Dance Bars.

Cabaret dancers.

Do these terms make you feel uncomfortable? As if they have the ability to somehow “taint” you? Unfortunately, you’re not alone. The stigma has always and perhaps will always continue to persist, which is a shame, really, because these women are the epitome of courage and beauty. They had the audacity to go out and live their lives on their own terms and society punished them for it.

These dance bars were a source of regular and hefty income to these illiterate women whom society wouldn’t accept in any other form, and the debate on whether the bars were promoting corrupt lifestyles was of course ultimately won by the “morally sound”.

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Rosy, Meghraj Cabaret #1, Bombay 1984 (photo: Mitch Epstein)

The History Of Cabaret Bars

You may be surprised to know that dance bars in Bombay were open for business up until 2005! And sure, when you think of cabaret and dance bars, you think of Bombay, but the south coast wasn’t far behind. In fact, when these bars were opposed, the Kerala High Court had observed that the performance of cabaret dance devoid of nudity and obscenity, judged according to the standards indicated was permissible, and was not in any way liable to be banned or prevented.

In fact, it was stated that so long as there was no nudity, artists and customers did not come into close contact, and no liquor was served during the shows, the bar owners had a cast-iron case.

Since this ruling gave bar-owners ample room to run their business, overnight even tea shops and roadway joints in Cochin and Calicut were turned into cabaret establishments, increasing the competition to such an extent that some of the hotels had started staging live sex shows involving even lesbian acts. Predictably, crowds went wild over the performances prompting some floor show managers to bring in even minor girls to engage in strip-tease acts with male dancers.

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Rosy, Meghraj Cabaret #2 Bombay 1984 (photo: Mitch Epstein)

Ban On Dance Bars On Account Of Indecency

These establishments naturally became a hub for politics and entertainment and subsequently offended a lot of activists who claimed it insulted womanhood and the Indian culture. They vowed to shut the places down but the dancers themselves were against the closing of these bars since this is perhaps one of the very few jobs where the lack of literacy does not hinder their ability to earn a good salary. And the bars provided a decent livelihood not just for the dancers, but also to the band members and the bodyguards.

But these dance bars did eventually die because of claims that the dance bars contravened the licensing terms for places of public amusement by ‘permitting performance of dances in an indecent, obscene or vulgar manner, and that this was giving rise to the exploitation of women’, and that the dancing was both ‘derogatory to the dignity of women’ and was ‘likely to deprave, corrupt or injure the public morality or morals’.

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Meghraj Cabaret, Lonavla, Bombay, India, 1984 (photo: Mitch Epstein)

ALSO READ: Was Painter Raja Ravi Varma A Voyeur/Pervert Or Was He Simply Ahead Of His Time?

Worthless Scum OR Independent Women Earning A Livelihood? – The Other Side

A thorough study by one William Mazzarella on the cabaret culture titled “A Different Kind of Flesh: Public Obscenity, Globalisation and the Mumbai Dance Bar Ban” published in the South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies on 18th August 2015 takes on a different perspective of this cabaret culture.

William Mazzarella rightly points out that if “obscenity” and “indecency” were the only justifications behind the ban, then why were provocative dancing in other venues—from popular lavani or tamasha shows to nightclubs in fancy hotels—not being outlawed?

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From the documentary”India Cabaret” made by Mira Nair

Forget dance bars, if morality was the reason, why weren’t films being banned on account of obscenity with their ability to corrupt public morality?

Flavia Agnes, a Mumbai-based activist, and lawyer, in her article titled ‘Hypocritical Morality: Mumbai’s Ban on Dancers’ recounted the developments and events leading up to the ban in Maharashtra. In the article she states,

“We were sad… because of the manner in which an important issue relating to women was being discussed, and the comments that were being passed on the floor of the House, by our elected representatives, who are under the constitutional mandate to protect the dignity of women!”

She also recounted an event when,

“An esteemed member narrated an incident of his friend’s daughter who had committed suicide because she did not get a job. He said it was more dignified to commit suicide than dance in bars. And the House applauded! The message for women is clear: If you happen to be born in a poor family, you are better off dead!”

The documentary “India Cabaret” by the celebrated director and film-maker Mira Nair is an eye-opening piece of art for whoever wants to even minutely understand this issue. The film explores the stereotypes and the stigma placed on these women who are not necessarily ashamed of what they do for a living. They are rather proud to not be trapped under the thumbs of the men in their family, be it their brothers, fathers or husbands.

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Mira Nair posing with the women of India Cabaret (photo: Mitch Epstein)

The film very boldly goes against the patriarchal narrative that the society has very conveniently put in place; that the men who go to see these supposedly “dirty women” dancing for their pleasure are upstanding citizens of the society whereas, in their own words, the women are cheap worthless harlots and nothing more.

Maybe the ban on dance bars had nothing to do with the society and the youth going corrupt, after all. Maybe the men decided these women were perhaps enjoying an act that came into existence for their pleasure, a little too much and put an end to it.

After all, how dare they? How dare they enjoy an act that was meant to be humiliating and therefore, titillating? An independent woman is obviously a turn-off, didn’t you know?

Image Credits: Google Images, Mitch Epstein


Other Recommendations:

The Great Indian Code of ‘Morality’

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