Girls from Agra’s Bedia community, one of the denotified tribes whose tradition is to sing and dance, see hope and an income in the Supreme Court’s green signal for dance bars in Maharashtra

Girls from Agra’s Bedia settlements — Basai, Nibohara, Dauki, Tajganj, Fatiabad, Shamshabad — are reported to be flocking to Mumbai and other places in Maharashtra after the Supreme Court on July 16 upheld the Mumbai High Court order, quashing the State government’s August 2005 ban on dance bars, and vacated the stay on the High Court order.

The action has shifted to Mumbai’s Mira Road, a mini Agra. Maharashtra’s Home Minister R.R. Patil’s resolve to bring in an ordinance to uphold the ban has not deterred bar dancers, who, even when the ban was effective, resorted to orchestra and ghazal bars as singers and illegal performances to keep kitchen fires burning.  As activist Varsha Kale, who fought for bar dancers’ right to perform observes, dancing is a better option than prostitution.

The majority of dancers were married and most the sole providers for their families. They earned well, patrons often showering money and gifts on them. After the employer took his share, the minimum earnings of a dancer could add up to Rs 15,000-Rs 20,000 a month while high-end performers had apartments and cars. This enabled them to send money home and educate their children. The ban on dance bars, with 700 reported to be in Mumbai alone, forced many of the estimated 85,000 bar girls to switch full time to sex work, with all its pitfalls; go to other cities and Gulf countries; or return to their villages. A few desperate ones were reported to have committed suicide.

Significantly, a survey conducted by SNDT Women’s University and Forum Against Oppression of Women in 2006 indicated that 24.8 per cent of the bar dancers came from Uttar Pradesh; 20.6 per cent from West Bengal; 12 per cent from Mumbai; and five per cent from other parts of Maharashtra.

While some are victims of human trafficking, many belong to performing communities. Denotified tribes such as Bedia, Nat, Saansi, Kanjhar, Banchara and Gujarat’s Sasania have traditionally sanctioned sex work, dancing and singing for their women. Spread across Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, their villages line highways connecting Delhi, Alwar, Jaipur, Mumbai. Transit routes serve to facilitate such work. Agra and nearby areas, spilling into adjacent States, is the nerve centre, supplying prostitutes and dancing girls to Kolkata’s Sonagachi, kothas in Delhi’s GB Road, Lucknow’s Chandni Bazar, Firozabad’s Radha Gali, red-light areas in Hyderabad, Bareilly, Surat, Rampur, other towns and, of course, Maharashtra’s dance bars.

Bedia women are known to have danced and sung for Mughal soldiers and provided carnal services. This continued under the patronage of British garrisons. Khairati Lal Bhola, whose voluntary organisation Bharatiya Patita Udhar Sabha has been engaged in working for the welfare of sex workers, has traced Bedia origins to bhercharanewale (herdsmen). It is likely that they were originally jungle dwellers, the term Bedia deriving from ber (jungle). It became a practice to train girls in singing and dance, and initiating many into sex work. They entertained outsiders only, never their own men.

Mr. Bhola’s long study of communities that engage in such work indicates that they welcome female births. Male children are seen as liabilities. The Agra police have reported the prevalence of male foeticide among Bedias. Abortion clinics near their settlements provide sex-determination tests and are alleged to abort male foetuses of some expectant mothers, given that pimping and low-paying jobs are the sole options available to males. This reverses the convention of getting rid of females among better-off and socially higher northern communities, with infanticide reducing girls’ numbers to a skeleton count among some Rajput clans in western Rajasthan; and the wide male-female ratio in Jat-dominated areas of Punjab and Haryana forcing men to pay a bride price for wives from impoverished regions.

Basai’s proximity to tourism sites and hotels has led many Bedias to sell their houses to outsiders, avers Agra-based journalist Brij Khandelwal who has also observed that the Bedia villages are bereft of women these days. The character of the village has thus changed. Bedia males affirm that social pressure has led to discontinuation of sex work. Some drive auto rickshaws or do other semi-skilled work. But those in the know claim that their concrete houses and modern accoutrements are largely funded by money earned from prostitution and dancing. Sharp differences in physiognomy suggest varied parentage. Among Bancharas, girls initiated into prostitution are referred to as khilwadis and those married off are termed bhatekwadis. A mother proclaims before the village goddess, Narsi Ma, whether she intends to initiate a daughter into sex work. Post-puberty, selected girls undergo the nath utarai ritual, which initiates them into prostitution, dancing and singing.

Whether Maharshtra’s dance bars will let dancers legally ply their trade now hinges on State policy.