Bar dancers staring at extinction


By Arka Mondal

It might be Rosy, Pinky or Susie. It does not matter. No one gives the real name in the first encounter. You ask her for her number. If she gives a number, it is false. If she mentions the place where she lives, usually it is a lie.

One comes across a neon-lit hoarding along an array of shops, a small door, usually wooden and carved, with some innocuous or sometimes suggestive title board declaring the name of a restaurant as a decoy. Tune your ears, and you can hear the soft thump of Hindi film music in the distance. Taxis or private cabs halt at the gate, men get off and hurriedly enter through the narrow door lest being seen by someone familiar.

A man attired in a dinner jacket and a bow tie smiles and signals you into a large dimly lit room. Lights of various hues flood the hall with their rhythmical motions, creating an ambiance where one needs time to adapt to the queer luminosity. Cigarette smoke adds to the mystery.

There is an elevated round empty stage strategically placed in a way so that it can be viewed from all angles of the hall. The decibel increases and with no formal announcements, the shrill sound of famous Bollywood dance number begins and ushers in young girls clad in glittering outfits known as ‘bar dancers’.

The dancing girls and women are clad in traditional ghagra cholis and navel-revealing skirts, low-cut blouses and colorful and glittering accessories. The show begins as they ravishingly lure customers to shower cash on them. The dance moves are pathetic as very few of them know how to shake a leg, for they just shake their hips and bodies to the thumping sound of the music and pretend to ‘dance’.

The more they try to make it better, the more pathetic it gets. After all, they won’t get an award for their moves but showing flesh and enticing the customers would give them a livelihood. Their dance moves have no meanings or rhythm, rather they are gestures that provoke man’s fantasy and the latter throws in currency notes till his carnal desires go a notch up.

They wear a heavy make-up, but it is debatable whether their make-up is to lure customers or to conceal an untold tragic story. They are treated as if born to flatter rich patrons and bow to their whims for livelihood.

The beginning and the end

India is a culture enriched nation which has seen the evolution of many dance forms. India has been a male-dominated, patriarchal society, right from the times when the kings and queens ruled the country; a large number of female folks would entertain the males with their dance moves.

However, in modern times classical performers are counted among artistic aristocrats but

things were quite different in yester years. Being married and performing in public or in front of men were entirely mutually exclusive social roles for women. India’s professional female performers could not marry as they were not considered ‘respectable’. Despite many kings and courtesans admiring and adulating the patronage-based traditional performers for their art, skill and performance, their communities were of low social status.

The early 19th century witnessed the dancing girls of India losing their patronage. This can be attributed to the fact that Victorian morality and purity campaigns in British India dealt a virulent blow on them. Branded as prostitutes, they lost the meager dignity they possessed.

Consequently, the British and Indian patrons started boycotting their performances. At the same time, courts were being diluted by British rule, and the courtesans, dancing girls and other court performers too gradually lost patronage. Courtesans and the dancing girls started to enter into new forms of livelihood, particularly, the cinema.

However, before long they were hugely stigmatized and substituted by the crème de la crème, ‘respectable’ women belonging to high society who had the pedigree of the culture. But, classical performing arts were being re-invented as bourgeois, concert arts, away from courtly patronage. The traditional, hereditary performers known as the dancing girls were, hwoever, blatantly excluded from this new world.

With new independent India, princely courts were abolished, and large numbers of courtesans and female court performers abruptly lost their livelihood. Subdued with stigma and inability to enter into the respectable world of classical arts, these women had no option but to indulge in increasingly illicit, sexualized forms of performing arts that existed beneath the radar of the re-constructed official ‘Indian Culture’. Many had to take up prostitution, including in some cases entire communities.

Strange but true, bar-girls in India to some extent emerge out from the same non-marrying lineages of the dancing girls and courtesans. Despite courtesans being portrayed as a romanticized figment of India’s feudal past, they are not considered to be a part of India’s present. In fact, purity campaigns and social cleansing reforms in the new Indian society created an entire realm of illicit performing arts and vast economies of sex work instead of saving the girls from indignity and exploitation or saving the nation from the social evil of prostitution.

Bollywood and Bars

The romance between Bollywood movies and dance bars are very much evident in plenty of movies. While dance bars are usually the favorite haunts of villains in cinema, in real life dance bars are places haunted by Bollywood songs.

The relationship between the two is a curiously tangled one. ‘Babli Badmaash Hai‘  an item number from Shootout At Wadala portrays bar girl Priyanka Chopra as ‘Babli Badmaash’ who dons skimpy clothes while strategically positioned finger guns aim to up her oomph factor.

The success of Madhur Bhandarkar’s ‘Chandni Bar’ invigorated Bollywood’s interest in dance bars. ‘Man Saat Samandar Dol Gaya‘ from the film which is set in a dance bar manages to be both peppy and soulful. Preity Zinta singing ‘Deewani Deewani‘ in ‘Chori Chori Chupke Chupke’ not only set the silver screen on fire, but the film portrayed a bar girl’s yearnings to be like other normal respectable woman.

The movie ‘Maximum’ boasted of superstars like Naseeruddin Shah, Sonu Sood, Neha Dhupia, and Vinay Pathak in pivotal roles, but it was Hazel who stole the thunder with the bar based item number ‘Aa Ante Amalapuram‘. There are numerous other films where dancing bars have been actively used for the symbolic representation of hamlets or the places where heroes take refuge after being emotionally beaten.

Whatever might be the case it’s the bar girls that come to the rescue. In the modern era, it is the bar but in earlier days we saw Shah Rukh Khan going to the Madhuri Dixit to get solace.

Of late there have been police drives across cities in India to eradicate the bar dancing culture. However, it must be realized that they too are a product of the so-called ‘respectable’ society we live in. Verily, we are not in a position to judge whether it is ‘majboori’ or a way of making fast bucks that have led the girls to take up such a profession.