Dancing queens: Transgenders raise the bar in Mumbai's dance circuit

It’s 12.30 pm in the afternoon and she has just woken up to a cup of tea made by her sister. The next few hours are spent with her sister’s family and catching up with her mother, before getting ready for her performance at a hotel in Panvel — a central suburb of Mumbai.

Thirty six year old Simran is a rage in the Mumbai bar circuit and she is a transgender. When I asked her about the police raids on four ‘illegal’ dance bars in Mumbai last week, she just dismissed the story. “Yeh sab politics hai. Raids toh humari life ka hissa hai. Isme toh sab miley huye hai. Baat toh paise ki hai (This is all politics. Raids are part of our lives. Everyone is involved in this. It is all about money)."

With an estimated 20 percent of cross-dressing men in the Mumbai bar scene, it is one demographic that is steadily growing. “It just shows that there aren’t enough women out there and a demand that is filled by the transgenders, who are very talented, work hard on their performance and seek appreciation. There is also a feeling amongst the dance bar owners that a transgender presence brings luck,” informs Suhail Abbasi, founder trustee, Humsafar Trust, a leading NGO working in the LGBT space.

And business is good for transgenders such as Simran, who are often invited to private shows and weddings. She is one of the few who has learned ballet and her mujra numbers are a rage. As the only earning member of her family, Simran is part of the trade since the mid-90s.

Simran

Simran. Photo by Smita Deshmukh

Though the 2006 bar dance ban affected many girls, some like Simran were in touch with their customers directly. “Yeh ban ka koi matlab hai kya? Yeh mera phone kaafi hai (This ban has no meaning when my cellphone is with me!)" But the truth is that many bar girls were lost to the sex work and that included the transgenders, who are now eager to get back to work, rather than beg on the streets.

With the SC to hear the plea of bar owners on the new law of Maharashtra government, under which they have to adhere to 26 strict conditions to get a licence, dancers like Simran are unimpressed. “Yeh CCTV camera rakhega toh kaun customer aayega? (If you have CCTV cameras outside, which customer will come inside)," she questions.

Discuss court and law, and the dancer comes up with a simple explanation. “The government is earning tax through the licence, the owners earn part of our earnings and we are in business too. It is the cops that harass us all the time. That needs to be controlled. Ab yeh neta log ko samajtha nahi hai kya (Don’t these politicians understand this),” she asks.

While the Centre has framed a policy of reservation for transgenders under the OBC category, it is far from empathetic to the community on the ground level. And it is left to the NGOs like Humsafar to look into their issues. “They are our target group in terms of HIV intervention and violence they face at work. Hats off to them in the way they handle situations like those and still continue to work,” explains Suhail Abbasi.

Even as the Maharashtra government passed the Dance Bar Regulation Bill, which has provisions for stringent action against the violators, it is doing nothing to protect the health and security of the women, as well as the growing number of transgenders in the business, states Ashok Row Kavi, founder, Humsafar Trust. “There is a bar dancer's association. It was part of the petition, which fought against the ban on the dance bars, which has been ignored. Even the NGOs working with them were not consulted in drafting this bill. The bill is obviously drafted by the state government to harass the women and transgenders and stop them from practicing their trade,” added Row Kavi.

Calling the bill a hetero-hegemonic mindset, Ashok Row Kavi asked, “Will the wooden plank surrounding the dancing arena ensure the conduct of the men in the bars? The purported aim is to “stop the minds of youth from being corrupted” that can be prevented in a simple way — teach the youth how to control their drinking and their wandering hands. The intent should be strict laws like the western countries, without infringing on the privacy of people entering such places,” he added.

Away from all this debate, Simran is getting ready for her mujra in the opening gala night of Kashish, the Mumbai International Queer Film Festival on 25 May. “I have a new outfit and rehearsals are on. Jarur aana (Do come),” she says.

You can follow the author here @smitadeshmukh


Published Date: May 23, 2016 07:11 pm | Updated Date: May 23, 2016 07:11 pm



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