Reshma was her “bar name,” and she prefers to call herself that even today, nearly eight years after the Maharashtra government shut down dance bars she made a living out of. She had come to Mumbai in 2002 to stay with her sister, but an abusive brother-in-law got her pregnant. An abortion crushed the remainder of her spirit. She was 14. Her sister did not allow her to return home to Udhagamandalam in Tamil Nadu.
Reshma had then grown fascinated by a group of women who dressed up, wore make-up and stepped out after sundown each evening. Curiosity drew her close to one of them. “She supported me like nobody else had in my life.” She followed her newfound friend to her workplace, which turned out to be “Sridevi Bar.” There, Reshma was asked to do just one thing — replace her half saree with a salwar-kameez .
“The first evening of waiting at the tables earned me Rs.1,000 in tips.” She was now 15 and life was looking up. Money earned her dignity and respect. After dating a few men, she settled with Bahadur, a rickshaw driver. He too abused her, but at least she was financially independent.
That was the time when many Reshmas were flooding Mumbai looking for work in the dance bars, 2,500 such establishments at their peak. And they came from all over. In the 1990s, the Agra-Mumbai highway had brought in a wave of women from West Bengal, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. Amongst them, many from very vulnerable groups such as the Nat, Bediya and Kabutare, were trying to escape bondage-driven prostitution and take to dance instead.
Dancing, they say, was in their blood. Among some tribal groups, a girl is taught dancing by her father’s sister when she is growing up. “My first dance performance earnings went to my aunt; that’s our custom. My sister came here as well. Together, we made gold ornaments worth Rs.5 lakh,” says 25-year-old Kanta.
Thousands of other women, including Reshma, also earned enough to buy gold jewellery. Dance was a route out of despair. On the dance floors of their bars, they felt safe — mostly, no man dared touch them without consent. Many obtained passports and travelled abroad to be part of wedding sangeet parties organised by non-resident Indians.
The lanes, or gallis , in Malvani became a haven for bar dancers, difficult as it was for most of them to find accommodation elsewhere in the city. The small locality in Malad shielded them from disapproving eyes and disdainful glances. Similar communities sprang up in the bylanes of Mira Road in north Mumbai and Foras Road in the south.
The bubble burst in mid-August 2005 with the Maharashtra government’s ban on dance bars. As many as 75,000 women lost their jobs. More than 1,00,000 of others lost ancillary jobs.
“Most of us thought the ban would not last,” said one of the women. “We thought we could go home briefly to our villages till it was lifted.” But these financially independent women from the big city had a rude homecoming. Many were sexually abused by men, often from their own families. “I decided that I’d rather come back to Mumbai and starve to death,” says Chandni, who returned from Midnapore in West Bengal.
But post-ban, Mumbai was a bleak world with few options. In the old days, Kanta was one of the few dance bar girls able to find a place to stay outside Malvani, but now she was unable to continue to pay Rs.10,000 for her Malad flat. “So we shifted to the Malvani slum,” says Kanta. “Our savings vanished and we had no option but to start selling our bodies for money.” Now, her sister Milan and she are supported by a “client,” who pays them Rs.50,000 a month in exchange for their services.
“After the ban, the very policemen who frequented the dance bars would put us behind bars,” says Milan. Only in March, her friend was arrested in a raid on a dance bar, some of which had continued to exist underground after the ban. “She was three months pregnant and hasn’t been released yet.”
Reshma, meanwhile, turned to commercial sex work.
“I had 10 steady clients but learned that five of them were going to other women so I dumped those. My son and husband have no idea what I do. My shift is the same as my husband’s work and son’s school hours,” says Reshma.
Parvati, once noted for dancing on her knees with a lamp balanced on her head, was also devastated. She said: “Earlier, we and our art were respected. The men would dance to our tune.”
Following the ban, Parvati moved with her three children to Malvani and started rebuilding her life. “My days of glory were over,” she says. She now finds solace in her children’s progress. The first one, a son, works in a mobile phone shop. Her second child is part of a leading dance troupe in Bandra. “I must have passed on my genes to him. How else does one explain his love for dance even though he knew nothing about his mother’s past life?” A daughter studies science.
Parvati and Reshma have joined the Sanmitra Trust founded by social activist Prabha Desai and taken to social work. They help educate others like themselves about safe sex practices. Many are trying their hand at becoming tailors, beauticians, hairdressers and so on. “After we started the Trust, many women came forward to make a life of their own. While most continue commercial sex work, they also look at alternatives,” says Ms Desai.
On hearing of the Supreme Court judgment on July 16, Kanta and Milan told their “clients” that they would not have to depend on them anymore.
It’s not so simple for all of them, though. Many know there’s no going back: some feel they have lost the dancing skill, others feel their bodies have grown older. There are also those like Reshma who have chosen not to return. “Staying away from the bars has made me realise that there is so much I can do.”
(All the names here have been changed to protect victims’ identities.)
Thousands of young women, chiefly in Mumbai, made a living on bar-floors until the Maharashtra ban in 2005 shut them down. Now that the ban is off, what next for those who are still around?