Maharashtra's crusade against dance bars replicates anti-nautch campaign of late 19th century

Anna Morcom
The dance bar ban was in fact an almost exact repetition of history of an earlier campaign against tawaifs and devadasis, and with the same devastating consequences for these groups of women.

It was exactly a month ago now that the Supreme Court struck down certain provisions of the Maharashtra Prohibition of Obscene Dance in Hotels, Restaurants and Bar Rooms and Protection of Dignity of Women (Working therein) Act of 2016, thereby granting dance bars in the state a fresh lease of life. The Maharashtra government, which was initially mulling an ordinance that would ensure that these establishments stay shut, may instead settle for tweaking some of the rules that are part of the Act, a Hindustan Times report dated 7 February states.

The Maharashtra government first banned dance bars in 2005, and the 13 years since have marked several developments in the legal battle between bar owners and dancers and the state. In imposing its ban, the state offered conflicting arguments: on the one hand, it painted the bar dancers as "destroyers of families"; on the other, it claimed its rules were meant to protect the dignity of these women, presenting them as victims.

Through these 13 years, bar dancers have vociferously asserted their wish to continue working while those in the pro-ban lobby have insisted that the women are exploited and need to be 'saved'. This is an extremely problematic situation that declares a large group of some 75,000 to 1.25 lakh women to be under some kind of 'false consciousness' €" so exploited that they do not know their own free will and are not to be listened to at all. The fact is, that people see the dignity of women in very different ways. In contrast, livelihood is highly tangible and the effects of the ban can be seen on the dancers: it certainly did not help them. The Supreme Court judgement of 2013 encapsulated this, citing "the cure is worse than the disease".

When we look at the longer history of dancing women in India, the story gains more layers; we can see clearly how dynamics of class/caste and gender are at work, the legacy of colonialism, and the consequences of campaigns that focus only on notions of morality. The dance bar ban was in fact an almost exact repetition of history of an earlier campaign against tawaifs and devadasis, and with the same devastating consequences for these groups of women.

The pro-ban campaign presented bar dancers as Bangladeshi illegal immigrants, but the majority of them were from traditional performing communities from north India. In India, performing in front of men or in public was incompatible with marriage or the kind of respectability associated with marriage for women. Female professional performers who perform in such traditions across the subcontinent, including the classical traditions, were from communities who did not marry, or did not marry in a typical way (for example, the devadasis were dedicated to a temple and 'married' to the god).

The other broad category of female traditional performers was cross-dressed males, female impersonators, or transgender females. These were individuals who were male enough to evade taboos on performing in public but at the same time, female in their actions, appearance and often at deeper levels too.

Courtesans and devadasis were at the heart of the classical traditions under feudal courtly, aristocratic or temple patronage, and were highly prestigious and skilled artistes. Research also shows the presence of cross-dressed male performers in courts. It was only in the 1930s that women from upper caste backgrounds who were married or would go onto be married started to perform on stage €" this was in reformed and considerably sanitised versions of classical performing arts in both north and south India.

Read on Firstpost: Amid Supreme Court's ruling on dance bars, questions about consent, protection from exploitation remain

Courtesans and devadasis underwent a process of stigmatisation in the 19th century. Victorian morality was unable to conceive of a category for women who were sexually active but neither married nor prostitutes. There was an entire campaign against them emanating from purity associations led by both British and Indians that gained critical mass in the late 19th century: the anti-nautch campaign, i.e., the campaign against dancing girls or 'nautch girls'. This campaign declared courtesans and devadasis to be prostitutes; to be a menace to society and 'Indian culture'; and to be exploited and their dignity violated.

All of this was exactly repeated in the dance bar ban. The courtesans and devadasis lost livelihood and status and were, eventually, explicitly excluded from classical performing arts. While they ceased to be in the new classical performing arts establishments, their lineages continued, but in traditions lower in the cultural hierarchy. Many went into prostitution.

This trajectory has continued through the 20th century, past Independence, with increasing sexualisation of traditions and increasing reliance on sexual transaction rather than earning money through performing. Some communities are entirely involved in sex work, whereas others cling on to performing. The dance bars attracted women of such communities from across north India: Nat, Deredar, Bedia, and others. In fact, for many, dancing in bars was rehabilitation from sex work and a return to a more dignified profession and one which connected to their legacy as traditional performers.

Given the freeing up of taboos on the expression of sexuality for women in India's middle classes in the last couple of decades, it is particularly uncomfortable to see communities of women much lower down the social hierarchy suffer catastrophic loss to livelihood and status due to notions of morality €" that too, in an exact repeat of earlier history that was driven by the British and the new Indian bourgeoisie. While such communities are presented as enemies of Indian culture, in fact, their contribution has been immense. To go back in history and somehow delete them would leave classical performing arts profoundly curtailed in expression and aesthetics. An eye to history and an ear to the experiences of the women and communities involved could curb this exclusionary trajectory in 'Indian culture'.

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Brief timeline of the dance bar ban in Maharashtra €"

2005: Government of Maharashtra imposes ban on dancing in bars and restaurants.

2006: Ban contested in Bombay High Court by groups representing bar owners, dancers. Ban declared unconstitutional and struck down. Stay on the ban granted as government appeals the High Court judgement in the Supreme Court.

2013: Supreme Court upholds Bombay HC judgement. Government begins to impose myriad rules on bars that want performance licenses €" including barriers around the stage, tipping, numbers of dancers, and CCTV cameras live-feeding footage to police stations €" through the Maharashtra Prohibition of Obscene Dance in Hotels, Restaurants and Bar Rooms and Protection of Dignity of Women (Working therein) Act of 2016. Bar Owners Association and Bar Girls Union contests the Act and its rules in the Supreme Court.

2019: On 17 January, Supreme Court rules in favour of bar owners and dancers, quashing some of the rules and insisting that dance must be allowed to resume.

Professor Anna Morcom is Mohindar Brar Sambhi Chair of Indian Music at the Department of Ethnomusicology, UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music. Her publications include Unity and Discord: Music and Politics in Contemporary Tibet, Hindi Film Songs and the Cinema, and Illicit Worlds of Indian Dance: Cultures of Exclusion.

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