Bar Dancer on the Ban: An Interview with Rekha
Cinematographer: Avijit Mukul Kishore
Duration: 00:16:35; Aspect Ratio: 1.333:1; Hue: 284.177; Saturation: 0.139; Lightness: 0.305; Volume: 0.144; Cuts per Minute: 0.060; Words per Minute: 158.748
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. Rekha, a migrant from a village in Punjab, is an active member of the Bar dancers’ union. Young, energetic, flamboyant Rekha has all the ordinary girly streaks in her – love for coloured contact lense, flirting with handsome men, desire to get married, preference for jeans etc. Yet she led an extra ordinary life of a stigmatized bar dancer. Dance is only the available means to her and she does not have any special love for dancing.
Shot by Avijit Mukul Kishore.
Interviewee Rekha (R), Interviewer- Madhusree (M)
Ellora bar, Bombay
Light banters – in preparation for the interview. The young girl's fantasy to become a femme fatale.
(casual talk about coloured contact lense)
R- Even if I wouldn't put, you would say I have! Now what can I say?
M- so what do you use the contacts for?
R- It's a number lens. I got a coloured one made.
M- so what all colours are available?
R- They are available in all colours- black, yellow, blue. Should I tell you in pure language?
M- I really want to know what all colours you have.
R- What all colours I have? I have all!M- I mean, lens colour?
R- Meaning, which ones do I like? I like purple colour, black colour, especially if mixed with tiger print shade. M- Which one do you wear?
R- Me? Purple. I really like it.
M- What if your eyes were purple in colour?
R- I would have such an effect, that Bombay would be mine.
M- Nothing! Black is the colour for eyes! Other colours don't have the same effect.
R- Don't say that! If I really had eyes of original purple colour, what all I would have done!
M- Tell me what all you would have done!
R- I would do quite a lot!
M- Dream! Tell me what all would you do?
R- What should I say! Something big.
M- 'Lot' means nothing. Tell me, what exactly?
R- What would I do...I would stand on road and hit on good looking men. I would set myself up with them.
M- But one doesn't get money in that. These good looking men don't give money.
R- They all give money, what do you know?
bar dancers union
lakshmi narayan tripathi
right of choice of livelihood
R- But no one is giving money, now at this time. The business is down, who gives money now? Even Customers are idle now, they themselves don't come anymore.M- Where do they go?.R- Where would they go? Everyone, including their wives have protested, how will they come? Customers don't even call any girl, since bars have closed down. No one is meeting anymore.
The campaign against the dance bars on the issue of public morality had the desired impact. The men who used to frequent these bars feel they are under surveillance. Some conservative women groups had showcased a few women who claimed that their husbands' addiction to dance bars had ruined their families. Things got aggravated when some television channels showed clandestine footage of the bars. The customers got scared of being exposed and started avoiding the bars. Besides without the dance programme the bars had lost its earlier charms.
Ellora bar, Bombay
M- By the way, you came to Bombay at a young age, isn't it? Did you ever feel it was a mistake to come to Bombay?
R- No, never. I am happy that I came. In fact, I am proud of my self. I don't feel bad for doing this or that, I never feel like that. I don't feel even a bit sad. I think what I did, I did for my family.
M- Where are you from?
R- Punjab. Have you read Tehelka?
M- Where in Punjab?
M- Do you ever remember Pathankot's Rekha?
R- There is only one Rekha. I was very little when I came here. Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, You might know of her, she is my mother- my adopted mother, she has kept me with her since the start. I still live with her.
M- Ok. The Rekha who lived in Pathankot and came here when she was 15…
R- 13. I was 13 or 14 when I came here.
M- What's your age now?
R- I am 20 now! (stands) I have grown. I have grown taller too, but not too much. I want to grow tall, but it just doesn't happen. All girls are taller than me.
Rekha narrates the common tale of a minor girl escaping from the harsh poverty of the village and migrating to the big city of opportunity. The city not only provided livelihood, but also brought certain kind of solvency in the family. But another hidden issue would be autonomy. The kind of freedom and autonomy that a big city extends to women would be a matter of fantasy for a girl who had migrated from Punjab at a young age. The 20 year old had already gone through the cycle of life experience – poverty in village, migration, work in a much maligned profession, glamour of being desired by public, police atrocity and now wrath of the state.
There is also an informal network of solidarity in all sectors which help the newcomers in the city to ease out. The other people can never find it, but it is there for the people who need it. The transgendered dancer Laxmi Narayan Tripathi was that network for Rekha. It worked like a well oiled system till the society and the state woke up to it one fine morning.
laxmi narayan tripathi
Ellora Bar, Bombay
From a naïve village girl to a shrewd commercial dancer in Bombay – a journey equivalent to any iconic life story, yet so simple.
Rekha has had no middle class romanticism about the native land and tale of alienation with the big city. She believed this was the only way to live well and living well could be considered as only valid reason to live. Teklka is a news tabloid. Rekha was thrilled that her interview had appeared there. For an illiterate girl from the interior village to be featured in an English newspaper can be a big high, even if it is because of her loss of livelihood.
M- Did the 13 year old R ever think that the 20 year old R would be like this?
R- No, not at all.
R- Sometimes I wonder that I am 20 years old now, I can't believe it sometimes. Many times when I tell people that I am 20, they don't believe me. Sometimes I wonder if I am the same girl who came here in a torn frock! So much has happened, how quickly I grew up. Even when I was small, my mind was bright, that you must have read in Tehelka paper. I was quite smart as a kid.
M- Do you ever feel like staying in your village?
R- No, never. I don't feel like it ever, I like it here. I got a house made for my family, they all are fine.
M- In films, it's always shown that whoever comes from village to cities, they keep remembering their village.
R- I also remembered, but that was when I had just come. Now, it doesn't happen in the same way. See, if someone is really poor, they will obviously worry about the family they've left behind. When I had just come, condition of family was so bad, that I kept thinking of them. Somehow, after spending six months here, I saved Rs.1, 80, 000 and bought land for my family in the village. Even then people there said that they would not let my family buy land, as they wondered where the money had come from!
Ellora Bar, Bombay, Valentina Bar
R- But now I am very happy. Now if someone comments that I work in the bar, I don't feel bad. I say very clearly that I am a bar dancer. I don't hide or say this or that. People who like it, can talk, the ones who don't like need not talk to me. I live in a society building. Many family women live there, some of them talk to me and some of them don't. Some think I study in a college, some think I am a family girl. Everyone has their own ideas. If someone asks me which college I go to, I clearly say, Valentina College. Valentina is the name of the bar I work for. If they ask me which college it is, I say, it's at check naka, the bar. They wonder, they think I am lying. But later they feel happy that I was honest. When I had just come in, people of the society were against me staying there. But later they understood. It's said that the ox belongs to the man with the stick. In Bombay one has to be strict, otherwise it's difficult to survive.
Rekha belongs to the lowest strata in the society. Besides she is a migrant. Hence she could be more forthright than the others. She had no fear of stigma as she had no immediate family in Bombay who would have to pay a price for it. But that is not the case for many others. Thus many dancers were initially hesitant to join the movement against the ban. In the first few public meetings and press conferences many dancers used to come wearing veils. However, later the desperation of loosing jobs washed away all such precautions.
M- So you are saying that you really are happy.
R- I am very happy, really. But since the bars have closed, I am not doing too well. I have grown thin because of the tension.
M- You have any regrets?
R- Of course. My bar was working. I was earning a bit. I have my sister's two children whose parents have expired. I take care of them, they live in a hostel. They have to study. Then there is my uncle. Five people are dependent on me. Now, two months have passed since the bars closed what should I do now? Starting from TV, I have sold everything at home. I am staying at Varsha Kale's house now. That's the condition. Two three days after the ban, the landlord told me to vacate the place. I first called him a sisterfucker, but then I had to pack up and leave. Now I am working for the union. I believe that bars must reopen. I have confidence that they would reopen. I will make sure that they reopen.
Under the apparent bravado the young girl started showing signs of fragility. The ban was implemented on 15th August. Two months have passed since then. Many bar dancers had gone back to the village as they could not afford the accommodation in the city anymore. Some had committed suicide. Yet a large number tried to enter into sex work. But that too was over populated and the women there resented the new influx. Rekha's active involvement with the union helped her, to an extent, to keep up the morale. But for how long?
Ellora Bar, Bombay
M- Rekha, there is bar, there is union, life is going on, some or the other option would definitely happen. But life is for oneself. As in, a person lives with others, but sometimes a person is by oneself too. So I want to ask that individual R, that when the middle class people got the bars closed, did you ever feel that if you would have done other things,, you could also be a housewife?
R- No, I don't think like that. In fact, so many educated people are also getting fucked nowadays. So many people roam around with degrees. Who gives jobs? This government, I don't believe in it. If there is government why doesn't it take up tasks that it should? What we call society, do they ever feed any hungry person. You will see that if a woman is lying on the road, no society would come to pick her up. So, what is society, what is government? Basically, everyone wants money- government, society- all of them, they are only concerned about money. Now, see, If a bar dancer dies, they don't even do a post-mortem. Let her, how does it affect society? If she gets raped, policemen say that they don't write complaints of whores. Is this life? Does society ever feed hungry? They can only lash back at people like these. If we had a great society, little girls wouldn't be bars. How did they get to know about bars, anyways? How do naïve village girls know about dance bars here? And I say, who has started dance bars in the first place? That's the main issue? How do girls in villages get to know about easy money? There must be someone behind all this.
Rekha came to her elements with the mention of respectability in the eyes of the society. In anger she measured up all the contradictions and hypocrisy of the patriarchal state and its support base, the society. The economic oppression, the gender discrimination, the market oriented state policies, lack of social welfare – Rekha mentioned all with the precision of an alert citizen. 'Who made the bars', 'how did the naïve little girls in remote villages came to know of the dance bars' – these are iconic questions to the modern nation-state.
Ellora bar, pathankot, Bombay
In the detail talk Rekha started melting. Like the rest of the society she too loathed this work. She was not willing to facilitate anybody else joining this profession. A few minutes back she declared that joining the bar was the best thing that had happened to her. Yet by now she wanted to protect other poor girls from falling into this pit. This contradiction is part of being in a society which exists in a peculiar cusp of pre-modernity and post-modernity.
M- No Rekha, I know what you are saying, you have said all this before too. Tell me one thing, do you know of any 13 year old girl from Pathankot who says that when she sees you, she also wants to come to Bombay?
R- No, I don't have any girl of my age from Pathankot here. There was one girl, Renu, to whom I came when I reached Bombay. She is older than me, also has two children, she lives here only. She was the only one from my village who helped me a bit here, helped me with work too.
M- Yes. The way you asked Renu that you wanted to come here, has any girl back home asked you if she wants to come here?
R- Yes, quite of few of them have asked me. When I went home last time, two to four months back, just before the bars closed down, some girls from neighbourhood asked me. You know, children in villages have this idea about Bombay that film stars live here. They think I am doing some good work here, am making money, that I do some business here. They think that I meet these film stars. When I go home, they ask me if I met Ajay Devgan, Sunil Shekhar, this is what they think and ask me. I say yes to these queries. There are also some girls who are my age there, they also come from poor homes. They tell me sometimes that they have problems at home and they ask me to bring them along with me. But no, I haven't done anything like that. I can't bring anyone to a place where I am. Why should I push anyone where I am? They have their future ahead of them, why should I spoil their future? Now, it was in my fate to be here, why should I get others along with me? They force me sometimes to agree to get them here. I tell them "you get basic food no? You have your father earning. You have your family here. You stay here and make it work." It's all about fate. I had no family behind me, in fact I had to take care of five people, and there was no one to feed me. That's why I had to come here.
R- But if they don't want to eat chutney-roti (dry Indian bread and pickle) , what if they want to have parantha (buttered, filled Indian bread) and beer?
M- They feel only film stars live in Bombay. They don't know that one gets stuck after coming. A girl who comes in the dance bar, can never get out. I can guarantee they can't get out. Because when I came here and got Rs. 5000 at one go after two months, I thought it was a lot. I thought I'll go back with the money and never come back. But no, I had to come back. Poverty makes you do that. Whether anyone is rich or poor, they all need money.
M- So, if other girls also want to make money, why don't you get them here?
R- No, I don't want to. Why should I do something wrong with my own hands? I don't want to do such a thing? Why should I be accused by parents of these girls? I am in dirt, I don't have a life anymore. I would be 24- 25 in four-five years. Who will marry me? No one will. Someone working in beer bar is considered a bad thing, yet I say with pride that I am a bar dancer. I say it with pride, but others don't take it too well. So, no one marries bar dancers. People who marry them, abandon them in a couple of years.
The moral dilemma comes from the fear of not getting a man to marry, to be lonely and vulnerable. The temporary good living is very short term, yet it would extract a huge price. But the fear could also be part of the socializing. In Indian context the socialiasing also means popular films and television soap operas which are forever propagating marriage and sexual morality. Many working class women work all their lives to feed the family while the husbands sit idle. Yet the status of the head of the family remains with the husbands. Women accept this as a price to remain married.
Ellora Bar, Bombay
M- So, the pride with which you live here, it's not the same in the village?
R- No, I live with pride in village too.
M- What if you had stayed in village, never come her, and never had you own money…
M- Then I would have washed utensils in other people's houses. It's not a new thing. I have been doing this since I was 11- 12 years. My mother used to work in this officer's house, and I used to go along with her. I never got educated, though everyone thinks I am educated. I am completely illiterate. People who see me think of me as active and learned. I have done nothing, I have only sung and danced, made some money and given some to my family. That's all I have done. For my family, I have wasted all my life. Sometimes when I sit by myself I think what have I done? But then I feel that I have done good. If me doing this, gives my family some peace, if two children can study, then what is wrong? Tomorrow, that girl shouldn't come in the bar. Where I am, that girl tomorrow shouldn't reach in my place.
So the choices are limited: work as lowly menial worker or join some sex based trade. For illiterate women who need to earn money there is no other option. And the need is determined by the family's requirement. And the basic requirement is that no other person in the family should go ashtray like the woman who is feeding them. It is a maze of contradictions. But these contradictions are the base of the working women in contemporary India. If you work and earn money, even if it is not in any sex-related profession, you must feel remorse too. This is one way to keep financial capacity and mental autonomy separate.
M- R, tell me what is the difference between you and Vidya Chauhan's thinking? You also don't want your family to work in bars. You also think working in bars is bad?
R- Who, me? I don't consider working in bars as bad. I think that, please hear me well, people who are really hard pressed, if they come here it is fine. What is the need for people who have everything to come here? What is the need to dance in front of fifty men and earn? People who don't have anything, don't have family to take care of them, what will they do? No one gets work with government and this society. No one gives anyone any job.
M- You don't like dancing?
R- I Really like dancing, I also like to make money. When I give that money to family, I feel even better.
M- If you get any other job, in which you would make money and you family would be taken care of, then would you quit bar dancing?
R- Honestly if I say, I have got job offers. But currently, I don't want o take anything up because I am fighting for seventy five thousand women. If those seventy five women don't have jobs, then how can I do it? I got offer from Kameshwar sir who offered me a role in a Bhojpuri film. I said no to him and said why not all seventy five thousand women who don't have jobs? Nothing would happen if one woman works? Give jobs to all seventy five thousand women, then I'll also come. I am not thinking of myself. I am fighting and working hard for those women who've lost their jobs and homes.
Vidya Chauhan – a woman politician in NCP, the party in power. She was one of the people who have spearheaded the campaign against the dance bar and provided the much needed women's rights angle to it. Rehka refused to recognize that her assessment of the work is actually similar to that of Vidya Chauhan. The only difference is that Rekha wanted us to consider the desperate need of the dancers and Ms Chauhan believed that the immoral girls deserved to be jobless. Though it is heartening to see how the euphoria of the collective still working in Rekha.
M- If you wouldn't have come to Bombay in train, the way you did, how would your life be?R- That I can't say. I can't even begin to imagine that. I don't know what would have happened then. I don't know how I came, what all happened and what all I did? I sometimes still feel that I am a small girl. I live like a normal girl, even when I go to the bar, I never wear makeup or dress. I always enter in jeans or skirt. That is how I am.
The desire to be part of the norm, to be accepted, to be anonymous – that is NORMAL!