Bar Dancer on the Ban: An Interview with Saloni
Cinematographer: Avijit Mukul Kishore
Duration: 00:08:46; Aspect Ratio: 1.333:1; Hue: 275.941; Saturation: 0.118; Lightness: 0.272; Volume: 0.109; Cuts per Minute: 0.228; Words per Minute: 137.523
Summary: Dancing in bars of Bombay and other parts of Maharashtra began in 1970s. It was a device to attract more customers to the bars and boost up sale of alcohol. The Govt. initially encouraged it in order to increase their revenue. The practice also turned out to be a modernized version of commercial dance. It provided livelihood to large number of women including many migrants from neighbouring states and countries. Many women from traditional courtesan, devdasi and other such commercial dancing communities had opted for dancing in bars. As the feudal patronage dried up dancing at bars, other than in marginal capacity in Bollywood cinemas, became the only option for these women. In 2005, the Maharashtra government proposed to ban dancing in the bars on the pretext of public morality. The proposal sparked wide public debate on issues of sexual morality, women’s rights and right to livelihood. The civil society got vertically divided on the issue. Still the Govt. went ahead and implemented the ban on 15th August, independence day of India, rendering approximately 70,000 women jobless.
This is an interview with a bar dancer in the intermediary period when the petitions against the ban was pending in front of the Bombay court. Saloni was a celebrated dancer in Ellora bar. She migrated from a village in Muradabad, near Delhi, with the dream of becoming an accomplished dancer. Unlike many other dancers she neither has much of a personal life in Bombay, nor is she active in any forum such as bar dancers’ union. Bit of a recluse, Saloni just wants to dance.
Saloni is in full dancing costume and make up. Determined to not miss the opportunity to once more wear the make up and costume, Saloni was very responsive during the shooting of her dance. But she turned out to be a reluctant interviewee.
Shot by Avijit Mukul Kishore.
Interviewee (S), Interviewer- Madhusree (M)
M- Tell me how do you feel pursuing this profession?
S- Which work?
M- This work of dancing?
S- I like it.
M- If you are given an alternative profession to choose from would you opt for something else?
S: No. I will not.
For Saloni, the prized dancer at Ellora bar commercial dancing is a matter of autonomy. She believes protocol of an office job (something that middle class people like to believe, is a dream for every one who is out of that charmed circle) would be far more oppressive. Many women had come to bar dancing due to some constraints and may not mind opting out if they could get an alternative work with similar financial facility. But for some people like Saloni it is a matter of passion too. Something one can make out by watching her dancing. She dances with abundance, completely oblivious of her audience – a practice which is not common in commercial dancing. (for her dance see other events in this site – 'Bar Dancers_Post ban performance at Ellora Bar')
Ellora Bar, Bombay
An attempt at retrieving a History 2:
"Retrieving histories of the sexual subaltern are essential to countering the dogmas of nationhood, morality and tradition that frame public discussions on sexuality as a binary between a tradition and modernity." Ratna Kapoor
The bar girl and the 'Traditional Sex Worker'
Saloni's references to being from Moradabad, in UP, (a town with a strong tawaif tradition), childhood functions where she learnt to dance, and her shy allusion to Govinda being 'from our side' and 'like her brother' (a widely circulated rumour among bar dancers being that Govinda belongs to a 'traditional' dancing community) point to her possibly belonging to what ethnographers have refer to as 'traditional sex work' communities see here
A survey found about 50 percent of the women who were interviewed were from backward castes, marginalized communities and former criminal notified tribes of madhya pradesh, uttar pradesh and rajasthan - bedia, chari, rajnat, dhanawat, dehredar, nat and gandharva. The adoption of "dance names" under which women perform often makes religious affiliation hard to determine. Caste identity markers are similarly obscured, as surnames associated with "traditional sex work communities" are dropped, and the non-permanence of sexual aliances means a shiftingness of both names and surnames. Girls sometimes perform under names given by chaahne waalas.
The bedia, chari, rajnat, dhanawat, dehredar, nat and gandharvaare what the colonial archive and modern ethnographers refer to as "traditional sex work communities ". These are once roving communities of musicians, bards, genealogists, acrobats, dancers, entertainers, sex workers, and even brigands, who were criminalized and settled by the colonial state. Accounts of an immemorial, ahistorical 'tradition' of sex work in these communities appear to date to the same period as their criminalisation. What was relationship between the criminalisation, the pauperization and the emergence of brothel based prostitution? When and how did the occupational fluidity, and peripatetic lifestyles that characterized these communities crystallize into 'sex work', and when did sex work become a 'tradition'?
Meanwhile in another time and age, lifestyles and livelihoods are still lived in the intersticesof a rigidly classificatory legality. Dancers who are sexual entertainers, whether they belong to these communities, or more metropolitan forms of affiliation, still carry the taint of criminality and run the risk of banishment.
For an ethnographic account of one such community see Chaste Wives and Prostitute Sisters: Patriarchy and Prostitution among the Bedias of India, Anuja Agrawal, (2007)
See Also Annotations on The Politics of Clothing and the construction of Tradition
safety at workplace
M-So you like dancing? So how do you feel about dancing?
M: You love dancing is it? How do you feel when you dance?
S: I love it mainly because there is no rok-tok (restriction) in it. We get enough money also and I like it. It's good, there is no problem. In other work there will be a rigid work timing also which this profession does not. We cannot work like that.
M: What are you saying? If you do not come on time here then?
S: It's not as bad as other works. For other profession one has to go time to time. You will have to say that you will be a little late. In this profession there are no hard and set rules like that. Come and leave whenever one wishes to.
M: In this you can hardly sleep you work late night right?
S: That I balance in the day.
M: Now when this dancing is banned, how do you feel?
S: Feel very bad.
M: Why? Apart from loss of money what other reason do you state?
M- Say how do you feel?
S: I do not feel nice at all. I wish and hope that the ban is lifted because my happiness lies in dancing. We can move around where ever we wish to and also I love to dance. I am not good at articulating.
Saloni must be one of those very few people who could turn their passion and work into one. But that ideal situation is now destroyed. The ban on bar dancing not only rendered 70,000 women jobless, it has also snatched their right to performance, practice their art/skill. These women are like artisans. When denied the right to practice the only skill that they knew, they would not be able to opt for anything else in the job market.
M: Did you ever dream of becoming a dancer? What did you want to become?
S: I used to dance in marriage ceremonies. I just have great interest in dancing. Wherever it is I just love to dance. I might be uncomfortable in first or second song, but I start really enjoying after some time.
M: Who is your favourite dancer in films?
M: Oh! Not the old ones. Talk about the new ones.
S: No I only like her.
M: So, after Sridevi, it's Saloni , no one else like them has come on the scene yet, is it?
S- No…, there are…
Bar dancing is a distant offshoot of brand Bollywood. The dancers in bars dance to popular film songs and also fashion their styles and costumes after the favourite stars. Yet the gulf in status between the film stars and the bar dancers is widest. When the bar dancers were desperately trying to mobilize public opinion against the ban no film star came forward to lend their support. Inspite of that people's heart in India bleeds for some kind of kinship or other. For Saloni it is enough to rejoice that one film star, Govinda is somewhat related to her native land.
M- Whom do you like in heroes?
M: Don't you like Hrithik Roshan?
S: I do not like him.
M: Why he is tall and nice man.
S: Even the heart should be good.
M: So you mean to say you have seen Govinda's heart?
S: Yes I have. He is from our side.
M: Oh ok. Because he is from your side he is a good dancer?
S: No, that is not the thing. His nature is very nice. I have never met him but when I see his films I feel so. He is just the way I am. He is my brother.
M: Saloni, please don't say that you do not know about it. This connects with your life, so of course you know it. Why do you think that the government took this step?
S: I don't really know why. They say this is dirty but I do not feel so. It has become dirty only now. Now that we do waiter service, customers use indecent language with us. They ask us out. Since dancing is banned now customers are taking advantage of us. They say even if you did not come with us earlier, now you definitely will. If that is what we want to do, we would not do waiter service at all. Yet we are really working very hard. Even if we do not know this work we are trying to learn.
Saloni shares the changes and the difficulties that bar dancers have to face since the ban got implemented.
It is found that bar dancers were well protected in the bars earlier. Unwarranted touching or interaction with any dancer meant warning to the customer, they could also be told to leave. After the ban some dancers have been given alternative job as waiteress. The physical proximity to the customers that the new job requires has made them far more vulnerable to verbal and physical abuse. Not only the income has gone down as customers do not tip as lavishly as they used to on dance performances, the dignity of a performer has also vanished.
M: Why are they talking to you like this now? And why did they not behave like this earlier?
M- Asking you to go with them… such things, they did not say earlier?
S- No, they did not.
M- Why do they say these things now?
S: I don't know. This is because we never used to get close to them. But now we have to stand next to them, because we have to refill their drinks constantly. When we used to dance, we used to dance on the stage and they used to watch us from a distance, so they just could not speak to us. If they wanted to talk, they had to give out money, and then we would go to them, and talk. Even then because of the music, we could hear some of their things but not all.
M: Do you wish to work in films?
M: Like Sridevi?
S- But film work is much dirty. It's much dirtier than our work. They say our dancing is dirty. What dirty? We don't feel that it's dirty? If it was dirty, then would we dance here for so many years? And we have no interest doing dirty work. It is becoming dirty now.
The shy girl gets animated while defending her profession against the much hyped film works.
M- Ok, let's not talk about sad things. You are an artist, let's talk about art. Have you ever seen anyone else dancing that made you want to dance like them?
S- I can dance on anything mostly, but I can't do the nagin dance (a popular snake- woman dance). If I see anyone else dance on it, I feel like being able to dance too. It's a Sridevi's dance too!
M- Right, the Sridevi's nagin dance! Okay, have you taken any training in dance?
Saloni is actually comes from a rural dancing community. Migrated from the hills of Garowal to the big city with aspiration like any other migrant. She even made it to an extent. She was the most celebrated dancer in her bar and something more could have happened to her in near future. But the ban has put an abrupt halt to her progress. This small town girl from the hills knows nothing else to survive on. Choices are limited: return to the starving village, become a destitute in the big city, low end sex work.
art of dancing
M- So how did you learn?
S- Just. In our village, on various occasions like birthdays etc, we play dholak (percussion), sing and dance.
M- So which dance did you see that inspired you to learn dancing?
S- Nothing like that. Just on my own.
M- On your own?
M- How long have you been in Bombay?
S- It has been ten years.
M- so you have become a bambaiya! (belonging to Bombay)
Do you go home?
M- How often do you go?
S- I just came back on this 15th. I keep going every one or two years.
M- Who all are at home?
S- Mummy and three brothers.
A very common story of working class women. They work so that the brothers at home can study. Actually they work so that the brothers can grow up to be contemptuous of their sisters who worked through their entire lives in some unrespectable vocations. All good girls should think of welfare of the others and not of her desires! But after much probing Saloni confesses her desire to be decked up. It is evident in the elaborate way she prepared herself for the shoot. The purpose was irrelevant; she was just exploiting the opportunity to wear the fineries again, to be on stage once more, to rise beyond the mundane atleast one more time. She is a woman, she is a performer – and she desires no other way of living.
Ellora Bar, Bombay
code of conduct
M- Where are you from?
S- Muradabad, near Delhi.
M- Do others at home work too?
M- Who all at home work? Who all earn at home?
S- The elder brother earns. The other two brothers study.
M- So, are you happy with what you earn? Or you want to earn more?
S- I feel like earning more money.
M- What will you do with more money?
S- What will I do? I will take care of my family, would keep them happy, would take care of my mother.
M- Won't you take care of yourself?
S- I would be happy if my mother is happy.
M- Should one not take care of one self?
S- Yes, one should. But I am not doing anything that would give me difficulty.
M- But don't you want to buy things for yourself, travel?
S- I am not so keen on traveling, but I really like to dress up. When dancing was happening, we used to dress up a lot, but since dancing has stopped, we don't. Even if we do, we are asked reason for dressing up. They tell us to dress down, wear suit.(an Indian dress with long shirt and pants). They don't even let us wear saris (another Indian dress).
M- So you can't wear what you are wearing now to the bar?
M- You feel like wearing such stuff?