When globalization, dominant morality and caste clash, it is women who get trampled. Nowhere was this more evident than in the controversy that arose over so-called ‘dance bars’ in Mumbai in the new millennium. These were bars where men drank, and women performed traditional and Bollywood-inspired dances for their pleasure.
In 2005, responding to protests against such bars by groups who claimed they were a corrupting influence and immoral, the Maharashtra Government amended the Bombay Police Act, under which such places are licensed, and banned this type of dancing in bars. As a result, an estimated 75,000 women lost their primary source of income and another 2,00,000 people associated with these establishments were also put out of work.
The controversy around this issue stretched out over more than a decade. But what was never fully appreciated was either the consequences of such a ban on the women who danced in the bars, or the caste angle that undergirded both the existence of dance bars and their eventual closure.
Sameena Dalwai has skillfully brought together many different, and important, strands in her book. She has gone beyond the obvious narration of how and why these establishments blossomed, or the life stories of some of the women. She locates the issue within the historical perspective of how women from certain castes had always danced for men with money or with a higher caste status. Examples of such women performers are abundant not just in Maharashtra but also across India.
Shortly after it came into effect, the ban was challenged in the Bombay High Court by organizations representing the bar dancers. In 2006, the court held that the ban was unconstitutional. It declared the amendment to the Bombay Police Act null and void.
However, the matter did not end there. The Maharashtra Government filed a Special Leave Petition (SLP) in the Supreme Court and succeeded in getting an interim order that continued the ban until the matter was settled. The final ruling, upholding the 2006 Bombay High Court judgment only came in January 2019. But by then the damage had been done to the lives of the women thrown out of work in 2005. Even if such bars were to open again, it is highly unlikely that many of those who danced in them in the years before the ban will be able to find work.
Describing what it meant to be a ‘bar girl’, Dalwai writes, ‘the Mumbai bar girl fills the space of erotic labour, in the context of India as exposed to the forces of globalization. Her occupation and her caste mark her as a “bad” woman. She is an object of erotic pleasure, and is mostly from a lower caste background.’
The majority of bar girls in Mumbai belonged to ‘traditional performing communities’. Others were daughters of men who had lost their jobs in the industrial downturn in the 1980s, domestic and piece-rate workers, or daughters of sex workers. The caste groups were Nat, Deredar, Bedia, Kanjar and Gandharva, performing castes from Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal.
Post-2000, Mumbai saw a noticeable increase in the number of establishments that served liquor but also showcased dance performances by young women, attractively dressed Bollywood style. In fact, the author describes one such place to be like a film set with women in glittering ghagra cholis dancing to Bollywood music, and having money literally showered on them.
The women who danced in these bars saw an opportunity to earn money without necessarily being forced to have sex with the customers. The money they earned was also far in excess of anything they could have earned doing any other work, as domestic workers for instance. Dalwai’s research showed that at a minimum, a bar dancer could earn Rs 10,000 a month, and usually much more. These earnings became a crucial part of the income of their families, allowing them to live better, and educate their children. It might not have brought them respectability, but it gave them financial independence of a kind they could never have imagined given their caste and class background.
It is precisely this that brought forward the accusations of ‘easy money’, a strange formulation where somehow the money higher castes and classes earn is ‘hard-earned’, and when the poor turn to a lucrative business it is termed ‘easy’.
Dalwai’s research brings out the many complexities in this issue, which cannot be reduced to a simple morality tale as some people, including many in the media, tried to portray it. Even feminist groups had different perspectives. While some backed the bar girls and their right to work and saw the ban as discriminatory against women, Dalit feminists argued that Dr BR Ambedkar had urged Dalits to seek out dignified professions rather than stick to those within which they were born because of caste hierarchies.
Also, the debate on whether sex work can be accepted as ‘work’ and can be viewed outside the issue of trafficking continues even today. However, Dalwai notes that today feminists in India are acknowledging sexuality and women’s choices in a way they did not a couple of decades back.