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Last Updated: Tuesday, 19 April, 2005, 11:38 GMT 12:38 UK
All dressed up but few see the show

By Zubair Ahmed
BBC News, Mumbai

Shabnam, Mumbai dance girl
Shabnam supports a family of six from the proceeds of her work

Shabnam, like her colleagues, is all geared up for the show. But tonight their audience consists of just two middle-aged men in this dance bar in Mumbai (Bombay).

Shabnam is trying hard to match her steps to Bollywood dance numbers, but she is listless. She says she needs a bigger, more appreciative audience.

Other girls in colourful ghagra (traditional Indian skirts) and backless blouses are loitering about, intermittently trying to entertain the two men.

The Ellora Bar is not the only nightspot where business is dull.

Shut shop soon

It may shut down altogether once the Maharashtra state government's order to ban dancing bars come into effect four weeks from now. In other parts of Maharashtra the bars are already shut.

The city's 700 dance bars are an integral part of Mumbai's famed nightlife.

But they will have to shut shop soon after the state government has pushed through the new legislation, expected to take around a month.

Praveen Agrawal, Mumbai bar owner
The government should first ban music videos and DVDs which have skimpily-clad women dancing in the rains
Praveen Aggrawal, Ellora Bar owner

Some say the bars may have to close down even before that.

Patrons are abandoning the bars after the government announced earlier this year that it was banning them across the state, because, it says, they are a breeding ground for prostitution and crime.

The state government's Home Minister, RR Patil, says: "The bars are corrupting the moral fibre of our youth."

This has generated a heated debate in the city, which is home to the world's biggest film industry, Bollywood.

Bollywood director Karan Razdan believes the government has no right to define what is morality.

He says the government's order is hypocritical.

Classical music and culture

''If they are banning beer bar dancers, they should also ban Hindi film heroines because they are also doing the same thing. They are also earning their livelihoods by singing and dancing.

"The only difference is that heroines earn millions while these poor bar girls earn only thousands [of rupees]. They support their families and the government is taking away the means of their livelihood.''

The bars were licensed by the government to promote Indian classical music and culture.

The dancing girls perform to Indian songs and the audience showers currency notes on them. Customers are allowed to talk to the girls, but not to touch them.

Mumbai bar girl protest
The bar girls of Mumbai say they have no other means of income

Praveen Aggrawal, who owns the Ellora Bar, says the bars are not a front for prostitution as the government alleges.

He says: "The government should first ban music videos and DVDs which have skimpily-clad women dancing in the rains."

Sociologist Shilpa Phadke says dancing to Bollywood tunes in these bars does not amount to corruption of the youth.

"What evidence does the government have in drawing such conclusions?", she asks.

Dancer Shabnam, aged 30, is angry and worried. She supports a family of six, including her four growing children.

Forced by the family

"I look after my children myself," she says, "and if these bars are shut what will we do? How will I support my children? I'm not even educated, I'll not get a job."

Shabnam never wanted to become a bar dancer. She said she was forced to join the bar by her family.

Shabnam's story is the story of most of the 100,000 dancing girls in the state.

Krishna Choudhury, a teenaged amateur filmmaker, has spent months with a family financially supported by a dancing girl.

"I know many of them, and they all have the same story to tell: taking up the dancing job to support the family because there is no male member to earn a livelihood for them," he says.

Mumbai dancing girl
The girls dance and customers often throw money

He admits there are some girls, who indulge in the "flesh trade".

"But they have sex outside their working hours and that too is to support their families," he says.

Bar dancers are looked down upon in India. The stigma attached to the job makes them virtual social outcasts. But activists argue it is better to become a dancer than work in a brothel.

There are 100,000 such dancers - known as barmaids in the state - and an equal number of waiters, bouncers and other staff attached to the bars.

Worries about their future are now giving way to defiance.

Sangeeta Patil, 32, has been dancing for 16 years. She says the dancers will fight to the finish.

Their struggle is well underway.

Axe falls on Mumbai dancing bars
13 Apr 05 |  South Asia
Maharashtra dancing girls protest
04 Apr 05 |  South Asia
Maharashtra shuts dance-girl bars
30 Mar 05 |  South Asia
Bombay's barmaids stage protest
20 Aug 04 |  South Asia
Bombay's 'dancing' bars raided
25 Feb 04 |  South Asia
Bombay bars offer 'Bollywood' girls
29 Oct 03 |  South Asia

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