Seven years ago, when the Maharashtra government decided to ban most dance bars in Mumbai, life changed drastically for a section of the city that usually doesn't get talked about much. While those who owned dance bars attempted to convert their establishments into the legally-permissible 'orchestra bars', the women who did the actual dancing in dance bars were suddenly out of a job. Now that the ban has been lifted, many dance girls, as well as the owners of the bars where they worked, are rejoicing because they've got their livelihoods back and the Supreme Court has agreed with them that the ban was unfair and arbitrary.
Payal, who worked at a dance bar, is originally from Assam. She came to Mumbai at the age of 20 and was 35 when the ban came into place. By then, she had been an 'exotic dancer' in three different Mumbai dance bars, having worked for 15 years in this trade. With the ban in effect, Payal wasn't able to find work. Her age made her unsuitable as a dancer in more upscale establishments (the Maharashtra government's ruling didn't cover hotels and bars rated three stars and above).
"They took my livelihood away from me," Payal told Firstpost. "The government is in the business of starving us."
Payal says dancing in bars literally saved her family’s lives.
“I was trained to be part of the local dance troupes in Assam,” she said. “But I was just a child, I wasn’t really able to provide anything. The family was very poor.”
At 15, she and her family moved to Delhi. When her father was unable to find work, he decided they should shift to Mumbai. He didn't have better luck in this city, but a friend of his did take Payal to a dance bar and got her a job as a dancer. At first, Payal hated it.
“In our home town, we had a good family house. I wasn't used to filth, and I didn't like the men who leered,” she said. “But the family friend’s wife just grabbed me one day and gave me three tight slaps and told me to accept my good fortune at having a job at all. After that, I did.”
When the ban came into place, Payal joined the Bharatiya Dance Bar Girls Union (BGU), with the hope that it would help her find some job options.
"We kept working in some bars which were kept open," she said. "The union did their best, but I think they are also just in the business of taking our money. The police kept increasing our hafta after the ban. From every side, we were being bled dry.”
Payal says many out-of-work dancers turned to prostitution out of desperation.
"I saw so many girls go back to doing the dhandha that they used to do before dancing (ie prostitution)," she said. "Even I had to do it now and then when we ran out of money. But I had been smart earlier and never spent an extra paisa. So we survived.” she said.
While dancing at the bars might not have been the best - or the safest one - for girls like Payal, it was the lesser of two evils.
"Seven years is a long time to be left without a livelihood,” pointed out Brijesh Manjrekar, a volunteer with an NGO that works to find jobs for women. “The Maharashtra government was only inclined to provide rehabilitation programs for women who were from the state itself. But most of the women come from Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Nepal.”
Manjrekar said the decision to ban dance bars was not only unfair, but politically-motivated. Maharashtra home minister RR Patil's decision to enforce the ban was seen by some as an attempt to win local sympathy. Besides this, the move was also class-ist.
“Dance performances in well-to-do places were allowed, but the dancers who really needed the money – the poor migrants, the single mothers and so on – they were left without jobs," said Manjrekar.
Kashish, 26, who was a dancer in a dance bar, was initially hesitant to talk to Firstpost.
She is among those who found herself cornered into prostitution when the dance bar she worked in was shut down. Kashish spent a year after the ban looking for work and finding nothing. Then, the wife of the man who owned the bar where Kashish danced told Kashish to visit a man who had loaned the bar owner some money. It was more than visit: Kashish stayed on his house.
“It wasn’t very good because I couldn’t visit my siblings, and our mother is very old,” she remembered. “But at least we had money. I kept sending cash.”
A year later, Kashish was thrown out. Eventually, she found work in dance bars that were surreptitiously open. “I didn't go [work in these places] earlier because the police harass you,” she said. “They let some bars stay open during the ban so that they could take money from the owners and occasionally carry out raids to look good.”
Kashish has already lined up a job at a new bar which will open later in Dahisar. “It’s not a dirty, bad business," she said. "The owners will throw you out if you start doing dhandha with the costumers. And you can make a decent living, at least Rs 30,000. I can at least pay for the family’s bills."
Bharat Thakur, the head of the committee related to dance bars in Mumbai's Indian Hotels and Restaurants Association, also presented the role of the owner of a dance bar in an almost humanitarian light.
“We have always said that licensed dance bars are being targeted because of a few ‘black sheep.’ The government should target and ensure that illegal dance bars are shut down,” he said.
He defended dance bars, saying that many of them provided a safe livelihood for the women working in them.
“The safety of the girls is the responsibility of the bar owners. We provide them with food, salary and even a vehicle to drop them home,” he said. Shutting them down forced many of these women into the flesh trade, Thakur argued.
He reiterated that his Association is strongly against illegal dance bars.
He welcomed today's apex court verdict, from both a monetary and a humanitarian point of view.
“We have had to face a lot of financial problems and a lot of people dependent on us lost their employment,” Thakur told Firstpost from Delhi.
He estimated there are approximately 250 licensed dance bars in Mumbai and around 500 dance bars in the state. Thakur, who owned two dance bars in the eastern suburbs of Ghatkopar and Mulund, said that once the state government had banned dancing in bars, he converted them into ‘orchestra bars’.
“Many of the girls who used to work there lost their jobs when the dance bars shut down. We had to hire singers instead of dancers for the orchestras,” he said.
However, despite the cheer over the verdict, the dancers will have to wait a while for the order to be rolled back before they can return to work.
“We have to apply for licenses to re-convert our orchestra bars back to dance bars and that could take anyway between two to four months,” said Thakur.
Still, the fact that the ban has been lifted is reason enough to celebrate for women like Payal. "I know the police will keep harassing us," she said, "and the children will still face jeers, but that is our lot in life.”