Bar Dancer on the Ban: An Interview with Geeta
Cinematographer: Avijit Mukul Kishore
Duration: 00:11:32; Aspect Ratio: 1.333:1; Hue: 325.003; Saturation: 0.098; Lightness: 0.298; Volume: 0.169; Cuts per Minute: 0.173; Words per Minute: 176.613
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. Geeta is an active member of the bar dancers union. A married woman and mother of two children she is already on the wrong side of the age. The insecurity of loosing youth can be severe in this profession. Geeta has reached the stage when she can already feel the pinch. At this stage the sudden ban makes it far worse. She thinks the debate is eating into her precious last few hours in the circulation. She is from Maharashtra. The govt., at one point, announced that it would only consider rehabilitation programme for the dancers who are from the state of Maharashtra. This could be a ploy to break the unity of the dancers. But anyway it goes with the chauvinist politics of the region. To understand the issue and the event better it is recommended to visit other file under the same title in this site.
Shot by Avijit Mukul Kishore.
Interviewee - Geeta (G), Interviewer- Madhusree (M)
M - Geeta, I know you are tired of giving interviews. You have also become an expert in interviews. You have given many interviews to the media persons, so whatever I might ask, you would get irritated. I also know that you have many tensions in your life.
Geeta was the face of the campaign against the ban. Being a Maharashtrian and a married woman with two children she could counter all the popular allegations – such as, the dancers are all illegal migrants, they are fallen women with no respect for family values etc. So the union always kept her in the foreground and the media used her as a motif.
Ellora Bar, Borivali, Bombay
Still, I feel that you haven't spoken about yourself in all the interviews that you have given. You are not a common person, if so many people come to speak to you, it says that you have something in you. Still, you don't talk of yourself, you talk of the union, of the husband.
You have spoken on behalf of all bar dancers, you haven't spoken about yourself. Tell me, as an artist, when you dance how do you feel, what gives you happiness?
G- I like it.
M- Of course you like it. If you are not able to dance now, if you get some other work, if you did not have problems with money…
G- We are not able to dance now, but soon we will be able to.
G- The way we are trying, we hope that we will get to dance. It might be sooner or later, but we will get to dance, we should get to dance.
M- What is going on? What do you think?
G- Government passed a resolution to ban the dance bars, they did not even try to understand the kind of place dance bar is.
One of the main allegations against the dance bars was that they ran prostitution rackets. Ironically sex work is not illegal in India and only soliciting in public place is. The bar dancers and the bar owners got defensive and tried hard to establish that the bars are not sites of sin and immorality. As a result the discussion on public morality reached a ridiculous height. Under that circumstances it was almost impossible to raise issues against sexual morality, right to sex related works and right to performance and livelihood. Everybody was busy fighting the lost battle, the war was anyway lost even before it begun.
pick up points
sites of sin
women and work
They just said that something sexual, something dirty happens there. Now, no one can have sex on the dance bar in the dance bar with girl, as all the staff is present there. And outside the bar, people do what they please.
Dhanda hai, sab ganda hai yeh.
The whore stigma: The 'whore stigma' reflects deeply felt anxieties about women trespassing the dangerous boundaries between public and private, home and market, domesticity and the liminal space of the crowded street. Streetwalkers display their sexual and economic values in a crowd- that social element permanently on the verge of a breakdown- and there by give lie to the myth of rational control of deviance and disorder. Anne Mc Clintock, Screwing the System.
The public figure of the bar girl brings to the fore deep moral anxieties-- by transgressing the boundaries of familial and matrimonial love, by bringing the corruption of the market place into the bed room; and sexuality into the marketplace. In the publics that came into view post the ban, those for instance constituted by the speaking sexual subaltern, or those who sought to speak on her behalf Artistes/Workers. It became increasingly important to assert her 'virtuous' (desexualized, destituted) victimhood. In this assertion the nature of her work and her relationships was often obscured, and whoredom was constructed simultaneously ubiquitous (Everybody 'does sex', from the secretary to the white collar professional, as asserted by Geeta here) as that perilously close fate that would befall (has befallen) the sexually innocent bar girll, should she be forced to give up the more dancing (See Saloni's interview
In the campaign to 'save' the bar girls affinities were built with other 'respectable' communities of good and productive citizens: artistes, workers. (See note on Citizenship on the Death of Desire
Those on the other side of the debate, (both pro ban feminists, child rights activist, and Marathi nationalists) had their own vamps, and victims: the bar girl in their eyes was always already a whore, the bar always and already a brothel.The innocent in their story was the Wife,(of the straying husband seduced by the bar girl, (see here
) . One pro ban pamphlet read 'Sweety or Savitri. Who will you Chose?"The name 'savithri' often used in connection with sati , as in "sati savitri" signals the traditional pativrata- the sacrificial Hindu wife, while 'sweety' is a love-name, a nickname, a name which is assumed and deceptive and "un-indian".
Meanwhile, pro and anti ban feminists battled on the grievousness of the victimhood and the innocence of their chosen victims and the savagery of their chosen oppressors - it was the figure of the poor, single, industrious woman exploited by state violence, versus the girl child's sexually abused and trafficked body savaged by the Bar owner and under the gaze of lecherous and drunk men in dimly lit bars.
Often the two constructions would collapse, as in the State's assertion before the High Court. According to the State "young girls who were employed to attract customers;" "make eye contact with certain customers to entice them" and stood beside "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"
Given this binary dancers such as Geeta in this interview, themselves underplayed sexual-ness of their work, . Sometimes, however in anonymity or in sensational tabloid reportage the continuities of sexual work become visible.
Whether in offices, in banks, everything is happening everywhere. If a woman gets out of her house, whether she works in office or anywhere else, things do happen. I am not saying they all must be doing something, but have people come to see whether we bar dancers, after work, do something dirty everyday?
They should understand dance bars first. There are other places, such as pick up points, discos… without understanding, they slammed a ban on us. Alright then, they also are not sitting happily, they have curses of so many people on them. It's not like somebody there is actually happy.
M- You said that earlier too, we also had a meeting in KC College. I want to know Geeta, that if today, you get some other work, you have children too, where you can earn similarly, but you don't get opportunity to dance. How will you feel?
G- Umm, I am not saying that I must get another job or anything. Anyways it is not easy to find some other work that would pay similarly. My house in on rent, education of my children has also stopped..
Repeating their plea again and again to the media and in other meetings, somehow Geeta had become rhetorical. Initially it proved difficult to engage her into a more productive discussion. However, she categorically dismissed the government offer to rehabilitate only the dancers from Maharashtra. Such crude sectarian politics embarrasses all citizens. Though Geeta is Maharashtrian, most of the 70,000 work force of bar dancers are migrants from other parts of India and the sub-continent. When the state needed to increase its revenue from the alcohol sale in the bars these girls were welcomed like any other migrant workers in the labour market. But now the govt. wants to shift its focus to other components in the service sector. So the dancers are to be pushed out of the city like any other retrenched workers.
k c college
One should also find a job which gives similar earning. It's not only about me There are other people too. Like Mr. R.R Patil (Home Minister of Maharshtra) said that they will give employment only to Maharashtrian girls. Till they talk like this, we can't say anything. Then where will the rest of the girls go?Even they should get work.
They also have houses, they also have to feed themselves, and even they have kids. They should also get work. Understood the girls will get work but where will the gents staff that works here go, poor fellows?
M-Geeta, what you are trying to say is correct. But you are not able to understand what I am trying to say. I want to go beyond that. I am saying that the issue is not only about work or being employed. Assume that everyone is employed, everyone who lost a job managed to find something or other. You even got the same pay that you used to get here, but still dance bars should be shut down or what?
Though Geeta does not really listen to a question (due to overexposure to the same questions fielded by the media), her generic answers still make lot of sense. She ignored the question regarding the issue of right to choose one's profession. Maybe it was too abstract and an irrelevant a question for somebody who was facing hunger in front of her. She refers to sex work. One of the defenses that the bar dancers and the bar owners used against the ban was that the large number of retrenched dancers would have to opt for sex work and that would soil the society even further. The media too highlighted that point. But that pushed the issue of right to livelihood and sex work as livelihood option even further away from the public debate. Strangely, only another morality based argument could work against the morality based action of the govt.
G- No, dance should not stop. Like, how they said this place is dirty, they will go and make other places dirty now. You will see even more filth outside from now. It was ok here… that one person came and freshened up, saw a little bit of dance, drank and then went back to his house.
But now, a person can stitch clothes for herself and even build herself a house. But hunger is something that forces people to take up other filthier professions. A person can go hungry 2 days but on the 3rd day, even I thought I would have to get onto the roads and do something wrong, that's why I fought with my husband and divorced him.
im adding a transcript
M- Geeta, think that your union people got work, and this art stops flourishing, what are your opinions about that?
G-what are you suggesting that dance will stop….
Geeta continues to underline the chastity of her vocation. She adds on to her own arguments and brings the very class issue into it. She asks, why this work should be stopped. Can all the people (70,000 women plus the support stuff) be gainfully employed? The impossibility and the falsehood of such a promise is just too clear. She takes it as a strategy for not allowing a certain class of people rise above their socio-economic status through an access to money and thus education. The vocation of dancing in bars let an uneducated girl earn much more than a job as domestic help – the only other job she is capable of getting. This access to money, on the part of these lower class, uneducated girls, is definitely one of the issues that bothered the middle class and their state authority. She draws practical parallels from everyday life to pinpoint the false and superficial moral yardsticks of the "general public". This is a call on the society and its norms in general, the bigger picture that emerges out of the context of this ban.
M- No, this is not a matter of rehabilitation, that both of us know that they are saying it only on face value. But, in near future let's assume that it happens. But should such a work be shut down?
G- No why should it shut down? Its not a problem of dance. Dancing is an art. If someone is dancing, showing off her art and earning money for it, why should it be banned?
Ban whatever and where ever you find wrong things being done. We are also ready to support that. Where everything is ethically right and people earn their living out of it… then why shut it down? They are repeatedly saying it should and must be shut, why so?
M-see, I always feel that there this one kind of people in the society, who have a problem with this kind of entertainment, this kind of art. It happens in every society. Those are the powerful ones right now and hence all these. So who do you think they are?
G- When a 15 yr old girl dances in Boogie- Woogie or when a girl dances when a minister wins somewhere, then they are rewarded with bouquets, given gifts on the stage and welcomed by ministers. And a 15 yr old girl - poor one, if her parents die or some issues happen at home and she comes here and finds employment that is indecent, that is wrong?
M-so do you think it is a matter of class? If some upper class girl does the same thing it is something else and if a poor girl does it is a different issue?
G- Education is important every girl wants to be educated, even I thought I would. But now when I am educating my children, I have to rely on this job to get them educated. I dance so that my children get educated. And now this profession stops, I wont be able to educate my daughter. Then, imagine what she will end up doing. What will she do, you tell me…
G- No one is forcefully pushed into this line. And this industry has been built up over the last 30 years, its nothing new. At other places for a job and all, you have to sleep once with the boss. And once the boss takes you and goes away, even the watchman and the peon don't leave you, they blackmail. Here nobody forces that you have to go with them.
What strikes one is the constant reference to bar dancing as an "industry", like banking, engineering, medicine or movies or any other. According to Geeta, women are always abused in the work place, even in formal sectors. She claims that compared to other vocations that are open to women, dancing in bars is much more dignified and transparent.
Go or don't, do as you desire, due to my art I used to earn 200-500 happily, as back home I was able to at least save some of it. That is there in this line. No Seth (owner/employer) forcibly asks us to go with them, or dance for them. If it's one's need, then go ahead. This is such a line where we get money. And it is not even easy money, you have do dress up, put on makeup, and dance until 2-3 in the night and then we earn some money.
M- S do you think the middle class house wives are stung by your freedom, your happiness, your earnings?
G- Maybe they are jealous and so they are saying all this. But they don't see what they themselves do. If the husband has gone out then she sticks with her brother-in-law. But she won't see for herself what she is doing. But goes on, "dance bar girl, dance bar girl..." What does a dance bar girl do?
Films and glamour are something people in Mumbai identify easily with. Even the housewives, who are part of the middle-class, are supporting the ban. Cinema and Mumbai are inseparable, and so were the dance bars until the ban. Now, the bars and their dancers just refuse to let go. The bars are more often an alternative source of employment to small-town girls who don't make the cut in Bollywood. But, the on-screen women are worshiped and gaped at by men and women alike, and these off-screen imitations are banned.
M- Is it that women only restrict women?
G- Yes it is that, only a woman indulges more in bad-mouthing/pulling down another woman.
G- A woman thinks more about other woman's downfall.
Like Vidya Chauhan (a member of NCP party who spearheaded the dance bar ban campaign in the name of women's dignity), she is also a lady. But still she tried to ruin other women's livelihood. And she succeeded. But her success will not be long lasted.
M- Tell me, you work for the union also, were there any girls who joined this profession thinking they would eventually make it to films and ended up here?
G- There are many such girls who come here from their villages with that dream, maybe someone fools them into this. Saying, "I will get you work in films", but that never happens. So after many things happen to them and sleeping with 10 people, they think this (dancing in bars) is not bad at all. Just dance and go back to your house.
M- you have been dancing since many years, you have seen those junior artists in Hindi films, the ones that dance behind the heroine. What do think is the difference between your work and theirs?
G- I can't comment on that because their work...
M- I am trying to say that even they are a type of dancers. So you don't have anything to do with them?
G- No, we have nothing to do with them. Their industry is different and so is ours. That is not an industry ever spoken ill about. There is a lot more wrong work done there, on the spot
If something wrong happens there, it happens at once. Here, nothing happens immediately. There, even to enter the gate, you have to establish a contact with someone. Here, at least, that is not the case.
M- So is it criticized because of its associations with liquor? Is it because liquor is sold here?
G- Where isn't liquor sold? Aren't there wine shops on the road? It is sold everywhere; you get it even in the burji pav (common street food) carts.
Finally Geeta warmed up to the conversation. Though she refused to get engaged in a hair splitting discussion on 'Public morality and state power' as the interviewer would have loved her to do, she exposed the state for indulging into issues of personal freedom and sexual choices, instead of constructive governance. Though it is not her focus, she is intelligent and articulate enough to endorse the 'right of choice' of other dancers who may opt for such profession willingly and not necessarily out of desperation.
As the conversation progresses, she proves to be a good spokesperson, worthy of the union's trust that has projected her as one of their chief ambassadors.
M- Then why is this industry criticized?
G-its just a way of thinking. They had to criticize something, so they criticized this. I suggest they find out the types of bars first. Nobody will write on the door whether it is a disco, or a bar or a pick up point. You saw a bar & restaurant somewhere and saw this happening, so you concluded that it happens everywhere.
M- No Geeta, my problem is, people say this woman earns and runs her own household, but someone who is void of all these responsibilities, he/she also has a right to choose a profession willingly?
G- She does.
M- So that's why I am asking, leave all the responsibilities aside, yet people criticize this profession, why is it so?
G- These responsibilities are my issue. But some girl who desires to be a bar dancer, who wants to dress up everyday, dance every day on the new film songs, then this is the life she has chosen for herself. In that case nobody can stop her - that she cant live like that, she cant do that. If you don't let her do what she desires, she will go out and live her life.
M- Tell me, such songs are played on TV everyday, the middle class people sit and watch it, then why do they have a problem here?
G: I don't know what their problem is, they have a problem with the song, they banned dance bars, they banned plastic bags. In some time, they might put a ban on husband and wife having sex and producing children. They will tell us it's enough and ask us to stop everything.
M- They say it. They say you should not have more than 2 children.
G- no, not even 2. Tomorrow the government might say don't marry at all, don't increase the population of the country.
M- then what will happen to this country? What will it be?
G- Cant say anything till R.R.Patil (the home minister of the state of Maharashtra) is there.