Back to the grind for Maharashtra’s dance bars
(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters)
These dance bars would often be run in seedy and dark air-conditioned halls. Up to 100 customers at a time would sit at tables positioned around the dance floor, where girls in their twenties would gyrate to blaring Bollywood music under flickering disco lights. The smell of liquor and cigarette smoke would linger in the air as the clients would ogle the girls, who typically would wear gaudy free-flowing skirts with blouses.
These bars were popular with locals who made millions of rupees selling farmland to industries and were awash with new-found wealth.
During my visits, I spoke to dancers and bar owners. The dancers mostly came from poor and unschooled families, although some of the girls were educated and studied in colleges in and around Pune. Some said they took up dancing to help their parents and finance the education of their siblings.
The dance bars had an interesting revenue-sharing system. If a girl made 1,000 rupees in tips each night, she kept half. The rest would be shared by the owner and the agent who recruited the girl. I was told most dance bars in the state had the same system.
Bar owners act as money changers for customers, exchanging a 500 rupee note for more bills of lower denomination and encouraging clients to shower the dancers with money. Not that the performances were remarkable. The girls were not trained. They mostly danced to Bollywood songs, sticking to a few monotonous steps, and coaxed money from their drunken admirers. Onlookers were not usually allowed to touch the dancers, except to hold hands, offer money and strike up a conversation.
No one used their real names. Pooja, Nisha and Tina were popular stage names shared by 70 girls at the bars I visited.
Recruiters also arranged special dance shows at farmhouses and bungalows on request. These private parties would cost up to a hundred thousand rupees. The girls would be dressed in snazzier lehengas with more expensive make-up.
Whether dance bars should continue is a moral issue. Like horse racing and lotteries, clients at such bars would help the government make money in taxes. It also helps women seeking a way out of poverty but the problem is, they could be lured into prostitution.
The ban on dance bars has been difficult to enforce. Some went underground immediately after the ban. There are sporadic media reports of police raids on their operations. There is little transparency, more corruption and a heightened risk of dancers getting exploited.
It could still work. Make owners accountable for dance bars. Keep minors out, enforce timings, make frequent checks to ensure the girls are not being exploited. It won’t be easy but cancelling licences and heavy fines for offences may help.
Do you think dance bars should reopen? Share your views in the comments below.
(Follow Kaustubh on Twitter @kkmantra )