Who’s Afraid of Dance Bars?

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No matter how often the courts decide in favour of dance bars, the Maharashtra government will not let them operate

BACK IN 2002, Varsha Kale began to take trains in Mumbai late into the night. An activist then in her mid-thirties, she was forming what was in all likelihood India’s first all-women’s political party, the Womanist Party of India. She’d usually start her day by catching a Western Railways train to reach a meeting of well- to-do women in South Mumbai, then travel to Dadar, where she would switch to a Central line train to meet a group of housewives in Thane, then return to Dadar again to hop from the Central to Western line so she could reach another meeting of Goregaon housewives and slum-dwellers, then take the Western line back to Dadar, where a group of working Maharashtrian women would be waiting to meet her. She’d commute thus across the city, sometimes on all three suburban railway lines, until she’d find herself at midnight, exhausted, in one of the last few local trains of the night travelling to her home in the distant Mumbai suburb of Dombivli.

The party unsuccessfully contested several seats in the 2004 state elections in Maharashtra, before disappearing altogether. But it was in those late-night trains that a new window to the city opened up for Kale. Whichever railway line she was on, the empty trains would suddenly erupt into a profusion of colours and noise as beautiful young women entered the compartment.

“Wherever it was, in South Bombay or the far end like Thane, girls kept getting in or off,” Kale says.

These women were Mumbai’s famed bar dancers. They were all catching the last train to get back to their homes after finishing their shift at the bars. If Mumbai’s trains are the lifeline of the city, to Kale, the dancers were the life of those midnight trains.

Kale was fascinated. She’d watch them straighten out wads of crumpled notes. She’d watch their faces light up when calls from lovers came. She began pursuing them, chatting with them, learning about the hardships of their profession, and eventually formed a trade union of bar dancers, Bharatiya Bar Girls Union. The union fought for better wages for dancers, got identity cards made for them, and was particularly helpful when policemen conducted raids and detained dancers.

It was during this period that Kale met Geeta Shetty, a bar dancer in her twenties. “She was so beautiful,” she says. “And although she was young, she had a very strong personality. Very good leadership skills.” Shetty already had two school-going children, and although living with a lover, she was financially independent. Kale made her the secretary of the union. After the Maharashtra government banned dance bars in 2005, Shetty was one whom most journalists reached out to for comments. Kale believes that this was mainly because she was articulate and firm in her opinions.

Once the ban was in place, dancers bore the brunt of it. According to Kale, there were around 50,000 bar dancers in Mumbai when the 2005 ban was implemented. Another 25,000 consisted of the ancillary staff of waiters and cleaners. Uday Kumar Shetty, an owner of a dance bar in Ghatkopar, estimates that about 10 per cent of the dancers were absorbed as crooners in orchestra bars, at lower salaries and no tips. But a majority of them who knew of no life beyond dancing in a bar, just disappeared. Shetty says many returned to their ancestral villages or got into sex work.

“Imagine if dance bars returned. New dancers will come. I know many of the younger sisters and daughters of the old dancers would want to enter the industry,” says Varsha Kale, president, Bharatiya Bar Girls Union

KALE CLAIMS TO have seen many former dancers become shadows of what they were earlier. In the last few years, she has met several of them. She once encountered some working out of a brothel in Kolkata’s red light district Sonagachi, and another time met a few who had returned to their villages in Rajasthan to be sex workers. The children would be kept outside the house, while the mothers entertained clients along the highway near the village.

But the story that moved Kale the most is what unfolded with Geeta. It first began with the telltale bruises of domestic abuse on her face and body. Then her alcohol problem worsened. She’d get jobs either as a singer or a waitress, but never be able to hold on to them. Her children had to be moved to an orphanage. She’d disappear for long stretches of time, only resurfacing to beg Kale or other older acquaintances for money. She was eventually found dead in 2015 at a temple where she had been staying for the past few months. “Maybe she would have had such issues anyway, but I can’t imagine she would have ever reached this stage if the ban hadn’t been implemented,” Kale says. “Whenever I think of the ban now, I think of her.”

One would imagine that the recent Supreme Court judgment, which ruled against the Maharashtra government’s ban, would set off jubilation across the city’s old dance bars. But there is none. The late night trains are still bereft of life.

Former dance bar owner Uday says he along with others will apply for licences in the wake of the judgment. But this is a perfunctory gesture. They don’t expect permissions to be granted. They see it simply as the next legal step to be taken in a larger, longer campaign which will push this issue for discussion in the courts and the state Assembly.

Over the years, the courts have addressed legal dilemmas around the ban several times, arguing in essence that the government cannot impose its morality on an unwilling society. But the government has always found a way out, working around judgments and tweaking rules here and there to keep the ban in place. Even after the recent judgment, the state’s Finance Minister Sudhir Mungantiwar has been quoted as saying the government will not permit bars to reopen. The government, according to him, will either file a review petition in court or introduce an ordinance against the opening of bars.

There is good reason for cynicism. Following the 2016 Supreme Court order in favour of reopening dance bars, three reopened. According to a former dance bar owner, he along with several other former proprietors had applied for fresh licences. “Only three were allowed and it was really only for show. So they could say that in principle they were following the court order,” says the former bar owner, requesting anonymity. “But it was good we didn’t get the licences because the police were coming to those bars to check again and again, and basically harassing everybody there.”

“People always get excited when a judgment comes out. But many of us won’t come back into the business. Is Mumbai even interested in dance bars anymore?,” asks Manjit Singh Sethi, former president of State Bar Owners Association

Less than a year after the licences were granted, they were cancelled again over the pretext of non-compliance with fire safety norms. Even after the cancellation, one of the three bars, Indiana in South Mumbai’s Tardeo area, has been raided several times. According to the police, women employed as waiters and singers performed dances on the premises. The owner of this bar, Bharat Thakur, is a prominent individual. He is the president of the Dance Bars’ Association in the city and very often at the forefront to get dance bars legalised. He did not respond to Open’s requests for a comment. According to another former dance bar owner, when one criticises the rules openly, the police become particularly harsh towards them.

“It’s like walking with a bulls’ eye mark on your forehead,” he says. “For many of us, it’s best to shut up and go about it quietly.”

Shabnam (name changed upon request) is a crooner in the same bar she once worked as a dancer. She is nothing like the bar dancers of popular imagination. Middle-aged now, perhaps nearing 50, she’s dressed in the uniform of a middle-class woman in Mumbai, salwar kameez, a thick dash of vermillion and a mangalsutra, artificial stones on her bangles, and a bag that she grips tightly under an arm. These days at the bar, she sings sad Hindi songs, she says. The owner of the bar occasionally yells at her and asks her to sing newer peppier numbers, although she feels he secretly likes her songs. “It’s just to let out his frustration because the bar is mostly empty,” she says.

The ban was tough on her. But she was luckier than most. She found a good husband and had two children. She always had a melodious voice, and when the ban was enforced she was anyway on the wane as a dancer. “Look at me,” she says with a smile. “Do you think I’d have lasted long as a dancer?” According to her, bar dancing is a fairly short career. “Most people retire by their mid-thirties,” she says. “If you maintain yourself, maybe 40 maximum.” She is long past that.

Shabnam says it’s been so long now that she finds it difficult to recall her days as a dancer. Like several other former bar dancers, she came from another town, in Rajasthan, lured by tales of the earning opportunities as a dancer in Mumbai. “We had this woman from our town. She would visit once in two years and we would all go to meet her. She looked so beautiful, so independent. She would visit beauty parlours, she was so sure about herself. And everybody respected her in town. She might have been living in a slum in Mumbai, but here, she was something,” Shabnam says. She followed this girl to Mumbai in her mid-twenties, and found work at a bar.

With every passing judgment, she has become more anxious, she says. The owner of the place she works at is getting noticeably happier. “He thinks he will get to open the bar very soon,” she says. “If that happens, what about old dancers like me? They will replace the live orchestra with dancers. We singers will be thrown out of our jobs.”

THERE ARE QUITE A few who don’t think they will return to their old profession even if the ban is lifted. Manjit Singh Sethi, the former president of the State Bar Owners Association who ran Karishma, a popular dance bar in Dadar, says he has long moved on. Sethi has converted his bar into a respectable family restaurant. “I will never get back,” he says. “There’s too much trouble in dance bars. This is better. More respect, good money and less tension.”

Sethi is a well-recognised personality in this industry. A tough-talking Sardar with enemies both within and outside the industry (several other former bar owners dislike him), he was twice, according to gang-lore, attacked by members of the underworld. Since then, he carries two licensed pistols; a third, a double barrel rifle, is kept within arm’s reach in his office. When favourable verdicts are passed in court, he is known to perform a little ritual for photojournalists: he shoves the two pistols (without holsters) into his waist and steps onto the road with arms raised Bhangra style, looking like a strange character in a Curry Western. Around the time the ban was about to be imposed, much to the dismay of the little industry, he alleged that some members of the Nationalist Congress Party had demanded a bribe of Rs 13 crore to not enforce it.

“People always get excited when the judgment comes out,” he says. “But many of us won’t come back [into the business]. Where are the dance bars then and the old dancers? And is Mumbai even interested in dance bars anymore?”

Kale herself is not very sure if dance bars would work again. She believes if permissions are granted, there would be some initial interest in it. “But imagine if it did. New dancers will come. I know many of the younger sisters and daughters of old dancers would want to enter the industry. Business will grow. Cooks, waiters, tailors [of bar dancers], auto-rickshaw drivers [who drove the dancers to and fro from the bar will find employment and a whole side industry will start again,” she says. “That will certainly not be a bad thing, like the government says it will be.”