as piece-rate workers, or as door to door sales girls, as well as women workers who had been retrenched from factories and industrial units, also found work in dance bars.
In order to work out a compromise, the Association approached
the then Commissioner of Police ruling Congress Party, assured him of
their cooperation, and sought his intervention to end the Hafta Raj. They
claim that they had evolved an internal monitoring mechanism to ensure
that all bars abide by the stipulated time for closing down. But the local
police stations were most unhappy at their potential loss of bribes. They
tried to break the unity among the members of the Association. For example,
when the Bar Owners Association tried to take action against those of
their members who violated the agreed upon rules, the police came to their
rescue. The police benefited when bar owners violated the rules and consequently
pay regular haftas. Over a period the regular haftas paid by each bar
owner to the police increased and just before the recent ban, each bar
owner was allegedly paying Rs.75,000 per month by way of bribes to the
Deputy Police Commissioner (DCP) of their zone. Some of this money then
trickles down the police ladder from the DCP to the lowest ranking constable
in predetermined proportions.
| concerns were not reflected. It is essential that they be
heard and they become part of the negotiations with the State regarding
the code of conduct to be followed during the raids.
As far as the abuse of power by the police was concerned, we were clear. But what about the vulgar and obscene display of the female body for the pleasure of drunken male customers, which was promoted bythe bar owners with the sole intention of jacking up their profits? It is here that we lacked clarity. I had been part of the women’s movement that has protested against fashion parades and beauty contests and semi-nude depiction of women in Hindi films. But my colleagues, Veena Gowda and Shreemoyee Nandini - both young, dynamic, women’s rights lawyers, belonged to a later generation which had come to terms with fashion parades, female sexuality and erotica.
I had been involved with several para-legal workshops organized by Prerana for sex workers. During these workshops the main concerns for the sex workers were police harassment and arbitrary arrests. I viewed my intervention on behalf of bar girls as an extension of the work I had done with Prerana, but Prerana members felt otherwise. At times, after the court proceedings, we ended up being extremely confrontational and emotionally charged, with Prerana representatives accusing us of legitimizing trafficking by bar owners and us retaliating by accusing them of acting at the behest of the police.
The DCM’s statement announcing the ban was followed by unprecedented media glare, and we found ourselves in the centre of the controversy as lawyers representing the Bar Girls’ Union.The controversy had all the right ingredients.
The controversy had all the right ingredients - titillating sexuality, a hint of the underworld, a faintly visible crack in the ruling Congress-NCP alliance, and polarized positions among social activists.Sonia Gandhi, the Congress President and sought her intervention. Other women’s groups joined in and issued a statement opposing the ban.
The Gandhians seem to
be only against the
dancers and not against
the bars that have
proliferated. Nor have
they done much to
oppose the liquor policy
of the State, which had
encouraged bar dancing.
Interestingly, the Gandhians seem to be only against the dancers and not against the bars that have proliferated. Nor have they done much to oppose the liquor policy of the State, which had encouraged bar dancing. The antitrafficking groups who had been working in the red light districts had not succeeded in making a dent in child trafficking in brothels that continue to thrive. But in this controversy, brothel prostitution and trafficking of minors has been relegated to the sidelines. The sex worker is viewed with more compassion than the bar dancer, who may or may not resort to sex work.
While the ban will affect the bar dancer from the ordinary dhabas run by Punjabis and Sardars and the South Indian eateries run by the Shetty community, it will not affect the higher classes of dancers who perform in hotels which hold three or more “stars”, or clubs and gymkhanas. Can the State impose arbitrary and varying standards of vulgarity, indecency and obscenity for different sections of society or classes of people? If an ‘item number’ of a Hindi film can be screened in public theatres, then an imitation of the same cannot be termed as ‘vulgar’. The bar dancers imitate what they see in Indian films, television serials, fashion shows and advertisements. All these industries have used women’s bodies for commercial gain. There is sexual exploitation of women in these and many other industries. But no one has ever suggested that you close down these industries because there is sexual exploitation of women!
The ban will not affect the bars. The profit margins may go down for a while, but soon other devices will be found to promote liquor sale. Bars employ women as waitresses and the proposed ban will not affect this category. Waitresses mingle with the customers more than the dancers who are confined to the dance floor. If the anti-trafficking laws have not been successful in preventing trafficking, how will ban on bar dancing prevent trafficking? And if certain bars were functioning as brothels, why were the licenses issued to them not revoked?
While the hue and cry about the morality of dance bars was raging, in
Sangli district, the home constituency of the Deputy Chief Minister (DCM),
a dance performance titled ‘Temptation’ by Isha Kopikar, the
hot selling ‘item girl’ of Bollywood, was being organized
to raise money for the Police Welfare Fund. The bar girls flocked to Sangli
to hold a protest march. This received even more publicity than the performance
by Isha Kopikar who, due to the adverse publicity, was compelled to dress
modestly and could not perform in her usual flamboyant style. The disappointed
public felt it was more value for their money to see the protest of the
bar girls than to witness a lack luster performance by the ‘item
girl’. And the bar girls raised a pertinent question, whether different
rules of morality apply to the police and the Home Minister.
Is it her earning
capacity, the legitimacy
awarded to her
profession, and the
higher status she enjoys
in comparison to a sex
worker that invite the
fury from the middle
Another controversy surfaced when the late Sunil Dutt, the popular and highly respected Congress MP from Mumbai, as well as Govinda, the newer entrant to politics and also a Congress MP from North-West Mumbai, issued statements opposing the ban. Govinda himself hails from a performer community. And Sunil Dutt had responded as a performer. Justice H. Suresh, a retired Bombay High Court judge and wellknown defender of human rights also opposed the ban.
All this has been heady news for the television channels and the tabloids. ‘Dance Bars to Sex Bars’ blared a recent tabloid headline, which splashed photographs allegedly taken from a hidden camera. The report stated that desperate dancers without work are now resorting to oral sex in sleazy bars in the outskirts of Mumbai to earn money. Another report stated that the mujra places, which had earlier closed down, have received a boost. The worst was the news story of a young journalist who visited theof a young journalist who visited the DCM, claiming to be a bar dancer, photographer in toe, with the intention of trapping him in a compromising position. But the plot boomeranged and the journalist and the photographer were arrested.
Later the DCM issued a statement that the girl was a mere pawn used by the editor and the same thing happens to the bar dancers. One wonders whether he will now ban women from working as journalists in newspapers because there is likelihood of exploitation! So, all in all, during the last few months, the city is abuzz with never a dull moment.
Since most activists on both sides of the divide had never visited a bar, to dispel some of the prevailing myths, some women’s groups were keen to conduct a study. TheWomen’s Studies Centre of the S.N.D.T. University, Mumbai, also got involved. Through the intervention of the Bar Girls’ Union, the bar owners were contacted and the dance bar doors were opened to the research team. Time was running out as the cabinet had cleared the Ordinance and had sent it to the Governor for approval.
The research team acted quickly and interviewed 153 dancers from 15 randomly selected bars across the city. The bars had been selected keeping in view the cultural and socio-economic diversity of the city. The women were interviewed within the bars, during their rest intervals. This methodology also provided an opportunity to observe the working conditions and extent of sexual exploitation within the bars.
The Governor did not sign the Ordinance on the expected date and the time factor swung in favour of the anti-ban lobby. On June 13, 2005, the Research Unit of S.N.D.T. and women’s groups held a press conference and released a preliminary report. The study helped to bring into question many of the popular myths regarding bar dancers.
Contrary to the official statement that more than 75 percent of the dancers are Bangladeshis and constitute a security risk, the sample study revealed that only 2 of the 153 girls who were interviewed were outsiders – they were Nepalis. Around 20 percent of the women were either from Mumbai or came from poverty stricken districts of Maharashtra. 50 percent of the women who were interviewed were from backward castes, marginalized communities and notified tribes of Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan - Bedia, Chari, Rajnat, Dhanawat, etc. The literacy levels were low – 50 percent were illiterate and only 25 percent had studiedbeyond the primary level. They had no training in any other skills.
In 60 percent of the cases women were the sole breadwinners of their
families. Their average monthly income ranged from Rs.5000 to Rs.35,000.
None of them owned property or even a dwelling house. They lived in rented
tenements. Out of their earnings, they spent a sizeable amount on costumes,
makeup, travel and rent. The rest was spent on children’s education,
for the marriage expenses of their sisters, and for medical expenses of
ailing parents. Most sent some money back to their families in their villages.
Contrary to the official
statement that more than
75 percent of the
constitute a security
risk, the sample study
revealed that only 2 of
the 153 girls who were
outsiders – they were
All the mothers chased a dream - to send their children to English medium schools.
Though the sample size is small, the random survey served to refute the premise that bars are in fact brothels where minors are trafficked. The average age of the women who were interviewed was 21 - 25. But 55 percent of the women had entered the bars when they were minors, between the ages of 15-18. This is not surprising as most girls from disadvantaged socio-economic groups either enter the job market or are married off by this age.The dancers came to the bars through contacts with other women from their community or friends who were working in bars. They were in the profession out of choice, though some admitted that they did not enjoy dancing.
50 percent of the women
who were interviewed
were from backward
communities and notified
tribes of Madhya
Pradesh... 50 percent
were illiterate and only
25 percent had studied
beyond the primary
level... in 60 percent of
the cases women were
the sole breadwinners of
The dancers stated that they had a greater security in the bars due to the support network among the dancers as well as the protection provided by the owners. Usually each bar had 30-60 dancers. The drivers of taxis and auto rickshaws that were used to take them to work and back were regulars and hence they did not feel insecure while travelling home late at night. The only thing they feared was the police raid and the sexual exploitation by the guardians of the law! The positive outcome of the entire controversy and the media glare has brought the bar girl out of her closeted existence. It has made the bars more transparent and accessible for women activists and researchers. But several lurking doubts continue to haunt me. Due to the impending ban the lot of the bar owners and the bar girls has been thrown together by the political developments and there is no other choice for both but to struggle for their survival together.
Today the interests of bar girls and the bar owners are common. But what will happen tomorrow if the Bar Girls’ Union takes up questions which are uncomfortable for the bar owners? Can the Union operate without the support and approval of bar owners? Does it have the strength to negotiate better working conditions for the bar dancer?
And what about the women’s groups who are opposing the ban? Has our intervention strengthened the bar owners and wrapped them with a cloak of legitimacy? Initially women’s groups resisted, but it had become obvious that if the women’s groups wanted to play any role at all, they would have to deal with the bar owners. This realization dawned on the anti-ban groups very late. Only within an atmosphere of mutual trust was it possible to enter the bars and conduct the study.
Personally, the entire experience has helped me to gain greater insights into the lives of women who live at the margins and form the underbelly of the city’s nightlife. It has also helped me to question my own notions of morality and to encounter the sleazy world of sexual erotica. I have become astutely aware of the realities of a bar dancer and the various levels of power politics that is played out upon her body.
But what have been the gains for the bar dancer? Were the underground existence and the invisibility within which she negotiated her sexuality, morality, and economics more comfortable to her? Has the exposure made her even more vulnerable than the condition she was living in, before all of us entered her life? I do not know.
The ban has become effective since August 15, 2005. However, neither the bar owners nor the bardancers are ready to give up their battle for survival.
Two different associations of bar owners have filed two writ petitions— Manjit Singh Sethi’s organisation — Fight for the Rights of Bar Owners has filed a criminal writ petition. It is scheduled for interim hearing on August 29, 2005. Indian Hotels and Restaurants Association (AHAR) has filed a civil writ petition which is listed for final hearing on October 3, 2005. The Bharatiya Bar Girls Union (Varsha Kale - represented by VeenaGowda of Majlis and myself) have filed a civil writ petition which has been tagged along with AHAR petition and will be heard on October 3, 2005.
Acknowledgement: I thank Varsha Kale, President of the Bharatiya Bar Girls Union and the bar dancers for the insights into this issue. However, the views expressed here are mine alone.
About the author: Flavia Agnes is a lawyer and women’s rights activist. She is also the founder member of Majlis, a legal and cultural resource centre based in Mumbai.