Dancing the Night Away : Erotic Outlaws of the Democracy
The varied trajectories of Bengali cabaret/bar dancers who ferried themselves between the two cities of Mumbai and Kolkata in search of livelihood and shelter since the last decades of the 20th century are mapped. Taking Kolkata as the epicentre of research, the author proposes to trace the eviction drive of the city’s erotic dancers ascribing their large-scale exodus to the cultural crusade waged by the progressive state that forced out many poor and labouring dancers, calling them out as visceral symbols of apasanskriti or pervert culture.
On 4 June 2019, Tathagata Roy, a Bharatiya Janata Party leader from Bengal and the then governor of Meghalaya, sparked off a controversy through a series of tweets. Bengal, he asserted, once a cultural hub of India, is now depleted of its hallowed tradition, which is particularly evident by Bengali women’s record migration and engagement in Mumbai dance bars. He tweeted, “Now from Haryana to Kerala, Bengali boys are sweeping floors and Bengali girls are bar dancers in Mumbai, which was unthinkable before” (Shukla 2019). By the time he blamed it on the media for giving his comments a “bizarre turn,” the issue was taken up by Banga Janani Bahini, the women’s wing of the ruling All India Trinamool Congress of Bengal, who promptly organised a protest march and dharna against the governor’s “unconstitutional” remarks on women. The law minister of West Bengal struck a chord with the latest verdict of the Supreme Court in 2019, which by quashing the ban on bar dancing endorses every citizen’s fundamental right to choose their occupation. The bitter battle over tweets could not, however, blot out the staggering presence of migrant Bengali dancers in Mumbai as field reports (SNDT and Forum 2006) on bar dancing confirm that West Bengal stands second (20.6%), next only to Uttar Pradesh (UP) (24.8%), in supplying dancing girls to Mumbai.
Interweaving many personal interviews with ethnographic and historical research, this paper maps the varied trajectories of Bengali bar dancers who ferried themselves between the two cities of Kolkata and Mumbai. While existing research on bar dancing takes the seminal moment of 2005 ban as its starting point, situating the study in the “sin city” of Mumbai that hosted the sleaze shows for maximum number of nights, I take Kolkata as the epicentre of my research. I push the timeline backward into history to trace the arrival of transnational exotic dancers in its colonial nightclubs and move forward along the alleyways of the postcolonial city to capture the changing faces of its subterranean world of pleasure. Moral policing, I will argue, which appeared as an abiding concern of the Maharashtra government before implementing the ban, resonated more stridently in the cultural crusade of the leftist state of West Bengal during the 1980s and 1990s as in both social scenarios, erotic dancers emerged as visceral symbols of moral perversion and cultural anarchy.
Three key points emerge from my research: (i) if in western India the Hindu upper-caste nationalist state functionaries uprooted bar dancers in the name of brahmanshahi or “caste-governance” (Dalwai 2019), the eviction drive against the cabaret dancers of Bengal was waged in the name of apasanskriti or pervert/decadent culture. (ii) Thriving at the intersection of caste and performance, while the present scholarship has linked erotic dance with the sexual labour of hereditary/low- caste women, my study reveals that dancers who romped around the European nightclubs and commercial sex theatres of Kolkata, were primarily recruited from the Hindu high-caste Bengali poor refugee families dislocated from East Pakistan (Bangladesh). (iii) While feminists are still divided to settle the fate of erotic dancers, this paper, situated at the interface of second and third wave feminisms, argues that dancers’ experiences of pleasure and pain cannot be flatly reduced to the binary opposition between liberation and exploitation. Erotic performance/labour exists at the leaky boundary between a matter of choice and a sheer compulsion to eke out a mouthful and the forced erasure of dancers from the moral geography of the nation can, by no means, obscure their struggle for survival in an economically marginal, culturally stigmatised and immoral work.
Right to Dance versus Moral Policing
Some left the city in search of options, others fell by the wayside. Some became homeless. Some let their ailing parents die. Some pulled their children out of school. Some were battered and bruised by drunken husbands as they could not bring in the money to make ends meet. Some put their pre-teen daughters out for sale in the flesh market. And some committed suicide. (Agnes 2005: 10)
Even though dancers took their final bow and faded into oblivion after 14 August 2005, issues of their livelihood and survival continued to raise their controversial heads throughout the following decades. In her pioneering research, feminist activist and lawyer Flavia Agnes (2005) critiques the hypocritical morality of the state, which in its attempt to cleanse the society of immorality, disenfranchises an estimated 75,000 girls, mainly from the lower economic strata. The state’s overriding concern over decency and obscenity thus swept aside the more tangible questions of survival of the bar girls who danced to earn their daily wages. According to Sonal Makhija, the ban and the encoding of morality into the Indian law are “residual influences” of the colonial morality and nationalist-Hindu agenda that together shaped notions of caste–class purity. The two-faced cultural politics of the morally upright Hindu state is reflected by the exemption granted to certain upscale establishments and the concomitant embargo of the performing space inhabited by the low-class/caste performers and customers (Makhija 2010). When low-caste hereditary performers attained monetary power and status by deploying their “caste capital” in a globalising market economy, Sameena Dalwai’s influential work elaborated the manner in which the state intervened to bring back the caste-gendered status quo. Among other reasons, the injunction primarily aimed to stop lower-caste women from earning “too much money” and cut their flight short (Dalwai 2019).
Drawing particularly on Dalit feminists’ reflections of their lived experiences, Meena Gopal explores the troubled connection between caste, sexual labour and feminist activism. Her ethnographic undertaking confirmed the fact that the ban actually pushed many dancers into sex work, which were taking place undercover in unregulated working conditions (Gopal 2012). Anna Morcom unpacks the big bad world of illicit dance bringing to the fore issues of occupation and choice of work of an entire community of “illicit” performers who flourished in the city’s underbelly. “An erotic performer is not a performer but a prostitute”—as a self-fulfilling prophecy, this equation was used as a rationale to erase the nation of its unclean and impure bodies from the space of performance. The culture of exclusion continues to disenfranchise the community of subaltern erotic performers as the cultural life of the new Indian (moral) nation is claimed by its high-profile, middle-class order (Morcom 2014).
While most scholars tend to dismiss exotic dance as “dance” or “work,” Judith Lynn Hanna explores the historic journey from ballet to exotic dance that became an avenue of social mobility for working-class women performing both at the royal court and proscenium. Hanna (2010) defines exotic dance as a form of dance, art, and communication in adult entertainment venues where dancers play the role of conscientious objectors by bravely testing and defying society’s sexual limits. They battle with their bodies to look good and work hard to sell extravagant fantasy to their male patrons. Largely devalued as a stigmatised work, exotic dance witnessed a revival with the establishment of the upscale gentlemen’s club in Europe offering livelihood options for many working-class and lower-middle-class women (Hanna 2010).
Dancers in the erotic service sector navigate a precarious work space at the interface of gender, consumption, production, capitalism and desire. Mapping the painful and pleasurable intersections of space and subjectivity of dancers and their regulars, Daniel Egan explores the dynamic interplay of consumer power vis-à-vis the subversive strategies of dancers’ sexual and emotional labour (Egan 2006). With a new reading of the sociology of labour, Bruckert et al (2003) underline the unique configuration of challenges, problems and difficulties confronted by women working in this stigmatised, criminalised and illegal sector of the labour market.
While there is no dearth of research on the sex workers of Kolkata (Sonagachi), the academic silence over Kolkata’s erotic night dancers is a little surprising. Questions remain: In post-partition Bengal, who took to cabaret as an alternative livelihood or work in blatant transgression of middle-class sexual morality? What triggered a sudden swelling up of cabaret theatres during the insurgent 1970s and who thronged the mushrooming sex theatres of Hatibagan–Chitpur in the city of bhadraloks? When the state came down hard on the nightly sleaze shows to protect the cultural sanctity of Bengal, what happened to the famished “fantasy” girls? This paper looks for the answers.
Minerva Theatre to Deepa Bar: A Tale of Two Nights
Cities like Bombay live at night. The day is a gathering-up of forces for the night. The city unfurls itself, luxuriously, after the sun sets, in the receptions, premieres, parties, and dinners of the night; in the beer bars, hotels, dance clubs, workhouse and alleyways. The night has no time; it is freed from the corporate rigour of the day. And the night contains sexual possibility: that man so fine in his jacket, that woman across the room lighting a cigarette. (Mehta 2004: 285)
Sixteenth September 2019. Braving the orange alert issued throughout the city of Mumbai, Sonali Dey-Vartak arrived for the interview at Sea Princess Hotel of Juhu, Mumbai. Holding her dripping umbrella most awkwardly in a plastic bag, Sonali managed to settle herself in the foyer of the beach-front swimming pool. A bar dancer from Belgharia, north Kolkata, Sonali was first sold to a brothel in the Congress House by her “boyfriend” who brought her to Mumbai with the hope of marriage. Sonali managed to escape the “filthy” work and instead chose to join the bar line, as the latter “offered more money and less exploitation” (Interview, 16 September 2019). Around 1995–96, Sonali started with the Deepa bar in Vile Parle (West) before moving to Shruti Bar. “Bengali girls are in high demand in bar line,” claimed Sonali. “Though some local girls bitch us out of jealousy we are considered lucky for the bar owners” (Interview, 16 September 2019). Walking down the alleys of the city’s underbelly, Sonali flashed back, “We danced on the bed of money—crores of liquid cash had been showered upon us. We stood witness to the sinister nexus between underworld, cricket fixing, real estate and trafficking. We lay on the table while the real game changers ran the show from the backstage of power politics” (Interview, 16 September 2019).
After 2005, Sonali left the bar line forever; but the ban had a devastating effect on Sangita who was forced to return to her home town at Ichapur, West Bengal. As a young bride, she was sold several times by her husband and performed widely at the open-wall orchestra shows in Bihar and UP. “I was not a dancer with any previous training. To tell you the truth, it does not take anyone to know that art of dance to be a bar dancer” (Interview, 2 March 2019). While her narrative clearly hinted at cross-border sex-trafficking, Sangita repeatedly underlined her own volition in choosing the bar line. “Mumbai bars gave me a roof over my head and enough money to educate my children in missions. Later I also married a Marathi man, who bought me a flat in Mira Road. But this ban ruined us all. Meanwhile my man died and the flat’s rent is yet to be cleared” (Interview, 2 March 2019).
In January 2019, the apex court had lifted the ban giving primacy to the bar dancers’ fundamental rights of occupation. The decision that apparently ensured a win for dancers, failed to translate constitutional safeguards into social action. My field trip to Mumbai months after the verdict, however, revealed that not a single licence was issued to the dance bars as the industry increasingly veered towards a permanent closure. Jaya Pal, aka Jyoti, who once performed at Karishma, Tamasha and Ajanta bars is eagerly waiting for their reopening to get her job back. One of the early migrants from Kolkata, Jaya arrived in Mumbai in the late 1980s when the Maharashtra government adopted the policy of allowing musical and dance performances in beer and liquor bars.1 In Kolkata, Jaya’s journey as a performer started as a child artist in a touring commercial theatre company called MG Enterprise, which was run by veteran Bengali film and stage actress Molina Devi and her husband, Gurudas Banerjee. But Jaya’s real stint with theatre began in the 1980s when she took the stage as a cabaret dancer with her “bump-and-grind dashes in popular family dramas” in Minerva and Rangmahal theatres. Trained under Miss Shefali, the cabaret queen of yesteryears, Jaya echoes the experiences of many of her fellow cabaret dancers who faced moral policing and eventual eviction from the space of performance. She recalls, “Things turned sour turn from the 1980s cabaret theatres came under virulent attack, orchestrated by the leftist state, intelligentsia and some theatre activists. I lost my job. Out of sheer indigence I came to Mumbai in the early 1990s” (Interview, 17 September 2019).
While Jaya’s account reverberates the oft-repeated narrative of victimhood laying stress on her economic compulsion or majboori, her daughter, Shweta underwrites the dominant impulse of her pleasure of dance. Neither coercion nor compulsion, rather her own desire to earn money led Shweta to rock the floor shows. She toured widely in cities like Dubai, Bangkok and Singapore with agents who fixed her shows as per bi-annual contracts. But the ban has put the entire family in dire condition. Shweta complains,
In Mumbai, the state had taken to roguery and imposed a series of restrictions. One has to pack up by 11 pm, which was actually our starting time. Showering money was banned. Not more than four girls are now allowed on the floor. At times, wives of our customers also storm the bars, joining hands with the police force. But, we hardly drag men out of their homes. Nobody cared about our livelihood while imposing the ban. I came back to Kolkata and am now planning to start a dance school. I miss the heat of Mumbai. Here the turnout is very low. But still we are allowed some peace and the police is not after us. (Interview, 12 August 2019)
Rise of Kolkata Dance Bars
When bars in Mumbai remained embroiled in legal controversy, Kolkata started picking up the market—to emerge as the regional capital of dance bars in eastern India. Newspaper reports confirmed that from just around 17 “singing” bars in 2004, the number of dance-orchestra bars in Kolkata shot up to nearly 240 by 2007 as the return migration of bar dancers kick-started a boom in the business (Chaudhuri 2015). The quiet and run-down bars at the historic nightclub zone of Chandni Chowk quickly built up stages, installed lights and hired performers. There was, as if, a surge in “popular demand” for “live entertainment,” which could be attributed to the abundance of bar girls in the city (Traub 2017). Kolkata, the city that once staged erotic performances in its kothas, nightclubs and commercial theatres, emerged as the chosen destination of reverse migration of dancers. Varsha Kale, the president of Bharatiya Bar Girls’ Union, also demanded immediate rehabilitation for 15,000 Bengali bar girls who were keen to return to their home towns.
In 2006, Jagjit Singh, a taxi driver turned businessperson, was the first to start the bar business with Hotel Downtown, which is said to be Kolkata’s original dance bar in Salt Lake township. Between 2006 and 2007, dance bars mushroomed all around the city—from the Airport area, New Town and Salt Lake in the north to the remotest corners of Baruipur in south Bengal. Reportedly, Singh alone owned 50 bars in the city and also controlled 60% of the dance bars near the Kolkata airport. My respondents informed that in Kolkata, timings are kept rather flexible. In some bars, college girls take the stage around 4.30 pm to 7.30 pm, while the real trade begins only after 11 at night and continues till 2 am in secret violation of the law. Dancers performing at highway bars receive a good number of flying customers only after midnight.
Intriguing Social Scenes: Patriarchy, Resistance, Desire and Power
Shreya Karmakar, a commerce graduate from a Kolkata college, has started her career with Sunset Bar but later moved to Delhi as there is “less money” in Kolkata. A transgender performer, Shreya had to initially hide her trans identity. “But the bar line runs on the pretense of love.” She admits, “I have a good flow of customers since I am successful in building fantasy around a fake identity” (Interview, 12 April 2019). Sharing the insider’s perspective, Shreya informs that there is a good demand of Bengali bar dancers in Delhi and Mumbai, whereas girls from Punjab or Nepal are the most sought-after in Kolkata. Besides the ban, the demonetisation dealt a major blow to the gig economy, reducing the daily income from `30,000–`40,000 to something around `4,000–`5,000. Shreya believes that “girls come here out of the sheer drive to earn easy money and to make a good living out of dancing. There is no compulsion or exploitation. No one can force a woman to sleep with her customer” (Interview, 12 April 2019).
Quite on the contrary, Priyanka Sinha Roy, a 21-year-old bar dancer, discloses the multilayered politics of intimidation, force and mandatory sexual favours involved in this work. Priyanka who performs widely from Kolkata to Siliguri2 unfolds the shady underside of the bar line, which leaves a dancer powerless at the hands of the bandmaster. The bandmaster who runs the whole show usually pockets up 60% of the floor earnings. The bandleader who comes the second-in-command picks up crooners and dancers and negotiates the financial and sexual deals. “Threats of rape and murder from the bar leader and band master are not unusual in our lives” (Interview, 12 May 2019). Unlike Mumbai, the scene in Kolkata appears more manipulative and non-negotiable as the bandmaster exercises his unchallenged authority over dancers’ programme, travels, wages, tips, contracts and modes of performances. An odd blend of sexual vulnerability and empowerment marks Priyanka’s life narrative who, however, signs off by distancing her work from that of a common prostitute, “I am a bar dancer by choice. I am not a prostitute of Sonagachi. I cannot be forced to sleep with my customers” (Interview, 12 May 2019). Priyanka points towards the non-dance sexual service couched in her profession while considering sex work dirty and degrading in the same breath.3
Police reports, however, reveal that sex work, whether coerced or voluntary, is part of bar dancing. In 2015, Bidhannagar Police Commiserate raised objection regarding the employment of dancing girls in bars under its jurisdiction, which involved illegal flesh trade.4 Operating from Bidhannagar Police Commiserate, Papiya Sultana, a senior police officer, has reported that cases of trafficking and rape cases are rampant in the dance bars. Their frequent raids into the bar-cum-brothels unearthed many underground dance bars involved in flesh trade and clandestine sex work. Papiya sees no choice, no agency in erotic dancing. “How can such dancing be called an occupation? How can a woman bear such abuse and stigma embedded in this erotic service?” (Interview, 3 February 2021).
“To tell you the truth, our real income stems not from dance, but from sex work,” affirms Ruby Khan (Interview, 29 February 2020). Born and brought up in a Muslim neighbourhood of Kolkata, Ruby performs widely in Saqi, Majestic and Ashoka bars of Chandni Chowk. She shares, “I have a permanent husband, a permanent boyfriend and some flying customers. Our customers are mostly bhadralok; but the older, the better—we call them sugar-daddys” (Interview, 29 February 2020). Smearing the line between wife and whore, Ruby happily aligns herself with the “whorish wife.”5 She continues, “While men do not feel guilty of cheating their wives how they can blame us as home-breakers? After all it is our job” (Interview, 29 February 2020). Ruby celebrates at least four to five fake birthdays in a year to get expensive gifts. But the best way to earn money, she says, “is by faking pregnancy and to earn a good sum for each fake abortion” (Interview, 29 February 2020).
Then what drags men to the bar? My customer survey conducted with the regulars of the Café Delight bar at the Esplanade area revealed deep moral anxieties on the part of the male clientele. Selim, a regular at Café Delight, admits, “After a long day of work, it feels better to spend the night looking at these fast moving girls in a neon-lit floor. They always made me feel good, I am treated like a superman” (Interview, 28 February 2019). Sitting next to him, Tiwari chuckles, “These girls play with male fantasy and ruin their families by lure and seduction” (Interview, 28 February 2019). Akash, the bandmaster of Café Delight, however, differs:
Sure, girls land up this crazy world to entertain you. Nobody is interested in presenting herself as a sati-savitri type of a woman. Each one of us in this entertainment industry is either a consumer or a service provider. Women come here out of sheer desperation. They put on painted masks on their real faces. They look straight into the eyes of their customers in order to make the money they take back home to pay their bills, to feed their children and parents. Their survival strategy itself is an art—more intriguing than mere dancing at bars. (Interview, 7 March 2020)
Erotic dance, indeed, offered an intriguing social scene in which patriarchy, feminine resistance, desire, fantasy and power intersect through the organisation of labour (dancers) and leisure (customers) (Egan 2006). Contemporary feminists have chosen to break down the polarised binary of exploitation or empowerment as they find such dichotomies inadequate to understand the experiences of the dancers. Contrary to the radical feminists who oppose erotic dance on the ground that it reduces the female body to a commodity, a site of male domination and sexual exploitation, third-wave feminists distinguish between the agency of a female willfully placing her body and a male acting upon it. Performing in the face of constant social and cultural backlash, while some dancers claimed to have enjoyed command over their bodies and sexual power, many found it difficult to tackle questions of feminist empowerment and sexual autonomy. While none of them were keen to claim the feminist title, many took erotic dancing itself as living feminism countering charges of obscenity and immorality.
Prince’s to Circarena: The Unfinished Journey of Calcutta Cabaret
Stepping back in time, this section traces the historic trajectory of exotic dance in Kolkata, a city that boasted the most sizzling dance performances in its nightclubs since the colonial times. Oriental and African dancers who appeared as erotic exhibits in the 19th-century colonial exhibitions in Europe attracted immense curiosity and voyeurism from White men. While tropes of the sexualisation of the empire entailed an unproblematic equation of the Orient with the eternal feminine or the virgin ready for the taking, exotic dancers were usually defined in terms of their locations within faraway cultures and counted as sexual, wild, or barbaric (Staszac 2008).
It is, however, difficult to ascertain when and where the first floor show began in the urban centres of British India. Ethnographic research on the global cabaret movement indicates that the major hotels and pubs of Indian cities witnessed a brisk flow of transnational dancers as part of the touring companies and circus parties between the 1920s and the 1930s. The inter-war period was marked by growing popularity of jazz in hotels, pubs and clubs with the arrival of African-American performers and musicians. A changing attitude towards racial intermixing was also underway as the period witnessed significant shifts within the imperialist-elitist cultural aesthetics as the colonial hierarchy of club culture was contested giving way to popular, for-profit and commercial spaces and new venues of night-time entertainment. The onset of World War II brought not merely loads of American soldiers to the city but also a new rhythm of jazz and blues, new moves of shuffle step, foxtrot and the charleston.
Racial exclusion was, however, stringently implemented in most clubs as far as rights of admission were concerned. The Ronaldshay Hut of Barrackpore, situated in the city’s north, held exclusive dance shows every Tuesday for the British army, while the British-American Club of Dalhousie Square offered lavish war-time services and free entertainments, including night-time dancing and intermittent floor shows for enlisted personnel on Sunday afternoons. Opening its doors for the first time to Indian members, the Three Hundred Club flourished as a welcome oasis for White men and Indian princes. Established in 1931 by Allan Lockhart, the club made Boris Lissanevich, a cabaret dancer and a cadet of the Russian imperial Navy, its first secretary (Barry 1940). Standing across the Viceroy’s House, the Great Eastern Hotel was famous for its loud late-night entertainment at its nightclubs called Maxim’s and Scheherezade (Chakraborty forthcoming). Lido Room of Firpo’s reserved exclusively for the feringhees and hosted six cabarets on a single night with live orchestra. Arjab Roy (2007) captures in fascinating details the rise and growth of Park Street as the hub of European entertainment. While in early colonial times, he argues, Kolkata offered a mélange of exotic pastimes for Europeans like hunting, riding phaeton, river rides in barges, the 1940s witnessed a new craving for cheap and quick sexual entertainment at restaurant-cum-bars. Roy (2017: 174) informs that only after the city became the headquarters of the Allied forces in the eastern theatre of war that jazz took Kolkata by storm and Park Street became its centre. The iconic Oberoi Grand hosted no less than 4,000 American soldiers and entertained them with regular cabarets and musical turns in its ballrooms called Prince’s and Casanova. Magnolia, established by an American lady in 1945, led to a further boom in the bar business and Park Street emerged as a celebration zone for soldiers and officers who bathed in entertainment till late night.
But India’s independence in 1947 cut short the journeys of transnational cabaret girls. The following decade witnessed waves of exodus of the mixed-race Anglo-Indian performers to their homelands since the police headquarter at Lalbazar, Kolkata refused to issue and renew cabaret licence to foreigners. Notwithstanding the void created by the sudden flight of the itinerant flock, cabaret nights did not miss a single beat. As Indian elite claimed ownership of entertainment venues, embodiments of the erotic pleasure passed on to indigenous bodies of the new nation, with new signs of appropriation and reclamation (Chakraborty 2022).
The first Bengali cabaret dancer who made a rocking debut at the Lido Room was Miss Shefali, aka Arati Das, a Hindu refugee girl from East Pakistan. Her journey of life (Shefali 2014) sets down the disparate crossings of an adolescent refugee girl who survived in this city, moving from one night to another at myriad transgressive spaces of performance—from nightclubs to films, from theatre to one-wall shows. Born in 1947 to a Bengali Kayastha family in Narayanganj (now Bangladesh), Shefali rose to become the unrivalled cabaret queen of Calcutta, in blatant violation of middle-class sexual morality. In the late 1950s, she set on her dancing spree with a starting salary of `700 per month. Trained under European dancers, her famished body adapted itself with astonishing compliance in an unfamiliar world of exotic pleasure. From morning to midnight, she rehearsed, practised and performed the moves, following a strict regimen of diet and dressing to maintain a perfect body image of a fantasy girl. Shortly, thus, her inimitable moves of Hawaiian and blues out-staged the “authentic” cabaret dancers from Firpo’s, as Shefali invented her own signature style. Decolonising European cabaret, a new stock of dancers soon adapted that home-grown hybrid style before hitting the stages of mushrooming nightclubs.
While Shefali continued to reign supreme, holding generations of Indian and foreign clientele in awe of her cabaret act, many refugee girls followed suit adding on to the nocturnal revelry. Miss J or Jayasree Sarkar (married to Ghosal), a refugee from Barishal (Bangladesh) flaunted a naughtier version of cabaret at Sujata at Park hotel. “I dance because that’s my trade.” She said, “I work hard on it and as long as I can keep this belly away from gnawing hunger” (Chatterjee and Chatterjee 1982: 81). While Miss Jemy and Miss Jamaico were famous for their quick-paced dances, filled with wriggling, moaning, sighing and whispering sweet nothings, Miss Bobby, aka Rina Bhattacharya, flaunted a sober version with her snake dance, cobra dance, and dance of the blue bird. At Hotel Hindustan, Miss Meenakshi presented scintillating items of jungle or fire dance with little bits of leopard skin wrapped around her body. In a boiling fusion of Western dance and Indian classical, Miss Papiya’s sari-clad shows at Ritz Continental and Great Eastern Hotel were inspired by the erotic figurines of Khajuraho temple (Chatterjee and Chatterjee 1982: 76). While some offered a wide variety of fusion including bharatanatyam, folk, Middle Eastern and Arabian belly dance, many others took the stage with a simple stunt of nudity.
By the 1970s, excessive proliferation of cabaret from upmarket clubs to seedy commercial theatres witnessed a deliberate deskilling, diversification and degeneration of the original style. A fresh flux of Hindu refugees, arriving from the other side of the border during the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971, widened the pool of dancers in low-cost entertainment venues. Despite such diversification, contemporary newspapers and lifestyle magazines, however, rated Calcutta Cabaret a cut above the rest, even though dancers drew far less ready money compared to their fellow dancers. While Cochin-based cabaret girls earned the fattest buck that ran from the Gulf countries, Hyderabad was also considered a good bet. In cities like Delhi and Bangalore, a rich clientele paid fantastic prices to watch a neat act of cabaret. According to hoteliers, Bengali girls kept moving up and down the country, with short stints in metro cities like Bombay and Delhi (Sen 1974). The cabaret agreement used to last for three months for a contract fee of `300. After the given period, the contract was either extended or freed the dancers to move out of the hotel. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the average daily income of a cabaret dancer was around `2,000 to `3,000. The customer profile of the dancers also varied enormously—ranging from foreign tourists to Bengali executives, from Bollywood film stars to Marwari businessmen.
By way of comparison, cabaret in the metro cities involved bolder sexual acts than what later transpired in the dance bars of Mumbai. William Mazzarrella informs that dancers performing at the Blue Nile Club in Colaba, Bombay in the 1970s under the names of Joyce Zee and Temiko, wore only panties as they swished their backs and breasts against the customers, and in Delhi, while vibrating the various parts of their bodies, cabaret dancers took the stage only in undergarments (Mazzarella 2015: 487). No wonder, prosecutions against cabaret shows started gathering steam since the early 1970s.
In a curious turn, however, the night-time economy witnessed an unusual surge in Kolkata in spite of major political upheavals of the 1970s. In a city gripped with Naxal violence and police brutalities, cabaret theatres experienced an unprecedented boom in business (Chakraborty, forthcoming). During the period of Internal Emergency, cabaret shows emerged as a huge crowd-puller forcing hall owners to run their shows with unusual timings—from 11 am to 4 pm. According to some contemporary theatre enthusiasts, the sleazy bouts of cabaret in theatre was a calculated political device by some “reactionary establishments” to kill or inebriate the revolutionary spirit of Bengal (Kamal Saha, Interview, 28 May 2019). In a striking reflection, Sumanta Banerjee (2008: 236), however, remarks in his testimonial narrative on the Naxalbari movement that during the height of the urban youth upsurge, not a single assault was made upon the modish clubs, bars and restaurants of Park Street or Chowringhee, which were otherwise considered the haunts of the “lackeys” or agents of power. Indeed, Kolkata projected the incompatible juxtaposition of the high-brow intellectual and the skimpily clad dancer at the heart of the city. As the cesspool of immorality and revolution, the city churned out myriad threatening and subversive possibilities through many moves by struggling yet scintillating bodies.
In a city plagued by downward economic and industrial output, cabaret attracted overflowing audiences at every successful show while the so-called “good” theatres suffered dead loss at the box office albeit the state subsidy and starry presence of Bengali film stars (Majumdar 2014). When the psychedelic revolving stage of Circarena experienced a whirl of revelry with a number of bumper hits, “clean” theatres at Kashi Bishwanth ran in empty houses. Historic halls like Minerva or Biswarupa successfully staged erotic melodramas like Byabhichar, Lanchita, Piu Kanha starring Miss Chaitali, Miss Papiya and Miss Bobby, while some makeshift halls like Klem Brown and Boy’s Own Library held exclusive cabaret shows on “audience demand.” Much to the embarrassment of the bhadralok, dirty dancing by subaltern women saved their run-down theatre economy, wrecking simultaneously the moral economy of Bengal’s culture or sanskriti.
In the name of sustha sanskriti or good/healthy art, the state had to corset the dancing bodies that threatened the patriarchal moral order through an allure of nudity, fantasy and lust. No matter how much vulnerability or compulsion came up through their hard luck tales, eviction of the erotic outlaws was already on the cards (Chakraborty 2022).
Sanskriti versus Apasanskriti
The moral drive against the dance bars in Mumbai was catalysed by brahmanshahi or the cultural hegemony of upper-caste men and backed by the coercive powers of the state (Dalwai 2019: 10). In Bengal, the cultural crusade was pushed through pen and paper under the garb of an intellectual drive against apasanskriti or pervert culture (Chakraborty 2020). In Maharashtra, Vivek Patil, the member of the legislative assembly who tabled the ban in the state legislature associated bar dance with dishonest labour (Dalwai 2019: 131). Madhu Mohite, a left activist, considers bar dancing as a “tragedy of capitalism” that forces a woman to become a commodity and sell her body. He also claims that bar dancers do not work hard like factory workers; they do not participate in the production of goods. As an activist, he finds it difficult to be compassionate to the bar girls as they do not appear “proletarian” enough (Dalwai 2019: 130). Similarly, the political rhetoric of the leftist intelligentsia of Bengal evaded the livelihood issues of cabaret girls seeing them as pawns of a shady capitalist subculture. In a number of writings published under the aegis of West Bengal Democratic Writers Artists Association, certain “reactionary forces” like bourgeoisie consumerism, American capitalism and medieval feudalism were held responsible for the spread of the obscene dance, which cashed on the commodification of women’s bodies in a consumerist economy (Chowdhury 1985). The abolitionist feminist positions represented by the Ganatantrik Mahila Samity, the women’s wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), suspected secret hands of American imperialism behind the spread of cabaret theatre that commoditised women’s bodies to cater cheap and raunchy entertainment (Chakraborty 2022).
In truth, the crusade against apasanskriti not merely marginalised and eradicated the uncultured “others” but also recreated a hegemonic (middle-class) “self” embedded in gendered and classed respectability. The theoretical discourse reflected an overwhelming revulsion and disgust towards particular classes, bodies and spaces, widely symptomatic of a “gendered underclass” (Hubbard and Colosi 2015). The cultural trend became more discernible during the 1980s. Parimal Ghosh (2004) argues that the left broadened its support base among the middle-class intelligentsia but it moved away ideologically from its “basic classes.” He argues,
The fundamental criterion by which the bhadralok had always defined himself was his separation from his other, the “chhotolok”, that is, literally, the lesser man. If the bhadralok was taken to be first bhadra, ie, a person of civility, then the chhotolok was taken to be just the reverse. Bhadralok politics, therefore, had to be civil, in the sense of being clean, at least in appearance. If this was hypocritical, then it also served a very important purpose: the bhadralok, even if in order to keep up appearances, had to keep control over his political necessities; the shadowy world had to remain unseen. (Ghosh 2004: 251)
But, however much the bhadralok tried to distance himself from the chotolok with his impeccable cultural prudery, there is no denying the fact that cabaret-in-theatre opened an irresistibly wicked world of pleasure creating fissures within the inhibited moral universe of the bhadralok. Once earmarked for an upper-class Anglicised elite, cabaret now entered the mass market, appealing to a wide range of common vernacular audience, comprising not merely daily wage earners, hawkers and peddlers but also the educated salaried professionals.
The hegemonic drive of cultural sanitisation of the state was thus not restricted to seedy sex theatres, but included the remnants of the colonial culture that still lingered in the erstwhile white town. Heavy taxes were imposed on live singing and dancing. Rampant policing and militant trade unionism also forced certain restaurants, namely Sky-room and Blue Fox to permanently drop their shutters. Meanwhile, “accidental” fires broke out in the old stages of Hatibagan–Chitpur area, eliminating the physical relics of the old theatre halls like Biswarupa, Star, and Rangana—razing them all to the ground one after another (Majumdar 2014). When Biswarupa was engulfed in flames on the Diwali night of 2001, as many as 27 fire engines struggled to put down the fire. The idea of a short circuit was set aside by the forensic department as a strong whiff of kerosene was palpable in the charred remains. The media mourned the erasure of the historic halls, which became notorious for hawking sleaze and then blamed it to the collective ennui of the government, the corporation and politician–promoter nexus, but nobody cared about the survival needs of the flesh-and-blood cabaret dancers who were forced to pack up their business for good. When, in Mumbai, the battle over “public morality” and the “right to dance” reached the Supreme Court, Bengal took a more underhand line of attack to evict the cultural outlaws from the akhras of apasanskriti. No union took to the streets to fight for their rights, no demands of justice was raised for their loss of livelihoods.
Shutters Down and Empty Floors: Lockdown Continues
On 8 January 2020, I met Miss Shefali for one last time. Her last interview resonated the anxiety that gripped the two different and diverse timescapes and landscapes—Kolkata and Mumbai. She seemed sceptical about the Supreme Court breather of 2019, “this judgment is not going to change the lot of bar dancers. Nothing, at all, will change. Like us, they too would fade into oblivion” (Interview, 8 January 2020). In February 2020, Shefali passed away in her sleep, just a month before India witnessed the first surge of the deadly pandemic and subsequent lockdown.
March 2020 saw an unprecedented scale of distress as the pandemic put the final nail on the coffin of the dance bars. Thousands who were left to be associated with dance bars after the ban, including the dancers, crooners, and waitresses,
experienced a crisis of hunger and moved to their home towns. Bharat Singh Thakur, the chairman of dance bar association estimated that almost 40% of the performers had left Mumbai, which was the hardest hit by COVID-19. In Kolkata, dance bars partially reopened with a reduced capacity during the Durga Puja and Diwali of 2021 and were ordered to remain closed when the turnout was not satisfactory.
A gap of one year and Ruby Khan looks visibly devastated. “Dancing on an empty floor is indeed depressing. We are almost dying. Dancers have to take to prostitution, but in Sonagachi the situation is more distressing” (Interview, 21 May 2021). Ruby informs that in the pre-pandemic days, if the average weekend night brought something around `10,000–`30,000 now it has dropped to `1,000–`5,000. “Now we are going for private parties for a select few. But nothing can be more antithetical to our livelihood than social distancing and quarantine dance” (Interview, 21 May 2021).
While the moral battle won or lost on their bodies of erotic dancers continued to hover around the rhetorical phrases like culture, obscenity and perversion, the choice between lives versus livelihoods remains irreconcilable for dancers. Empty floors, empty stomachs—the lockdown continues.
1 From just 24 in 1986, the number of dance bars climbed to 206 within a decade and by 2005 it had gone up to 1,250. In a counter development, however, old dance bars in Kolkata reached their saturation points. Moral policing and sudden closures of colonial nightclubs further forced many cabaret girls move towards Mumbai bars.
2 Siliguri is North Bengal Township that shares its borders with Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan. The city hosts a good number of dance bars and also infamous for cross-border trafficking and sex trade.
3 While many equated their dance work with sex work, a number of dancers I have interviewed have drawn a line between dancing and prostitution through a continuous dissociation of dance from the “filthy work” at brothels.
4 See W P case 27394 (W) of 2015. West Bengal Foreign … v the State of West Bengal, Calcutta High Court, 22 December 2015.
5 The dance bar debate in Mumbai effectively floated two opposite imageries of women—Sweety, the loose woman of easy virtue, the wrecker of middle-class homes versus Savitri, the steadfast wife who swore by their pativratya /devotion to husband, family and nation, to bring back their husbands from the gallows of the dance bars (Dalwai 2019). But the bar dancer herself defies the notion of the “pure” private woman in opposition to the public woman articulated by law. According to Makhija, the bar dancer upsets and blurs the distinction between the private woman (chaste and controlled sexuality) and the public woman (impure, uncontrolled sexuality) by easily transforming from the public woman (bar dancer) to the private woman (wife/mother) and vice versa (Makhija 2010: 21).
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