Caste that Governs: The Dancing Girls of Mumbai’s Dance Bars

By: Dr. Sutapa Majumdar, Post-Doctoral Associate

Globalisation has created new spaces of employability for men and women and brought in a range of livelihood options for diverse groups and strata of Indian society: erotic dancing being one example. Several marginalised, excluded and artistically skillful young women have found work in spaces such as hotels, bars and clubs, mostly concentrated in urban centers. Bar dancing as work has been scorned to scale by some feminists and the moral crusaders of the times who consider such engagement as an extreme form of commodification and exploitation of already marginalised and excluded feminine bodies to satisfy the sexual urge of upper caste, neo-rich and neo-capitalist men.

We acknowledge that those who opt to dance in bars to earn a livelihood usually represent women of the lower strata of society, namely those who are Dalit/other lower-castes or from denotified tribes, who have limited opportunities to secure socially sanctioned work possibilities. Yet, as part of the ‘laws of social reproduction’ project’, we believe and acknowledge that bar dancing and similar occupations (like unpaid care work, sex work and commercial surrogacy) are forms of reproductive labour with a specific market value of their own, which ought to be considered as a form of labour and work. Further, we consider these as work because, although they remain highly unrecognised and invisible, they add to the overall economic wellbeing of the family and society, and therefore deserve dignity and respect both in the eyes of the law and mainstream society at large. Not surprisingly, there is not much study of such socially reproducible labour in India and even less is known on the laws and policies related to this field of work.

Sameena Dalwai, a researcher, writer and an academic recently released her monograph, “Bans and Bar Girls: Performing Caste in Mumbai’s Dance Bar” at the Qutub Institute in Delhi on 4th December 2019. In this monograph, Sameena attempts to highlight the interplay of gender, caste, erotic and sexualized labour, the new market economy, and new forms of legislation, that aim to be neutral in principle yet function to safeguard the moralistic culture of a patriarchal society. At the launch of the book, panelists included Pratiksha Baaxi of JNU, Anuja Agarwal of the Delhi School of Economics and Saptarshi Mandal of Jindal Global Law School. Whilst introducing the book, Ritu Menon from Women Unlimited (the books publisher) identified it as a resource which is both serious and scholarly and yet easily accessible to general readers. She congratulated Sameena for her very spontaneous and engaging ethnographic study eliciting the minutest details of the life of bar dancers, a subject that is seldom talked about.

Prof Agarwal said that it was a forceful book which tabled an important contribution in understanding how many women from the nomadic communities, lower castes, Dalit and various denotified tribes in India, became dancers in bars and how they were the ones who suffered most of the consequences of the bans. Professor Mandal too agreed with Ritu Menon in saying that the book is an excellent resource for undergraduate teaching as it is easily accessible, and further elucidated on the books important contribution to the ongoing debate on caste and sexuality, as well as the debate between upper caste and Dalit feminists on issues of sex work and bar dancing. One shortcoming of the book, he noted, was its exclusion of the voices of the women who are talked about, the Dalit sex workers as well as activists and organisations who have been working on issues of sex work in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka as to how they feel about themselves and their work. Further, he noted that he would have liked the author to problematise the concept of ‘hereditary occupation’ in a bit more in detail, the factors it entails-who uses this trope-the feminist, the bar dancers or the sex workers? Saying so, he acknowledged that the book does make an crucial intervention in highlighting that gender, caste and sexuality equation are not stagnant but that they interact in a dynamic reality where certain forms of stigmatised labour become highly valuable in the face of globalisation.

Prof. Pratiksha Baxi in her reading of the book shared how it has made an important contribution to mainstream law and governance studies by highlighting the concept of caste governance from a feminist perspective  through a deep ethnographic and legal research on the ban of dance bars in Mumbai, tracing its shifting meaning and life after the ban, which not many have engaged in. Further focusing on the discourses on moral panic and the perceived ‘ruination’ of young middle-class men, she dwelt on a complicated legal history of the ban engaging at length how it affected the women and everyone else who was directly or indirectly associated with the dance bars.

This book is a rich ensemble of the inside world of the bar dancers and discusses a range of known and unknown realities about bars and bar girls in Mumbai’s dance bars, a must read for those who are curious about the city that never sleeps.

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