Bar Dancers Speak: Testimonies at Public Hearing 1
Duration: 00:16:00; Aspect Ratio: 1.333:1; Hue: 15.389; Saturation: 0.336; Lightness: 0.118; Volume: 0.211; Cuts per Minute: 1.625; Words per Minute: 112.361
Summary: Dancing at beer bars started in Maharashtra in the ‘70s. These bars are popularly called Dance Bars. They were recognisable by the heavy door at the entrance and by the uniformed bouncers. In order to increase the revenue from alcohol sale the govt. kept issuing licenses for the dance bars and over the three decades these bars sprouted all over the state and specially in Bombay. In 2005 the Govt. proposed a bill to ban dancing at the bars on the pretext of public morality. But by then around 75,000 women were employed in the unorganized sector of bar dancing. Most of these women were migrants from the other parts of the state, country and the subcontinent. The proposal sparked a huge public debate on the issues of morality, sexuality and livelihood. The home minister in the state govt. R R Patil took it as a mission and persuaded it till the end. The civil society got vertically divided on the issue. While all the right wing outfits supported the ban, some old school women’s organizations too were vocal against bar dancing based on the argument of commodifying women’s body. Some feminist groups and other social movements campaigned against the ban foregrounding issues of right to livelihood, validity of sex based works and against moral policing. Amidst the frenzy of campaign and counter campaign the govt. implemented the bill on the midnight 15th August 2005, the independence day of India. The act which rendered 70,000 women jobless was passed unanimously in the assembly, where all members including the communist party and women from various political parties cheered and voted for the bill. In the history of Indian democracy there are a very few bills that was passes with such absolute agreement. There were many theories for the Govt.’s motive to ban dance bars. Some says that it was a ploy to decrease the sale of beer and boost the outreach of wine as the wine industry had just started picking up in Maharashtra and many senior politicians were stake holders in wine industry. Some other claim that it was a populist measure to woo the middle class voters. Another theory ascribed the operation as an exercise to evict smaller eateries and pubs to make space for big franchises and multi-purpose eateries. It could also be a simple act of gentrifying the city.
Throughout this period the most active campaign against the ban was from the bar dancers union in collaboration with some feminists groups. Majlis legal centre filed a case challenging the ban in the Bombay high court on behalf of the bar dancers’ union. There were also other petitions from the Bar owners’ association, women’s groups and others. The Women’s Study dept., SNDT university along with Forum against oppression of women conducted a survey around the bars in the city and published the report in order to inform the general public. The media too covered the issue quite extensively. On 12th April 2006 the Bombay High Court struck down the ban as unconstitutional. The Govt. appealed to the Supreme Court and thus affectively kept the bar closed inspite of the High court order. Presently the case is subjudiced. Still the initial win in the High Court in the face of such heightened morality campaign meant a lot.
In the intermediary period of the implementation of the ban and the High Court judgement, three city organisations Majlis, Pukar (Gender and Space unit), and Point of View organized a public hearing on the issue at KC College suditorium. Ten eminent citizens from various walks of life were invited to serve in the panel of Jury and hear the live testimonies of the retrenched dancers. The auditorium of around 700 capacity was chock-o-block with 500 bar dancers, members of bar owners association, family members of the bar dancers, concerned citizens and a large media presence. In this event some bar dancers gave testimonies.
Paromita –P:Now we'll call ten women from bar dancers' organizations. One by one they will come here, talk about themselves and present their issues in front of you and the jury. First person who would come here is Poonam. She has worked in the dance bars for ten years and has two children. Her favourite soap is Ba, bahu aur beti. Poonam: What R.R Patil has done, is not good. What would happen to us now that the bars are shut? I have two children, where should I teach them? I like this work, it should continue. We feel tense about the bars closing. We aren't able to cook at our homes. Dance bars should remain open. Next person to talk is Roopali. She lives by herself in Bombay and has a two year old daughter.
Though bar dancers have existed for a long time now, they came in public view after the dancing in the bars was banned. Even after the ban there were the other citizens speaking either on behalf of them or against them. In this debate among the state, police, politicians, ministers, activists, journalists, lawyers and academics the bar dancers rarely spoke barring a couple of active members from the union. Though the media was obsessively trying to get 'sound bites' from them, most of the bar dancers were not ready to publicly acknowledge their profession. Such was the outreach of the morality campaign that the dancers themselves were convinced about the degrading quality of their work. Many of them had hidden the actual nature of their work from the family. In the initial days of the struggle against the proposed ban many dancers used to attend public meetings in veils and burqas. But as the ban became a reality and the harsh reality hit them the petty concerns such as reputation in the society had taken a back seat. Still this meeting must have been the first occasion where in such large numbers the bar dancers came and spoke about their lives to the media and the public. Poonam's nervousness about public speaking is apparent.
Citizenship and the death of desire 2: The Case in Court
This citizen's panel was deliberately staged as a precursor to the Court proceedings. The Jury Report, was to be placed in a sealed envelope and handed over to the High Court bench, miming the court's own processes for admitting important evidence.
Much like the civil society debates, the myth of an inclusionary modern citizenship and an invented pure, non-sexual 'tradition' are the implicit utopias that underpin the discursive trajectories that the Bargirls case took in the courtroom. Within these shared assumptions of nationhood and "Indian-ness" the storytellers of either side spun their fables. The courtroom thus became the place where the diverse discourses of suffering and victim hood, survival, sexiness and "unvictimhood" that had been circulated and consumed in the pre history to the case dramatically transformed and coalesced into positions and oppositions. Lawyers on both sides of the battleground were drawn into the binary essentialisms of victim/vamp in order to justify their narrative claim to becoming the "official truth" about the bargirls.
For the lawyers representing the Bargirls, their client had to lose her bawdy "body-ness", her "wealth", her dangerousness and every sign of her excess in order to become the imaginary heroine-victim of this tale. There were three main narrative manipulations that had to be undertaken : she had to be desexualized, destituted and violated- but not sexually violated , for then her body would be rendered visible.As lawyers for the bargirls we deliberately engaged legal counsel who was a noted "public law" specialist, who framed the debate entirely in terms of constitutional law questions of "unreasonabilty of restriction" rather than feminist questions of agency , sexual or otherwise.
In a previous case where the Bargirls had filed an intervener petition challenging arbitrary police raids, and sexual harassment by police during those raids the Bargirls had been positioned as autonomous free willed adult citizen-subjects, consensually entering into economic contracts with the Bar owner, which were not sexually exploitative. In that case her sexual violation by police necessarily brought to the fore her body-ness, and questions of what uses she put it. There were repeated averments to the fact that "she was a dancer an entertainer not a sexworker". However in this case where the discursive domain had shifted beneath her feet, and her citizenship was itself contingent on questions of her "not being a threat to public morality and order" she had to become the archetype of the destituted and abused Indian womanhood, worthy of protection, pity and rescue, even in order to be entitled to citizenship rights to work, livelihood and expression.
She was thus the virtuous victim of circumstance – usually abandoned or deserted by husbands, compelled to dance having no other choice, the industrious breadwinner of large families who were dependant on her. She was not an illegal immigrant She was not just Indian (and not Bangladeshi or Nepali) but Maharashtrian. Everything about her – from her dresses to her moves must reflect this. I give only one illustration from the pleadings: "The dresses worn by dancers in these bars are usually traditional Indian Dresses like sarees, ghagra cholis or salwar kameez unlike the dresses worn by dancers in movies. Similarly the movements and gestures are far more decent and orthodox than those in movies. The dances performed in dance bars are neither obscene, vulgar nor indecent dance performances for the entertainment of men, is part of the cultural tradition of Maharashtra e.g. Lavnis, Tamashas" (Importantly these are non-sexual forms of drama and dance) Meanwhile to counter the moral panic and the disorder of the state the Bargirls had their own sceptres – diseased and abject bodies infected by AIDS who would roam the streets if the bars closed down and "the bargirls were forced to turn to prostitution".
The State's pleadings relied on their own versions of both the violated victim, and more often the sexy and sexually voracious vamp in the stories they told. Thus there was the figure of the trafficked and underage child, under the gaze of lecherous and drunk men in dimly lit bars stood alongside the "young girls who were employed to attract customers;" "make eye contact with certain customers to entice them" "dancers would wear dresses which were apparently for names sake traditional, but which were truly revealing female anatomy;" who would " dance in a manner unknown to any known or established dance form" "with the sole objective of arousing lust;" their dance was "merely wild gyrations to the tune of Hindi film songs in the presence of men and not traditional or classical dance forms of Bharatnatyam, Kuchipudi, Kathak;" in order to solicit "cash rewards". The sexual is speakable then only in terms of its danger – its obscenity , its disorder and its destructiveness to tradition. There are thus repeated mentions of her immorality, her links to criminality and to illegal wealth. It is perhaps this sentence that captures the anxieties of the State- they urge for that a certain point where"legal culture and the public morals of a nation may merge, economic justice and taboo of traumatic trade may meet and jurisprudence may frown upon any dark and deadly dealings.".
In the judgment, the dancer disappears. If the ban did come into place , it would be the bargirls who would lose their trade and profession : the bar owners would continue to be bar owners. Yet the judgment which upholds the bargirls and bar owners constitutional rights does so , on the grounds of equality ( that it does not apply to other establishments such as hotels and theatres were dances may be performed, ) and on a violation to the rights to trade and business (only to the extent that the state has failed to establish that there is a threat to public morality or order from the bars). The bargirl on whose body the debates on order morality and tradition were enacted, appears only fleetingly twice with reference to her being "widowed, deserted or divorced." , and at another place to " failed marriages and the need to earn a decent living for themselves and their families."
Citizenship and the death of desire: The virtuous Bar girl
con•sti•tu•tion: (k n st -t sh n, -ty -)
1. the basic principles and laws of a nation, state, or social group that determine the powers and duties of the government and guarantee certain rights to the people in it
2. The physical makeup of the body, including its functions, metabolic processes, reactions to stimuli, and resistance to the attack of pathogenic organisms
The feminist moves to construct dancers as citizens, is evidenced in this 'Public Hearing' where eminent citizens heard the voices of 'real' bar girls, a seemingly unmediated access to the truth of their lives. These voices move them to respectability and citizenship, they speak of families, but not lovers, poverty and hardship but not wealth, reconstitute her as desexualized, destituted and violated. Affinity is stressed between them and other legitimate an enfranchised communities of 'artistes', and 'workers'. Anger is expressed at societal hypocrisy, at middle class complicitness with the state, at a system that discriminates on the basis of class, rights are asserted but not their sexualness.
In my two years as a lawyer working with a feminist lawyers' collective and practicing Bombay I constantly constructed stories of client's "chastity", "motherhood" , "violation" and "destitution" to allow women to make a most unvictimlike claims- that of being entitled to rights against violence , rights in property , and rights against the family. My work thus dealt with difficult and recalcitrant victims –"bad" mothers, "adulterous" wives, or quite simply women who looked "too happy to be a battered wife"(as one judge put it) and their transformation from the wayward and the unruly, into the domestic and docile legally "viable" citizen subject who comes to claim her rights.
In order to come before the law women must become "virtuous victims" of circumstance. This figure of the virtuous virgin/docile daughter/dutiful wife/ideal mother is structured around the relationship that woman bears to man within the libidinal economy of the home and the domestic-the family and the nation. She must constantly (re) enact her victimhood in the court through overt and covert signs, even (especially?) whilst making claims against husbands, fathers and the paternalistic state.
Campaigners for the rights of the bar girls to continue dancing, had to make this difficult double move. The bar girl was both 'unvictim' (A voice, a citizen) and victim at the same time. As an unvictim - the Bargirl who came to take her rights, was posited an autonomous free willed adult subject, consensually entering into contracts with the Barowner, which were not sexually exploitative. She was a dancer, an entertainer an artiste, not a sex worker . As a victim she was the brave single mother, the bread winner of large families who were dependant on her, and was not an illegal immigrant She was not just Indian (and not Bangladeshi or Nepali) but Maharshtrian . She was largely poor and was being further impoverished.
It was the police and oppressive state power that rendered her victimized – not the Bar owners. Thus other histories of violence and suffering that occur with in the walls of bars- violent customers, unfair working conditions, even her very sexual-ness constituted danger in this script and had to be edited out. In opposition to this story of the good victim, the media and women's groups continued to circulate images of bargirls as promiscuous, wealthy, living in Bungalows , having friends in high places, connected to the underworld and to politicians, wearing the latest fashions, or make up, carrying cell-phones as if these characteristics alone rendered her an unworthy victim. To counter the moral panic of those who supported the ban had their own sceptres – diseased and abject bodies who would roam the streets if the bars closed down.
KC College, Bombay
bar dancers speak
bar girls association
bar owners association
Roopali: Mr. R.R Patil. What he has done with the women bar dancers is not good at all. He took a wrong decision. He only thought that what we do is wrong. Has he ever thought why we do this? We do it for our families. We dance in the bars, we don't tell people to come in our bars and give us money. If people want to give money, only then would they do it.
In order to give some dignity to their identity and reduce the elements of instrumentalisation the speakers were introduced with a few facts or trivias about their lives. Number of children, favourite film star, clothes preference, favourite food, physical ailment… ordinary facts about extremely ordinary people who have been extra ordinarily put under scrutiny.The young, petit girl Roopali must have been just out of her teen. She was little more confident than her predecessor. She challenged the allegation that the bar dancers lure the innocent young men and spoil them. Her logic is irrefutable – the young men are adults and they come to the bars at their own will. A transaction of consent between an adult man and an adult woman (the dancer) is none of govt.'s business. Her arguments were well worked out – it is a question of right to livelihood. The govt. that cannot provide livelihood should not snatch it either.
point of view
Roopali:The dancing in bars has stopped. If we stand on the road and do sex work, would Patil stop us? No one will stop us. Why does he roam around in his bullet proof car? He fears for himself, right? If he likes his decision so much, he should have come to us, understood our problems.ApplauseNo one had tried to understand our efforts? Why, because we are uneducated. If we were educated, we would have been in some service, not dancing in the dance bars.
Roopali: We don't tell anyone to come to us and behave in a dirty manner with us. Where should I take my two children? Today the dance bars are shut. Has R.R Patil seen the difficulty with which I am taking care of my children now for seven days? If I stop their education, should I introduce them to this profession as well? I can't do that, I wish well for my children. If I come today to live in your society (meant housing co-operative society), wouldn't you think that a bar dancer should not live in your society, that it would affect your society? If you accept me in your society, then tell me should our work in bars be banned?
Roopali: You society people, have you objected to this new law? You should have raised your voice. No dancer comes and dances at your home. She does her work, earns her living, she does not cheat anyone. Has R.R Patil done any good by this decision? I ask all of you to help us. Thank you.
P: Next person is Madhu. Her parents are no more and she lives by herself and dancing is her family profession.
Madhu: I don't care what people say. My parents are no more, and there is no one in my family who can take care of me. I have young siblings, who I take care of. I also am ill, as bones of my legs are giving problem. I still dance.
Madhu was one of the most articulate among the bar dancers who spoke at the public hearing. She brings in the argument of skilled workesr. Like artisans the dancers are skilled only to commercial dancing. They cannot be relocated just into any other profession. That effort would reduce them to destitution or unskilled wage labourers. No state has the right to deny the citizen access to their vocation. Madhu also brings in the issue of class discrimination. The new law allowed dancing in higher end eateries and 5 star hotels. Only the low end establishments under the categorization of Beer bars where these women were employed in large number were banned.
pick up point
right to livelihood
right to choice
Madhu We work hard and earn an honest living. Still people object to us. Because we are poor, anyone can call us whores. Women from rich class can do anything, nothing is said to them. Because we are poor, anything goes with us. Applause.My parents have passed away, that is why I came in this profession. I could not pay school fees for my siblings. For financial reasons I came here. My life is already spoilt, just so that my siblings' lives don't get spoilt, I dance.
Madhu: I don't know what is going to happen next. I don't have family support, I don't know who will take care of my siblings. But, you tell me what should I do? Should I do sex work? No one has answer to such a question. But you try and understand the reasons of me being here. My legs are not in good shape, still I dance. And that right is also taken away from me. If you want, shut down wrong things like pick up points. I want a life of dignity, so give me that. And I like my work, and I am skilled to do only this work, I don't know any other work. Should I do sex work, begging or dancing? I ask you this question, what would you like me to do?
Kamla is slightly older among the dancers. The 15 years of bar dancing shows in her slightly tired eyes. She looks every part of a lower middle class housewife that she is. She speaks quietly but empathetically. They need to earn as they need to educate their children/siblings. Ironically the govt. claims that the primary education in the country is largely aided and yet ordinary people find educating their children such a huge burden. Moreover, these women primarily talk about the future of the next generation as a major point of concern. They do not talk about themselves. Is it the general female socialization of our society? Or do they think that an argument of raising the next generation would work better for the middle class society?
P: Next speaker is Kamla. She likes hindi film songs, she sings and she has been dancing in the bars for 15 years. Kamla: I have three children. How should I educate them now? Dance bars have been shut down. We are not educated, who will give us any other employment? We can't do any other work?Dancing in the bars should resume.
hindi film songs
Slogan Raising: hum veer bala bhi hain, hum bar bala bhi hain
. ( brave girls / bar girls)
With energetic slogan shouting -Barbala bhi hai Veerbala bhi hai -enters the popular president of the bar dancers' union with more bar dancers. The media gathers to shoot the charismatic leader. The jury waits for the proceeding to resume.
Manju is a young girl of sad demure. The ordinariness screams through her. First this quiet, introvert girl had to get into an exhibitionist profession like bar dancing. Then the ban forced her to speak in public. And then one media cameraman literally breaths down her neck to take her images which would be made public. Still she continues… The visibility that once the bar dancers were so scared of, now ceases to be an issue. Yet it is not achieved through any process of empowerment, but sheer desperation.
P: Next is Manju. She likes to go to Juhu Chowpatty with her children in her free time. She will speak to you now. Manju: I have a problem in my eye. I need money for regular treatment . That money comes from dance bars. Have a handicapped father and an unwell mother. I have four siblings who are studying. I want to educate them and get my sisters married. If bars are not reopened all my dreams would be unfulfilled. I request you to help reopen the bars.
P: Next is pinky yadav. She wants to say something.
Pinky: Hello, good evening ladies and gentlemen. I am the president of Sangeet Kalakar Mandal. I am also a member of the bar dancers union. All the bar dancers are from Sangeet Kalakar Mandal. I know the effect of the ban on them. They have not come here to listen. It's their hunger that has brought them here.
Pinky Yadav lives in Congress House in Grant road. Congress house is a settlement donated by the Govt. for traditional artist families. Traditional artists in this category means people whose caste vocation is related to performing art. The exponents of Tawaif culture, mujra, music genre such as Thumri and various folk music genres live here. (for more about Congress House please see the book 'The Music Room' by Namita Devidayal, Random House). With modernization the act of commercial dance transformed from mujra to bar dance. Many girls from the Congress house joined bar dancing. Besides, many migrant girls who joined bar dancing have taken tenanacy in Congress house. Thus Pinky Yadav has become the landlady-cum-confidante for a dozen bar dancers. She directly addresses the issue of class discrimination – while all other forms of dance in public and ticketed places such as in theatre, in classical music, in cinema are considered cultural activity, why is bar dancing rendered illegal? She started her speech smartly with a smattering of English in order to impress the gentry, but later gets sucked by the intensity of the situation and ends up crying on stage. Her speech was followed by a round of loud applause.
bar dancers union
effect of ban
r. r. patil
sangeet kalakar mandal
women as workers
Pinky: They are hoping that many people who have come here would think about them, that's why they have come here spending money from their pockets. They request justice from all of you. Today the government has got the women to this stage, where they don't know what to do. R. R. Patil has shut the dancing in the bars. Okay, they got the world's complaint, they have closed it down. But before closing, they should have thought of these women too.
Pinky: If they tell them that they'll give the women jobs. You tell me, there are no jobs for educated people, how will government give jobs to these women? Do you think they'll get jobs? Now you are our saviours, you can think for us. You are also artists. You have also danced in theatre. You have could reach the peak in your career; these women haven't got that peak. Yet, this is their livelihood. Now you say what these women should do. I am their leader that's why I can see the difficulties they are going though for past 7-8 days. They are not able to eat, what will they do? What about their future, their kids' future?
Maybe taking cue from Pinky Yadav the testimonies start becoming more assertive and argumentative. Slowly the dancers start coming out of the poor helpless women posture.
P: Next person to speak is Reshma. She has been working in the bar for a year. She loves to wear jeans. Reshma: R.R Patil has done a terrible thing to us by closing down the dancing in the bars. What wrong do we do there? We dance and earn our money, take care of our families and educate our children. Would R.R Patil pay for our children's school fees? Look after our brothers? And sisters? Dancing in the bars should be restarted. We don't want anything else.
r r patil
P: Next speaker is Namrata. Her dream is to buy a flat of her own in Bombay.
Namrata: I would like to say sorry at the very start, in case I say something inappropriate. I have a family, I have children. Everyone is dependent on me. I fear that if our livelihood goes, our children would not get good education and upbringing, which could lead to them taking up wrong path. Today we proudly say that India is great. These children would not be able to say or feel the same about the country, because it is the country that snatched away their mother's or sister's livelihood.
Namrata is a confident and beautiful girl with a certain sophistication and poise. She tries to bring in a political argument about nation building and citizenship. Her speech was highly appreciated by the other dancers in the auditorium and punctuated by applause and whistles. She starts with the usual argument of future of the next generation. But soon moves to the issue of allegation of men being exploited by the bar dancers. For the first time in the evening she counters that allegation with certain assertiveness and with confidence. She let go of the demure of helpless women and instead mildly threaten the 'society' of the consequences of the ban. She asserts that if needed they could use their sexuality as their capital as well as weapon. A logic in the standard convention of pleading for pity on the basis of poverty and helplessness, sounds very radical.
five star hotels
three star hotels
women's point of view
Namrata: I would not like to say anything wrong for Mr. R.R.Patil. We don't know why he did this. Just because he claims that a relative of his was fooled by a bar dancer, does not mean he shut down the whole industry. Anyways, we are dancers, with what right do men ask us to sleep with them? They think of us as sex workers, and we find that offensive. If they behave like this with us, we fool them sometimes. The men can come and enjoy, if they want to give us money, they can. Otherwise they can watch dancing and leave as and when they wish. But if they put awkward questions to us, we have a right to answer them the way we want.
Namrata: I want to educate my children well. I don't know what would become of them if I am not able to do so. I would request you to look at the situation not only from the government's side but also from the point of view of so many women. Everyone has children, family, and dependants, what are all of them going to do? We have become what we had to, if our livelihood is snatched, we don't know what our next generation would become. The government, R.R Patil himself would be responsible for destroying the next generation.
point of view
Namrata: I would not like to say anything else, but that does not mean there is nothing more to say. There are women here in this hall, who study in colleges. They can't come on the stage because if they are identified, there would be trouble for them in their colleges. That is why I am requesting you all again that look at the picture from all sides, and not from only one. You investigate properly and see for yourselves if we are doing right or wrong. What Patil has done with the government is wrong. Why should things continue in three and five star hotels? Are there two different laws for the president and common public? If things are going to continue in three and five star hotels, then normal bars should also continue. It's the public who chooses these leaders, if the public is wronged, they would raise their voice. Though there is much to say, I am going to stop now. And again, excuse me if I said something inappropriate.