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Dance Bars Set To Re-Open In Maharashtra, But Are The Dancers Really Happy?

19/12/2015 9:09 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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Punit Paranjpe/Reuters

This article is from Open Magazine.

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By Haima Deshpande

Fatima, 45 years old, is seated on a mattress laid out on a floor with a garishly printed carpet. Three plastic chairs are strewn around. To the far left of the mattress is an earthen pot filled with water. There's a steel glass floating near the top. The small rented room is located in Malvani, a northern suburb of Mumbai. There are three young girls seated near Fatima. They all seem to be around 15 years of age and their faces are caked with make-up.

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A dance girl prepares to go on stage at a bar in Borivali (Photo: Prashant Nadkar/The Indian Express)

"Arre tu bahut hi kauli hai. Thoda body bana le phir dekhenge (You are too young. Let your body fill in and then you come back)," says Fatima, dismissing the first girl. The other two meet her standards. They will work as dancers at a well-known dance bar in Borivali East in suburban Mumbai. Each of the girls will give Fatima, a recruiter for dance bars in the city, a one-time payment of Rs 2,000. Demand for her recruitment services has shot up with the Supreme Court order of 26 November, which dismissed an appeal by the Maharashtra government to ban dance bars in the city. In 2005, the then state government had closed down dance bars calling it an 'evil influence' that broke up families. About 2,500 bars, including 350 licensed ones, had to shut shop and 150,000 dancers were rendered jobless. The Supreme Court has now directed the state government to issue licences to dance bars within two weeks from the date of its order. The dance bars will be back because the state's legal team failed to explain to the Court bench why dance performances in high-end bars or hotels were allowed while those in cheaper bars and hotels were slammed as derogatory, exploitative and corrupting of public morality.

Before the ban, Fatima, who had migrated to the city from Morena in Madhya Pradesh, danced at a bar in Borivali East. Fair, with deep-set black eyes, she can't dance anymore now because age has caught up with her. "I used to earn about Rs 1 lakh a month. I had a lavish lifestyle for the six years I worked in the bar," says Fatima. "After the ban, I became a babysitter, domestic help and an escort, but the money was a pittance compared to that of a dancer. I was a belly dancer and the clients loved it. Now I have diabetes and high blood pressure. I have also put on a lot of weight," she adds.

They all have crystal clear requirements: dance girls have to have a fair complexion, and if they are not fair, then they have to look sexy.

Bar owners will also give Fatima a commission of Rs 2,000 for every new dancer she brings in. They all have crystal clear requirements: dance girls have to have a fair complexion, and if they are not fair, then they have to look sexy. To this, Fatima adds her own criteria, which include a minimum bust size of 34 inches, a height of at least 5 foot 6 inches and a slender frame. "The bust size is important because it gives shape to the hips. Dancers cannot be flat-chested," she says.

Fatima is currently tied by a six-month contract to the dance bar and has to find 35 girls by the end of December. She cannot recruit for any other dance bar until the expiry of the contract. She will then be paid Rs 40,000 a month apart from a commission of Rs 2,000 per dancer.

Pan to Mulund, an eastern suburb of Mumbai. Clad in a pair of flame-red tights, bottle-green printed tunic and brown wedges, Payal is ready for an 'interview' with a dance bar owner in Dadar. The 22-year-old is a trained dancer who is proficient in hip hop, salsa and Bollywood numbers. Beautiful and charming, it is difficult to identify Payal as a transvestite at first glance. "I will be lying if I tell you that it is easy for someone like me to get a job. I come from a business family but have been ostracised by them for being who I am. As a dancer, I will earn well," she says.

Fatima too says that many bar owners are keen on employing transvestites in keeping with feedback from clients. However, not any transvestite will do; they must be beautiful, fair, slender and sophisticated. "I stand a great chance as I am English speaking too," adds Payal.

Before the 2005 ban, Deepa Bar in Vile Parle, Topaz at Grant Road and Baywatch in Dadar were the most popular dance bars in Mumbai; they had the best dancers and the richest clientele. At the time, Tarannum Jaffer Khan, who earned the sobriquet 'crorepati bar girl' was in her early twenties, a dancer at Deepa Bar owned by Sudhakar Shetty, who is now in the real estate business. Cricketers, film stars, politicians and builders were regular patrons, and in the five years that she danced there, Tarannum earned so well that she had to employ a chartered accountant to file her tax returns. She owned a bungalow in Versova and a long list of high-end clients who went to Deepa Bar only to watch her perform. A raid on her house netted Rs 22 lakh worth of jewellery, cash and property investments. Every bar dancer wanted to earn as much as Tarannum and Deepa Bar became the ultimate dream destination for many of them. Now Deepa Bar no longer exists and Baba Ramdev's Patanjali Ayurveda has opened an outlet at the site.

Abdul Karim Telgi, the incarcerated counterfeiter, made the Topaz Bar at Grant Road famous. He reportedly showered Rs 90 lakh on a dancer on one night at the bar. The name of the dancer was never revealed. Topaz also saw a steady stream of diamond merchants, stock brokers, politicians and cricketers trooping in every night. The dancers there earned over Rs 1 lakh a month. The bar had three major halls, including a mujra hall for VIP guests and a separate room for top clients. It also received several female patrons who splurged money on the dancers. Getting a dancing job at Topaz Bar was difficult: only the best looking girls were recruited, and some were from well-off families. Located near Chitra Talkies in Dadar, the Baywatch Bar too had its share of female patrons. The interior was dark but not dingy, and it was done up like a Bollywood set.

Even when illegal dance bars continued after the ban, women customers continued to visit them. "Despite the ban, dance bars were operating. I run one. There are many women in high power jobs and some from business families who visit my bar. They spend lavishly on the dancers and often request one-to- one interactions with them. I do not get into all that," says an owner of an illegal dance bar.

Many former bar owners such as Manjit Singh Sethi, who was the president of the State Bar Owners Association, are not keen on getting back into the business again. Eight years ago, he reopened his dance bar to the public as a 'family restaurant' and its success surprised him. "I will never get back into the dance bar business again. I do not want to go through all the problems I faced then. Never again," he says.

On the other hand, Varsha Kale, president of the Bharatiya Bar Girls Union, is elated that dance bars will reopen again. "The Maharashtra government really did not have a case against dance bars. Why don't they grant permission for adult entertainment bars on the lines of those in Las Vegas? It will definitely start with a big bang now and it is a victory for our struggle; there is no indecency going on in the dance bars," says Kale.

When the dance bars reopen, there will be celebration. There will also be much more competition now

Vishal Sawant, owner of the Utsav Bar in Borivali East, has been a busy man since the order of the Supreme Court. He has been speed dialling the best of his former dancers to return and also recruiting new ones. "When the dance bars reopen, there will be celebration. There will also be much more competition now," says Sawant.

Shabnam, a dancer-turned-singer at the live orchestra in Utsav Bar, cut short a visit to Jaipur for her sister's funeral to return to Mumbai after the court order was passed. A grandmother at the age of 45, Shabnam's family has never known about her profession. "I used to be a dancer, but after the ban I started singing at a live orchestra. No one in my family knows that I worked at a dance bar," says Shabnam. She also harbours a fear of losing her job once the dance bars reopen. The live orchestra will be replaced by live dance performances and girls like Shabnam whose bodies have aged may not be needed anymore.

The likelihood of dance bars opening has attracted several aspiring women dancers from other states as well. Mithu, a 17-year-old from Dhanbad, Jharkhand, told her parents that she would be a bar dancer so that she could send them money and alter their poverty-stricken lifestyle. She came by Chhapra Express and at Thane station was received by an uncle who is now inquiring at bars if they have a job for her.

"For the time being, I have found a job with Red Rose Bar in Thane. It is a ladies' service bar," says Mithu. "There is no money. I will quit soon and look for a job in a dance bar in Mumbai," she adds. Being her family's only hope for a good life, they are not averse to her dancing in a bar. Clothes, make-up and fancy shoes are on her immediate wish list and her aunt is helping her procure these. Since her arrival in Thane a month ago, Mithu has been busy perfecting the Kareena Kapoor hip-shaker Mera Naam Mary Hai from the movie Brothers.

Though Varsha Kale and her union have been working towards better working conditions and higher remuneration for bar girls, bar owners want to keep costs l0w. The girls are not given any written contracts; all deals are verbal. The duration of the employment usually depends on the rapport the dancer shares with her employer. A majority of the bar owners also take away 60 per cent of the tips earned by the dancers.

According to Kale, there will be no stopping the bars once they reopen. "The state government has been trying to find reasons to keep the bars shut. The government allows dancing in three- star and five-star hotels, so why not in these dance bars? That is discrimination. These bar girls have a right to earn a livelihood," says Kale.

The Indian Hotel and Restaurant Association had also set up a sub- committee to chalk out guidelines for dance bars. According to Bharat Thakur, head of the sub-committee, what went on many years ago in some illegal dance bars gave a bad name to all such bars in the city. Now, owners will be handed out a set of operational guidelines.

After the ban, the industry and government has reportedly lost an estimated Rs 3,000 crore annually, but the state is still vehemently opposed to restarting them. "We will not allow dance bars to reopen. We will plug all loopholes and ensure that they remain shut," declared Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis after the Supreme Court order. An official in the Law and Judiciary Department of the government, who spoke on condition of anonymity, however says that the state government has no case to stop these bars from reopening.

The petite Smita Patil, daughter of the late RR Patil, Maharashtra's former deputy Chief Minister and home minister who had initially imposed the ban, is adamant that she will take to the streets to stop the dance bars from reopening. "I will protest on the streets. I will garner support from everyone I can to stop these bars from operating," says Patil.

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Customers at a private performance in a Mumbai dance bar wave currency notes to shower the dancers with (Photo: Punit Paranjpe/Reuters)

Bar owners however, argue that the dance bar culture is not anything new but a continuum in Mumbai with its roots lying in the erstwhile mujra tradition and kothas which once existed in the city and are often depicted in Bollywood films. "No other city in India has been able to emulate the dance bars of Mumbai," says Sethi. Those who frequented the mujra kothas were from the rich underbelly of the city. As money power grew, a new class came into existence between the middle and lower middle-class. The 1980s was a boom period for high spending and their tastes changed from semi-classical and classical music of the mujra kothas to popular Bollywood numbers.

Bollywood dancers Helen and Bindu were a great inspiration for the early dance bar girls. By the mid 1980s, the transformation was complete, with heavy overtones of the adult dance clubs of the Middle East: disco lights, elevated stages, mirrors and wood-panelled walls. The clientele changed and so did the dancers. Many members of the police force secretly held stakes in these bars and they slowly became dens for underworld activity. Trafficking of women too became a serious issue.

The findings of a survey conducted by Kale and her team in 2005 indicated that 88 per cent of the dancers were aged between 19 and 30 years; 85 per cent were migrants; 42 per cent were illiterate and 68 per cent were the sole bread earners of their families. "These statistics will remain the same as many more women will come to join the new dance bars. These will be bold women who know what they want," says Fatima.

For Basaruddin Tamboli, a 65-year-old tailor at Grant Road, the Supreme Court order is great news, perhaps the best he has had in the past 15 years. He was an owner of a successful tailoring cum garment shop patronised by bar girls. When business was at its peak in the 1990s, Tamboli had 15 sewing machines and 25 workers. "They bought so much. They bought clothes costing up to Rs 5,000. They would pick up at least three or four pieces on a weekly basis," says Tamboli. He sold the shop, the machines and paid off his workers. He found it difficult to make ends meet and started a paan shop. "I could not match my previous earnings, though," he says. "I will have to take a loan and get moving again." He recently visited Mumbai's Chor Bazaar to find out if he could get sewing machines at throwaway prices. Tailors in Malvani, Malad, Mira Road and Thane's Lokmanya Nagar--areas with a high density of bar girls--also have cause for celebration.

There is some confusion about the kind of music that will be played at the new dance bars, since tastes have changed in a decade. It has to be vibrant, and the competition will be tough, explains an artiste from Ellora Hotel in Borivali.

Owners are also planning to experiment with new offerings. One of them plans to start a Marathi dance bar where instead of Bollywood numbers, there will be lavani, a traditional dance of the state that has risqué undertones. "There are many lavani dancers across Maharashtra. I want to bring them to Mumbai," says a man who is setting up one such bar. He has established contacts with lavani dancers from Satara and will recruit them once his bar is renovated. And then they will get dancing.

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