My neighbourhood’s right not to have a dance bar

The livelihood rights of bar dancers are pitched against society's right to exercise moral pressure on individuals to observe social decorum

In 2005, when Mumbai's dance bars were shut down, I gladly accepted the invitation of the bar dancers' organisation to address their rally in Azad Maidan to protest against the ban imposed on their profession by the government. My argument was simple: women who dance in these bars are merely emulating what we see celebrated actresses do in every other Bollywood film.

If anything, most bar dancers dress far more modestly than Bipasha Basu or Katrina Kaif while dancing to raunchy numbers like "Beedi" or "Chikni Chameli". Their only fault is that most bar dancers come from miserably poor families; many end up in the profession because they have been abandoned by husbands or are sole breadwinners supporting disabled or sick parents and younger siblings. By contrast, most film heroines today come from highly educated and wealthy families.

At that rally, bar dancers who spoke from the stage openly abused the police for their hypocrisy, saying: "They say we are immoral. But they have no shame in coming and raiding the bars in order to extort money from us. What does that make them?"

Many bar dancers faced destitution when bars were forcibly shut down. However, that did not mean the end of their profession. Since it became fashionable to have young women gyrate to Bollywood numbers on every conceivable occasion, from political rallies to weddings and even functions organised by the police, many found other venues to perform.

Though I wasn't in favour of the ban, I find it hard to celebrate its revocation. It may be a victory for bar owners, but it isn't quite one for women. The stigma attached to the profession stays, despite the fact that dancing per se is not stigmatised any more. For example, women from "respectable" families dance to the same Bollywood tunes at family weddings, birthday parties and in discotheques. And yet, many of those who wax eloquent in favour of dance bars would never let their own daughters or sisters take to this profession.

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