An Essay : Journey of Mischievous Bombay Play Houses to Raunchy Mumbai Dance Bars


Mumbai is the financial capital of India. Earlier known as Bombay, which boasts the distinction of the city which never sleeps. The city is hailed as the crowning glory of the nation’s entertainment industry. From the time when the East India Company developed Mumbai as a port and built a fort in the seventeenth century, Bombay has been a city of migrants. The dance bars are the part of the city’s thriving nightlife. Migrants come to the city in search of livelihoods and with the workers have come the entertainers.

The traders, the sailors, the dock workers, the construction laborers and the mill hands – all needed to be ‘entertained’. So the government marked areas for entertainment called ‘play houses’ which are referred to in the local parlance even today as ‘pilay house’ areas. Folk theatre, dance and music performances and, later, silent movie theatres all grew around the ‘play houses’ and so did the sex trade. Hence Kamathipura – a name which denoted the dwelling place of a community of construction laborers, the Kamtis of Andhra Pradesh, later came to signal the sex trade or ‘red light’ district of the old Bombay city. Within the red light district there were also places for performances of traditional and classical dance and music, and the major houses.

dancebars2-300x213The prevalence of dance bars is linked not only to the restaurant industry and the entertainment business, but also to the state policy on the sale of liquor. After Independence, during the fifties, the State of Bombay was under prohibition and restaurants could not serve liquor. But after Maharashtra severed its links with the Gujarat side of the erstwhile Bombay Presidency, the newly formed state reviewed its liquor policy and the prohibition era was transformed into the ‘permit’ era. A place where beer was served was called a ‘permit room’. Only a person who had obtained a ‘permit’ could sit in a permit room and drink beer.

But gradually, the term ‘permit room’ lost its meaning and the government went all out to promote liquor sale in hotels and restaurants. It was during this period, sometime in the seventies, that permit rooms and beer bars started introducing innovative devices to beat their competitors – live orchestra, mimicry and ‘ladies service bars’ where women from the red light district were employed as waitresses.

The licenses to hold performances were issued under Rules for Licensing and Controlling Places of Public Amusement (other than Cinemas) and Performances for Public Amusement. But soon the low quality orchestra and classical singing lost its sheen. Some bars then introduced live dance performances to recorded music or live orchestras. Around these times, Hindi films also started introducing sexy cabaret songs and the dancers in the bars imitated these item numbers during their performances.

The Government also issued licenses for performance of ‘cabaret shows’. A place that was notorious for its lewd and obscene cabaret performances is ‘Blue Nile’ which was constantly raided and was entangled in lengthy litigation. It was this litigation that forced the High Court to examine the notion of obscenity under S.294 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). Soon the sale of liquor and consequently the profit margins of the owners recorded an upward trend. This encouraged the owners of other Irani ‘permit room’ restaurants, South Indian eateries and Punjabi eateries to convert their places into dance bars. Coincidentally, during the same period, the mujra culture in Mumbai was facing loss of patronage and was on the decline. As the waitresses in the ‘ladies service bars’ during this early period were from Kamathipura, which also housed the mujras, this new demand for bar dancers reached these traditional dancers and many sought jobs in dance bars. Even for daughters of sex workers, this was a step forward – from brothel prostitution to dance bars.

dancebars3-300x211Soon the phenomenon of ‘dance bars’ spread from South Bombay to Central Bombay, to the Western and Central suburbs, to the satellite cities of New Bombay and Panvel, and from there, along the arterial roads, to other smaller cities and towns of Maharashtra. From a mere 24 dance bars in 1985-86, the number increased tenfold within a decade to around 210. The next decade 1995-2005 witnessed yet another phenomenal increase.

As the demand grew, women from traditional dancing / performance communities in different parts of India, who were facing a decline in patronage of their age-old profession, flocked to Mumbai to work in dance bars. These women from traditional communities have been victims of the conflicting forces of modernization. Women are the primary breadwinners in these communities. But after the Zamindari system introduced by the British was abolished, they lost their zamindar patrons and were reduced to penury. Even the few developmental schemes and welfare policies of the government bypassed many of these communities. From their villages, many moved to cities, towns and along national highways in search of a livelihood. The dance bars provided women from these communities an opportunity to adapt their strategies to suit the demands of the new economy.

Apart from these traditional dancing communities, women from other poor communities also began to seek work in these bars as dancers. These women are mainly daughters of mill workers. With the sole earner having lost his job after the closure of the textile mills, young girls with more supple bodies and the sex appeal of their youth entered the job market to support their families. Similarly endowed women who had worked as domestic maids, or in other exploitative conditions as piece-rate workers, or as door to door sales girls, as well as women workers who had been retrenched from factories and industrial units, also found work in dance bars.

dancebars4-300x188In short, the dance bars opened up a new avenue of employment for women from the marginalized sections. It is the paucity of jobs in other sectors, and the boost given by the Maharashtra government to the active promotion of liquor sales that led to the proliferation of dance bars. The maximum proliferation occurred during the nineties.

In the Next Post : We will continue the journey of Dance Bars from its adolescence to its troubled adulthood.

Keep checking the space !



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