Swansong - the story behind Mumbai's vanishing orchestra artists

The dawn of the ‘orchestra’ era in Mumbai’s bars was in the early 70s, when two bars brought in orchestra artistes to staff in-house bands, as an added attraction for their patrons. The idea was that live music would bring in more custom, and encourage the clientele to spend more time listening to the bands and downing more drinks. This was an immediate hit with the city's drinker. Over the next few years, several bars in Mumbai even created a separate orchestra section on their premises.

“Back then, songs were only on requests by customers, and o ur repertoire included numbers in Hindi, Marathi and other regional languages known to the singers. A customer would write the song of his choice on a card and pass it on to a waiter with a ten-rupee note, which would then be brought to us.

“Those ten-rupee notes, and whatever else an appreciative customer chose to give us, were our tips. We had exclusive right over the tips with no obligation to pay the owner any part of it,” recalls Subhash Jadhav, president of the Mumbai Orchestra Artistes Association, which was registered in 1992.


The 70s and 80s were golden decades for orchestra artistes. Bars were always on the lookout to for good singers or musicians; they artistes were offered not just fixed monthly salaries but also free food and pride of place in the establishment.

“We had status back then,” says Jolly More, a singer who now performs in shows.

"People would hear of our talent and come especially for our performances. Orchestra artistes were hired only after proper auditions, but once we were part of the establishment, it was cushy. We performed from 8 pm to 11.30 pm. Each day would start with tea and snacks as soon as we reached the bar, and there would be a break at 10:00 pm with more tea and refreshments. After packing up for the evening, we were served dinner, and the meal would include some of the choicest dishes on the menu. Even the women who worked as waiters were dignified. Customers wouldn’t even dare to ask them their names, nor would they linger around the patrons’ tables a minute longer than necessary.”

Bring on the girls

Over time, the bar girls began drawing more and more patrons and, inevitably, displaced the musicians in the bar hierarchy.

Disgruntled with the downgrade in status, musicians began quitting. This didn’t worry the bar owners; all they had to do was bring in a sound system (and in later years, just a laptop linked to the speakers) and pop in a CD loaded with popular numbers The girls danced, and the patrons showered them with money.

The transition of the bar girls from waitstaff to alluring entertainers started bringing in unimaginable amounts of cash every evening, pushing the orchestra artistes deeper into barroom wilderness. As the musicans' star quotient plunged, bar owners stopped paying them salaries and increased the cut they took from tips from 10 per cent to a crippling 50 per cent.

Last song for the evening?

Mr More, whose last performance was at the A Palace bar in Mulund ten years ago, has since been struggling to make ends meet. “I have four daughters, and I managed to give all them an education. Three of them are married now. My family members and friends helped me a lot, and I consider myself lucky among all of us,” he says.

Bhimrao Tambe, 48, a drummer, has not been so fortunate. Beginning in 1975, Mr Tambe worked in various orchestra bars for 25 years, but ultimately quit after the disagreements with bar owners became too frequent. He now works as a watchman and plays the drums at functions whenever he gets an opportunity with a band. “I have a wife and two daughters,” he says. “Both are in school. I have no idea where the money for their future is going to come from. Even daily expenses are a struggle. My relatives support me as and when they can.”

“The advent of dance bars stripped the job of orchestra artistes of its dignity,” says Pradeep Jadhav, a singer. “Many of us quit voluntarily. We did not undergo training in singing and practice for hours on end to be a part of this.”

Retired DCP Ambadas Pote says, “The decline of orchestra artistes is similar to what happened to mill workers in Mumbai. After the mills shut down, they really fell on hard times. It is a saddening phenomenon.”

Today, ‘orchestra bar’ is, for the most part, a euphemism for dance bars, where girls are employed as singers on paper but actually lip-sync to recorded tracks. The girls pretend to perform on the stage in turns while the others mingle with the patrons and ensure they spend as much money as possible.

No encores

Retired Assistant Commissioner of Police Vasant Dhoble, who headed Mumbai Police’s social service branch, said, “It is one hundred per cent true that bar girls only masquerade as singers. It is something we have regularly observed in our raids. The orchestra artistes are slowly dying a painful death. The law prescribes legal action against bar girls mingling with customers and behaving indecently with them, but there is no mechanism to stop bar owners from making the girls lip-sync to pre-recorded tracks.”

Mr Jadhav of the Orchestra Artistes’ Association has been writing to the state government seeking a solution to the problem. he says that the recent Supreme Court verdict, which allows dance bars to re-open, is currently the biggest point of concern for orchestra artistes, as it would shrink their livelihood options further. “The verdict is based on the question of the livelihood of bar girls, but in all these years that the matter has been sub-judice, not once has the issue of our livelihood been raised.”

The Association is now, for the first time in many years, planning protests to highlight their plight, and Mr Jadhav is busy holding meetings with members to plan the future course of action. For them, it is a last ditch attempt to relive days of performing for music-loving patrons who showered them with affection and, of course, money.


The law prescribes legal action against bar girls mingling with customers and behaving indecently with them, but there is no mechanism to stop bar owners from making them lip-sync to pre recorded tracks — Vasant Dhoble, retired ACP

It is painful to see well qualified female singers with beautiful voices sitting at home while girls who have no idea about singing standing on the stage — Rafique Maniar, Singer


1972: Bars in Mumbai introduce live ‘orchestras’ on their premises, singers and musicians employed to sing songs at the request of patrons.

1974: Two bar owners employ women as waitstaff to attract more customers. The practice starts spreading to other bars.

1979: Bar owners expand the idea: bars now have two sections, one for those who enjoy songs from films, the other exclusively for ghazal lovers.

1982: Musicians, who were being paid monthly salaries, begin getting hefty tips from appreciative customers. Bar owners take a 10% cut.

1992: Bar owners begin employing young girls to dance to live music. This is an instant hit and spreads quickly to other orchestra bars in the city

1996: Bars with two orchestra sections begin phasing out one out to make room for more dancers. The flesh trade rackets begin to take shape.

1997-2005: Rapid decline of musicians. Bar owners threaten to sack them if they object to flesh trade rackets. Many of them quit their bar jobs.


Orchestra artistes who were the original entertainers of Mumbai’s dance bars, today struggle to eke out a living

15,000 ORCHESTRA ARTISTES face extinction because music is played on electronic sound systems these days

90% of the tips collected in orchestra bars used to be the musicians’ daily earning in addition to a monthly salary

10% was the share of bar owners then

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Printable version | Jan 29, 2022 4:58:14 AM |

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