How Mumbai's Bar Dancers Added Glamour To The City

The dance bars of Mumbai offered underprivileged women, who worked as bar dancers, an opportunity to earn a living and defy the circumstances they were born into.
bar dancers

Tara, who was sold by her father into a Mumbai dance bar at the age of thirteen for a few bottles of whiskey, now considers the bar her only home and family, but she is striving to escape it. In my literary crime novel, THE BLUE BAR, set in India's maximum city, you can encounter Tara and other bar girls like her. Chandni Bar, in which Tabu skillfully portrays the life of a trapped and conflicted bar girl at the mercy of the bar owner, the underworld mafia, and the police, is the most well-known Bollywood movie featuring such characters. Dance bars in Mumbai, which began in the 1970s when Mumbai was still known as Bombay, were essentially places where women danced seductively to Bollywood songs, also known as "Bombay's Hollywood."

A portion of the emergence of dance bars in Mumbai can be attributed to their popularity in cities such as Dubai, where a significant number of Indians had migrated for work. The migrant workers, who often felt isolated, found solace in these nightclubs, where women would perform dances to entertain men. These influences eventually made their way back to Mumbai, where cabaret and mujra cultures had already existed since colonial times.


Who were these bar dancers?

Dance bars in Mumbai saw an influx of women from various dancing communities throughout India, where the livelihoods of entire families relied on the income generated by the daughters. To cater to the conservative Indian male clientele, the dancers dressed in traditional clothing, such as saris and ghaghra choli, and performed on stage without engaging in physical contact with the customers. The men would show their appreciation by showering the dancers with currency notes.

If a dancer chose to solely work as a bar dancer and not engage in any after-hours activities, the decision was hers to make. Most bar owners were satisfied with having the dancers perform on stage and did not pressure them into anything they were unwilling to do.

The first dance bars were established by the Parsi and Sindhi communities, with Sonia Mahal being one of the earliest at Nariman Point, founded by an elderly Sindhi businessman named Mr. Jagtiani. The club soon became a haunt for gangsters, where deals were made and broken. In the 1980s, the Shettys introduced glamorous dance bars where bikini-clad women danced to the tunes of Boney-M, and patrons showered them with money using mini-fans. Some of the most prominent bars included Samundra dance bar in Mumbai Central, Sangam in Prabha Devi, Baywatch in Dadar, and Topaz on Grant Road.

Mumbai bars and bar dancers in Bollywood numbers

At Topaz, one of the most popular bar dancers was not a woman, but a man who dressed in drag and had a mesmerizing effect on the male audience. Tourists from both India and abroad came in large numbers to witness the performance of this dancer, and recently, the rights to the dancer's life story were acquired for a Bollywood biopic.

The dancers in the bars existed in a limbo between respectability and prostitution. Some of them earned so much money that they became targets of income tax raids and got caught up in the nexus between bookies and cricketers. The mafia in Mumbai, who were involved in illicit activities such as gunrunning, prostitution, drug trafficking, and smuggling, had money to burn and would sometimes spend up to $100,000 in a night on their favorite bar dancer. These were the heydays of the dance bars, which continued into the 2000s. A few dancers made more than a crore and left the profession to become hostesses or makeup artists.

Even the ordinary bar girls earned up to Rs 25,000 a month, a significant sum for someone from a poor, often rural background, and comparable to the salaries of educated office employees. Bar dancers became icons of glamour, not at the level of Bollywood actresses, but definitely more accessible to shopkeepers and businessmen who, after a long day's work, wanted a woman to flirt with. The bars attracted men from all walks of life, from diamond merchants to taxi drivers, from drug addicts to regular, office-going householders.

Many Bollywood films portrayed these dance bars through musical sequences such as mujras or Westernized cabarets, with the "bad woman" or "vamp" character often depicted drinking alcohol and "dancing suggestively in front of strange men."

The dance bars, the mafia, the underworld – it was a complete ecosystem

Dancers and their affiliated dance bars gave rise to an entire network of people, including owners, waiters, bouncers, tailors, fake jewelry suppliers, kitchen staff, and even snack and paan vendors outside the premises. At the height of their popularity, this ecosystem provided employment for an estimated 150,000 individuals.

Reportedly, some members of the Mumbai Police turned a blind eye to these establishments and collected weekly bribes from bar owners. Dubious relationships between Bollywood stars, businessmen, and bar dancers were also said to be common. As a result, crime, nepotism, and glamour converged in the world of dance bars, creating a parallel system of "business."

Ban on dance bars took away these women’s livelihoods

In the past, dance bars created an ecosystem that employed around 150,000 people, including owners, waiters, bouncers, costume makers, jewelry suppliers, and snack sellers. However, in 2005, dance bars were banned due to the involvement of morality police, state politics, and personal agendas, and showering women with money was declared an obscene act. Although the gesture was misogynistic, this law forced many bar dancers into prostitution, and up to 70,000 dancers lost their jobs. As a result, Mumbai dance bars struggled for ten years, and many were forced to reinvent themselves into orchestral bars or restaurants, causing a drop in visits and earnings. Although the Supreme Court lifted the ban later on, new obscenity laws and fear of fines meant that few dance bars returned, and the popularity of bar dancing decreased. Bollywood "item numbers" featuring upper-caste women dancing provocatively replaced bar dancing. In 2019, changes in the law revived dance bars, but COVID-19 halted the progress.

Marginalised women further marginalised

The ban on dance bars in 2005 left thousands of bar dancers, who barely earned enough to make a living, jobless. In today's India, where porn is easily accessible and the internet connects even those without basic amenities, Mumbai's bar dancers struggle to stay relevant.

The question now is whether dance bars can adapt to the fast-paced, entertainment-rich Mumbai of today, where overt mafia activity has dwindled. The city's nightlife has always had a colorful history, and for a decade or two, Mumbai's bar dancers were the highlight, leaving an indelible impression on both Bollywood and the city's cultural landscape.

As one famous Mumbai bar dancer put it, "People or professions aren't bad, it is perception that makes them bad." Depending on whose opinion you listen to, Mumbai's dance bars were either dens of immoral activity or a place where disadvantaged women could earn money and defy their life circumstances with their own unique moves.




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