On Thursday morning, the Navratri festivities had doubled on the narrow rat-infested lanes of Mumbai Sangeet Kalakar Mandal, a close-knit ghetto of former bar dancers in Grant Road. The television sets were switched on playing the Supreme Court news, and young dancers walked around in their night gowns, a smile on their faces. Loud talks that the business would resume could be heard over bhajans.
“I came to Mumbai in 2007 hoping to become a dancer. I have heard a lot about bar dancing but never seen it. We are hopeful that licenses would be given speedily so that I can dance,” says 24-year-old Vandana, from Raipur, Chattisgarh. She performs mujra along with other women to earn money.
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The bylanes, commonly referred to as Congress House, has 103 rooms. From 15 girls squeezed in a single room before 2005, the doom in bar dancing led to a slow exodus to other cities and professions. “Now, there are hardly two or three girls living in a room,” says Pinky, the area’s president.
Soon after the 2005 ban by the Maharashtra government, jobless girls chose waitressing, orchestra or mujra to fill their stomachs. “Several moved to Kolkata where bar dancing continues unhindered. Those who were not strong enough to bear the change committed suicide,” Pinky adds.
The bar dancers in Mumbai live in small groups in Chembur, Mira Road, Andheri, Tardeo and Grant Road. Several such as Neha Singh and Sunita have been doing mujra to earn between Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 in a day. The mujra room is located on the first floor of an old building in the mandal.
Sunita, from Gwalior, earned Rs 3,000 every day as a bar dancer at Sai Shraddha bar at Mazgaon before 2005. “I got my sister married through my income. But after 2005, I had to rely on my elder brother for running my house,” she says. She still has all her 15 sets of clothes kept intact in her Gwalior house. “I will get it back,” she smiles.
Sunita also tried her hands at waitressing briefly. The dancers were, however, not paid by hotel owners, and their incomes came only in the form of tips from customers. Mithun Singh, a local, says, “Several women were forced to do waitressing. They don’t know any other skill.”
Sunita learnt mujra in a year and started performing since 2007. Other girls were either forced into prostitution or joined orchestra, Pinky says. With the lift in ban, these women are hopeful that their friends will return to Mumbai to build the business back.