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Saturday, March 28, 2020

Other side of the mirror: When lights on dance bars turned off

One night in 2005, as a ban turned the lights off on dance bars, the lives of Mumbai’s dancers changed forever. With it, that of taxi drivers, tailors, waiters, hawkers — an entire economy that sustained the industry. Fourteen years later, as Supreme Court clears the decks for reopening of dance bars, Tabassum Barnagarwala tells their stories.

Written by Tabassum Barnagarwala | Mumbai | Updated: February 3, 2019 4:19:53 am
Since 2005, the dance bar case has made several rounds of the legal corridors, with the apex court, through successive rulings, in 2006, 2013 and 2015, stating that the ban was in violation of the right to equality and the right to practise any profession. (Express Photo by Amit Chakravarty)

A road separates the bar in Tardeo from the Arabian Sea. On the first floor, in an air-conditioned room, with her brown, streaked hair let loose, the 27-year-old is dabbing her lips with a deep shade of brown. Three other girls jostle for space in front of a full-length mirror. An hour later, around 7.30 pm, when the orchestra girls finally step out — the 27-year-old in a golden, low-waist lehenga, with matching blush on her cheeks — there are just two waiters and the orchestra band in the dimly-lit hall. No customers.

“Today is not our night,” she says, turning to a girl in a red dress. The 27-year-old has a son waiting at home. “I will return without tips tonight,” she says.

In the years following August 15, 2005, when the lights first went out in Mumbai’s dance bars, as the Maharashtra government led by Vilasrao Deshmukh and then home minister R R Patil announced a ban on these establishments, several dancers returned to their villages in Uttar Pradesh, Bengal and Rajasthan, some moved to the Middle East, others turned to prostitution. And yet others became ‘orchestra girls’, a thin flirtation with the law where the girls dress up and sway, not dance, as a live orchestra croons to an audience. At intervals, they can walk up from behind the steel railings that separate them from the audience and collect tips from the patrons, before returning to their position.

On January 17, the Supreme Court cleared the decks for reopening dance bars across Maharashtra, striking down certain provisions of a 2016 law that had imposed stringent conditions for dance bars to be eligible for a licence.

Shabnam Raj Ex Bar Dancer and Singer. (Express Photo by Amit Chakravarty)

According to data from the Fight for Rights of Bar Owners’ Association, before the 2005 ban, the state had 1,250 dance bars and between 75,000 and a lakh dancers. Besides a monthly salary, the daily tip would be divided equally between the bar owners and the dancers. That changed in the late 1990s, when they got a larger share of the tips in a 60:40 ratio, but their salary was stopped. Back then, the government gave bars ‘performance licences’ under two categories: dance and orchestra.

Estimates show that only 10,000 dancers stayed on in the state after the 2005 ban. With subsequent court judgments, several women returned and new girls joined. Maharashtra currently has an estimated 1.25 lakh bar dancers, according to the association. Of the 512 bars left, only 293 have an ‘orchestra’ licence. The others are in process of applying for a licence or have approached court.

Varsha Kale, president of the Bharatiya Bar Girls’ Union, says the ban in 2005 pushed many of the dancers to the brink. “As dancers, they lived independently, on their terms. The ban forced them to earn money in ways they probably never wanted,” she says.

Since 2005, the dance bar case has made several rounds of the legal corridors, with the apex court, through successive rulings, in 2006, 2013 and 2015, stating that the ban was in violation of the right to equality and the right to practise any profession.

While there are several voices that hail the court verdict as one that upholds the right of the dancers to work, there are others who point out that the bars operated in a grey zone, with stories of exploitation and human trafficking.

In 2016, following the SC’s direction, three bars — Sai Prasad and Aero Punjab (both in Andheri) and Indiana (Tardeo) — got licences to operate dance bars. They followed the conditions laid down by law — five feet separating dancers from customers, a three-foot-high railing separating the dance area from the audience, and only four dancers at a time.

But in 2017, spurred by the fire in the Kamala Mills Compound in December 2016 that killed 14 patrons, the three bars lost their licences when they came up for renewal.

Pravin Agrawal, vice president of the Fight for Rights of Bar Owners’ Association, who runs a bar in western Mumbai, is hopeful. “We are consulting our lawyers on how to apply for a dance-bar licence again. After the ban, my business went down by 70 per cent,” he says. His application for an orchestra licence remains pending.

While there are several voices that hail the court verdict as one that upholds the right of the dancers to work, there are others who point out that the bars operated in a grey zone, with stories of exploitation and human trafficking, and the bars’ “corrupting influence” on society.

Former Mumbai Joint Commissioner of Police M N Singh warns that regulating dance bars could be easier said than done. “I know of several families who lost both money and their young sons to the craze of dance bars. Then, there is the policing aspect — these places became addas for gangsters, criminals and anti-social elements,” he says.

But Sameena Dalwai, Associate Professor at O P Jindal Global University who has analysed the ban on dance bars, differs. “In the past, even literature and art-pieces have been criticised for obscenity. This is art for dancers and the industry at large,” she says.

So when the ban came in 2005, the music halted for more than just the dancers — at the height of its popularity, dance bars were an economy in themselves, sustaining not just the dancers but an ancilliary industry of taxi drivers, waiters and tailors. Their stories:

The Dancer

The heavy make-up does well to hide the hint of a wrinkle under her eyes. Dressed in a red salwar-kameez, she walks up the stairs to a bar in Daulat Nagar, a western suburb of Mumbai. Inside, she transforms. For the next six hours, in a sari and deep-cut blouse, wearing maroon lip colour and with heavy kohl-lined eyes, Shabnam Raj sings, her deep voice rising above the chorus as the orchestra croons “Lag ja gale….”

Shabnam, 50, has heard of the recent court verdict on dance bars, but is unsure anything will change. She knows the Maharashtra government will not give in easily. And anyway, she believes her best years are behind her, lost waiting for the ban to be lifted. Now, in a strange twist of circumstances, she isn’t even sure if she wants bar dancers to be back. “If bar dancing is allowed, orchestra will end. I am too old to dance,” she says, before quickly adding, “But that doesn’t worry me. I want young girls to dance if they want to.”

There was a time when Faras Street never slept. In the wee hours, tired bar dancers would make their way home through its cluttered lanes.

Three decades ago, Shabnam had stepped into the city as a 15-year-old ‘dancing girl’ from the Rajasthani Scheduled Caste community of Nats. Back in her village in Dausa, Rajasthan, Shabnam and her four sisters earned a livelihood performing at weddings and local events.

“Several women from our village in Dausa district had migrated to Mumbai. I could sing and dance really well, so I came with them,” she says.

With her ghungroo and a few clothes in her bag, Shabnam found home in Congress House, a South Mumbai hub for dancers in those days. There, in rooms full of mirrors, she would perform mujra “for three to four customers” every night. She earned about Rs 700-1,000 a month, on which her ustaad, musicians and agents staked their claim.

In the Eighties, as mujras waned and dance bars picked up, Shabnam knew she had to reinvent herself. It wasn’t easy — she did not have the best looks to become a bar dancer. “So I started visiting bars on Grant Road and would ask owners to see my dance. I could perform really well.”

She impressed them easily — bending backwards and picking notes with her eyelids, and showcasing her ‘Madhuri Dikshit moves’. Soon, she got her first job at a bar. Her income more than tripled to Rs 2,000-5,000 a night.

Shabnam says that after the ban, some of her friends committed suicide and several others opted for prostitution.

Around this time, she met an agent, also from her Nat community, at Congress House. The two married and moved to a rented flat in Malvani, in Mumbai’s western suburbs.

Then came the ban. That night, Mumbai changed forever for Shabnam. She left the city with her husband and their two young sons to Dausa. For the next three years, she performed at weddings in Rajasthan. “My husband went into depression,” she says. When he was 26, he died of an epileptic fit.

With her two young sons, Shabnam would travel across Rajasthan to perform. Three years later, in 2008-09, she returned to Mumbai and joined a bar in Borivali’s Daulat Nagar, which had an orchestra licence. Shabnam started singing in a band of 12. But it was nothing like earlier. “We just dressed up and sat like statues. Sometimes there would be no live orchestra and customers listened to recorded music. Our job then was to simply dress up and stand,” she says.

Some years later, she met another bar owner, 10 years her senior, who promised to look after her sons. They married and moved to Mira Road. “Is dhande me aadmi zyada sath nahi deta. Par wo ab tak saath hai (No man stays with a bar dancer for long, but he is still with me),” she says.

Shabnam says that after the ban, some of her friends committed suicide and several others opted for prostitution. “Prostitution can be done anywhere; we don’t need a bar for that as politicians think,” she says angrily.

Shabnam is now a grandmother. She says she does not need to earn, but the charm of singing to an audience pulls her to the Borivali bar every few days. Her elder son, 22, works in a call centre and the younger one, 18, with a pharmaceutical company. “My children hate it that I come to the bar. But I cannot keep away,” she says.

The Taxi Driver

Rajendra Prasad Pal, 48, still drives at night — for his love of taking the wheel on empty streets, under the glow of street lights. But there have been better nights.

Mumbai was Bombay when he came to the city with his parents as a 20-year-old in 1991. Pal got a driver’s license in 1995 and started driving a black-and-yellow Fiat the following year. It was by chance, he says, that he once parked near Congress House and a few bar dancers squeezed themselves into the back seat of his car, requesting to be dropped to a nearby bar. Over the next few days, he started frequenting the neighbourhood, parking near Congress House at 8 pm, and getting a passenger within minutes.

“Gradually, a few dancers got to know me and they would always call me for a drop. Mind you, not every driver those days took bar dancers in their taxi,” says Pal, as he drives from Kurla to Navi Mumbai, his hand resting lightly on the steering wheel.

Shakeel Ahmed Tailoring Shop on Foras Road. (Express Photo by Amit Chakravarty)

Those years, he says, with bar dancing at its peak, a lot of restaurants and hotels would stay open till 1.30 am. And Pal always found people to drive home — if not dancers, then the clients who frequented these bars.

With his income touching more than Rs 10,000 a month, Pal realised sticking to dance bars was his best bet. He would leave home by 9.30 pm and return around 5 am. The ban on dance bars in 2005 jolted him too. Pal now works over 14 hours to make only a little more than what he earned back then. “I leave home at 6 pm and return only around 8 am. In the last 15 years, my monthly income has risen only by Rs 4,000,” he says. His four children, the eldest 20 and the youngest 11, are all studying.

Does he wants bar dancing to make a comeback? “Sheher me raunak thi, bas. Ab dar hai police ka, moral policing ka (The city had a life then. Now there is fear of the police, of moral policing),” he says. After a few seconds, he says, “So many things are wrong in this world. Why target just one thing? At least their dance let me earn my bread and butter.”

The Tailor

There was a time when Faras Street never slept. In the Eighties and the Nineties, matchbox-like hutments held mujras through the night, and in the wee hours, tired bar dancers would make their way home through its cluttered lanes.

Here, in this South Mumbai pocket, Mohammed Shamshad’s four tailors and their four sewing machines rattled until 1.30 every night, stitching lehengas and blouses for the dancers. Today, Shamshad, 59, has two machines and one tailor.

According to various estimates, between 50,000 and a lakh bar dancers lived in Faras Street and Congress House, whose chawls once housed bar dancers and which stayed up all night. Today, the chawls are in decay, with many of them making way for high rises.

A tailor in Faras Street for 26 years, Shamshad says he would charge Rs 300 for stitching “simple lehengas and blouses”. “When mujras were popular, blouses with long sleeves were in demand, but bar dancers preferred tighter blouses with short sleeves,” he says.

When the dance bars shut in 2005, Shamshad claims the dancers owed him about Rs 10 lakh. “Maine sab paison par mitti daal diya (I forgot all my money),” he says.


Right to work vs exploitation, trafficking

the issue of dance bars is a contested one. Its supporters frame it as an issue involving the right to work — also upheld by courts. Some have framed it as a debate between obscenity and art and freedom of speech, but police and lawmakers have consistently pointed to how the bars operate in a grey zone, which makes the dancers vulnerable to exploitation and human trafficking. While striking down some of the stringent provisions of the Maharashtra law, the Supreme Court upheld the provision regarding the working hours — from 6 pm to 11.30 pm — and restraining customers from throwing or showering money on the dancers. Moreover, there is the issue of location, with some arguing for zoning restrictions so that there are no dance bars in residential areas.

Over the next few years, his daily customers dropped from 25 to around two-three. “Now I don’t stitch lehengas, only salwar-suits for the bar dancers who stayed back in Faras Street.” Across the chawl lives Syed Rehman Khoja, 54. A tailor for 23 years, Khoja shut his shop three years ago and put it up on rent.  Khoja says bar dancers would get kundan- or zardozi-embroidered lehengas for their birthdays for Rs 3,000-4,000. “Everyone in the chawl would know it is a dancer’s birthday just by looking at her lehenga,” Khoja says.

The Waiter

It is well beyond 8 pm on a Tuesday night. The orchestra plays to an empty hall, its white-cushioned sofas dimly lit by blue neon lights. Four women in lehengas and with heavy makeup stand idle in a corner. “I have been standing since 4 pm. Not a single tip,” says one of the women, a former bar dancer.

This three-storeyed bar in South Mumbai once had a dance bar with 50-70 dancers and 70 other people on the rolls. It now has an orchestra licence, with over a dozen singers and musicians. For Padmanabha Shetty, who watches the orchestra from a distance, a steel plate resting between his hand and waist, the empty hall is fast fuelling his worry — he may never be able to buy a flat.

Shetty came to Maharashtra in 1983 from Karnataka. There were just bars then. It would take a few years for bar dancing to sweep in. When it did, he moved to Nataraj Hotel in the east of Mumbai to work as a waiter for the next 22 years. The tips that flowed in cushioned his life. In 2002, he moved to this Tardeo bar.

Some nights, the tips would go up to Rs 1,500-2,000. He planned to buy a flat in Bhandup for his wife and two children. But then came the ban — the dancers were gone, with them, the customers and their tips. Shetty, like hundreds of waiters who had grown old in the trade, waited for the ban to be lifted. It did, briefly, in 2016, when the Supreme Court granted the Tardeo bar a licence for bar dancing. In December 2017, however, following the fire in Kamala Mills that killed 14 people, Mumbai police officials refused to renew the bar’s licence.

Shetty now receives around Rs 100-150 in tips, of which he spends Rs 70 travelling to work and back. His younger son studies in Class 7 and the elder one is in his final year of college. “We never thought bar dance would end. Everyone was happy,” he says.

The Hawker

Late evenings on Faras Street, the feriwalas would go door to door, hawking make-up, hair clips and undergarments, which they would carry on their backs — about 10 kg of it, wrapped in blue plastic sheets.

The ban on bar dancers hit the feriwalas hard — their numbers have dwindled in the last decade and a half. “The market is not like before,” says Jamal Ahmed, 32, who has been selling clips, lipstick and nail paints since 2002.  Ahmed says he used to earn Rs 500-700 a day before 2005, but now, he barely makes Rs 100 a day.

Ajmad Ali, 44, from Balrampur, UP, made the city his home when he was 13. Over the years, he began selling undergarments for dancers. Earlier, he would sell petticoat (underskirts) for lehengas and blouse pieces, but after the ban, with demand falling, he stuck to selling lingerie.

“Those were the days to remember. The dancers would be very demanding — they wanted different patterns for everything they bought,” says Ali, whose daily earnings of about Rs 250 are never enough for his family, which includes his six children.

“I will return to UP, do farming,” he says as he lifts his 15-kg load on his shoulders. “Ab yahan kuchch nahi bacha (There is nothing left here).”


Story so far

August 15, 2005: State government bans all dance bars in a bid to prevent ‘immoral activities’, trafficking

April 2006: Bombay High Court turns down ban on grounds of right to equality and right to practise any profession

July 2013: SC upholds HC order allowing dance bars to operate

June 2014: State government passes Dance Bar Regulation Bill, bringing in stringent provisions to run dance bars, among them the condition that liquor can’t be served in performance area

October 2015: SC strikes down several provisions in state law, directs Maharashtra government to give licences to dance bars

2016: Maharashtra passes new Bill to allow bar dancing, but sets stringent conditions

January 17, 2019: SC sets aside some of these provisions, among them removal of clause mandating CCTV cameras in bars, bar dancer having to be of “good character”, minimum distance of 1 km of bar from religious or educational institutions. It has, however, upheld bar timings between 6 and 11.30 pm

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