From the 1990s, dance bars in Mumbai and other parts of the state of Maharashtra mushroomed into prominence. In these bars, girls dressed in glitzy though traditional clothes, danced to Bollywood songs and entertained almost exclusively male audience members. Bargirls became glamorous objects of fantasy and fascination. Men showered them with money in bids to win their affection, and also in appreciation of them, and games of love and seduction were played out. These sometimes developed into sexual relationships and encounters, but dance bars were not pick up joints for sexual transactions. Bar girls had been earning a good livelihood from dancing, comfortably able to send their children to school, and a small number had become fabulously and notoriously rich.
By the 2000s, the prominence of dance bars and bargirls had also generated powerful animosity from conservative Maharashtra. It was said that bar dancing was causing injury to public morality and that dance bars were a social evil society needed to be saved from. It was also said that bar dancing was ‘exploitation’ of the bar girls, it was against the dignity of women, a form of prostitution, of trafficking, and thus the girls themselves needed to be saved.
A bargirls union was formed, and together with various advocacy groups and the bar owners, they mounted a vigorous fight against the pro-ban lobby, supported strongly by the English language media in particular. However, in 2005, bar dancing was banned by the state of Maharashtra, and an estimated 75,000 bar girls lost their source of livelihood.
The dance bar debacle encapsulates some of the vast conflicts and contradictions of the new India that has emerged since economic liberalization in 1991. In short, as David Harvey has explored in his well known work, the socio-economic changes of neoliberalism have also engendered neoconservatism.
However, the dance bars linked into a deeper history and a far broader phenomena of illicit dance and performing arts in India that could be traced back to the core of India’s cultural modernity. Bargirls, rather than being desperate victims of circumstance compelled to dance in bars to earn money, as not just the pro-ban lobby but the anti-ban lobby also portrayed them. Rather, they were largely hereditary performers whose lineages and communities traced back to courtesans and dancing or nautch girls as they were known in colonial times.
(Continued Part 2)
Anna Morcom (c) February 2014
Harvey, David (2006) Spaces of global capitalism: Towards a theory of uneven geographical development. London and New York: Verso.
Soneji, Davesh (2012) Unfinished Gestures: Devadasis, memory, and modernity in South India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Anna Morcom specializes in music and dance in India and Tibet from diverse perspectives that seek to understand the contemporary world. Her ethnographically based research focuses on phases of modernity ranging from nation building to globalization and neoliberalism, and spans issues of politics, ideology, gender and inequality as well as media and marketisation. She is the author of three books, Unity and discord: Music and politics in contemporary Tibet (2004, Tibet Information Network); Hindi film songs and the cinema (2007, Ashgate); and Illicit worlds of Indian dance: Cultures of exclusion (2013, C. Hurst and Co; OUP New York). She is a Senior Lecturer in the Music Department at Royal Holloway, University of London.