India's ladies of the dance fight for their existence

They flash no more than a hint of midriff, yet a government set on Indian values is determined to rid Bombay of its dancing girls. Justin Huggler meets women fighting for their livelihoods
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It's midnight in Bombay and the city's dance bars are hotting up. Girls in long shimmering dresses that sweep the floor move impossibly gracefully to the Bollywood tunes that thump out of the loudspeakers. The Ellora Dance Bar is just a large room upstairs with low couches lining the mirrored walls. There is no dance floor as such, 12 or 13 girls are crowded in together, dancing in the middle, and the customers have to thread their way between them to get to their seats.

It's midnight in Bombay and the city's dance bars are hotting up. Girls in long shimmering dresses that sweep the floor move impossibly gracefully to the Bollywood tunes that thump out of the loudspeakers. The Ellora Dance Bar is just a large room upstairs with low couches lining the mirrored walls. There is no dance floor as such, 12 or 13 girls are crowded in together, dancing in the middle, and the customers have to thread their way between them to get to their seats.

The couches are filled with middle-aged men balancing beer glasses on their paunches and ogling the dancing girls. It may be seedy, but Stringfellows it isn't. The girls' long dresses stay on, and the most flesh you get to see is a flash of midriff as one of the dancers twirls by.

It's all very sedate by Western standards, but these dance bars are at the centre of a controversy that has ignited Bombay. The government of Maharashtra state has ordered them all to be closed, and for bars like the Ellora, each night now could be their last. The police are just waiting for the government edict to be published officially, then the Ellora's pink lights will go out, the last customers will shuffle home, and what are pretty much the only dance bars in India will close down for good.

"If the bars close down I will get my four little children together, pour kerosene on them and we will all commit suicide together," says Shabna, a dancer at the Ellora. "I'm not educated so I can't get any other job. What harm are we doing? We're just dancing. Is the government going to get us another job? At least we're making an effort to pay our own way in life."

But the Maharashtra government has accused the dance bars of "corrupting the youth" of the state. It says that the dancing is against traditional Indian values. It's all come as a surprise to the performers, given that the bars have been allowed in Bombay for the past 20 years without attracting this sort of controversy. In that time, Indian society has changed beyond recognition, especially in Bombay, where today you can see women in Western fashions and young couples openly together on the streets. The city has a vibrant nightlife of bars and clubs where men and women can easily meet each other, and the dance bars, with their old-fashioned seediness, seem more like some relic that time forgot.

Rumours are persistent that the dance bars are little more than poorly disguised brothels. But the dancers claim that is only the case in a handful of bars, and most of them are respectable establishments caught in the ban.

"In fact, several of the girls have told me they've started going with customers for the first time because the bars are being shut down, because they don't know how else they're going to make a living," says Avisha Kulkarni of the Womanist Party of India, a feminist group that has taken up their cause.

Whatever the truth about that, the dance bars have been a lifeline for the women who work in them. Shabna's story is typical of the dance bar girls. She is 29 and comes from a village in Maharashtra. She was married, but she had a fight with her husband and he walked out on her, leaving her to fend for their four children on her own - the oldest is 10, and the youngest two.

"I tried various jobs, but I just couldn't scrape enough money together," she says. "Some friends told me about the job dancing here. That's when I decided to take up the job.

"Before I started dancing here I used to go to people's houses and do domestic work, washing their clothes and dishes." She made about £36 a month - not enough to raise four children on. As a dancer, she makes £180 a month. With the money she's able to send her children to school.

The dancers earn most of their money from tips, but the Ellora's owner, Pravin Agrawal, guarantees them minimum earnings of £3.60 a night and, if they don't make it in tips, pays it himself.

Nisha Pawar is another single mother. Her husband left her on her own with her child. Now she locks her six-year-old son in on his own in her tiny flat in the suburbs every night and makes the long trek into Bombay to dance. She makes about £100 a month, enough to send the boy to school. "No one else helps us. My husband's family abandoned us. Not even my own parents take care of me."

Few of the girls have any formal dance training. Most just sit and study the dance numbers from Bollywood movies all day, aping the moves until they have them down pat. Particularly impressive is Nikita Poddar, a beautiful 20-year-old from Calcutta in a shimmery white dress who can twirl on the spot for what seems like hours at a time. Ms Poddar's story is different. She is not married and has no children. Instead, she is supporting her younger brothers and sisters back in Calcutta, and paying for their education. She makes about £180 a month, of which she sends £120 back to Calcutta.

"I'm supporting seven people in my family," she says proudly. "As well as my younger siblings, I'm supporting my elder sister who's not married yet, and my parents. I came to Bombay to find work, and was staying with relatives. I was working in phone booths, but I've always loved to dance, and when I met some of the girls who were dancing here I decided to come and dance too."

But ask Ms Poddar about her marriage prospects and her eager face clouds over. "I'll go back to Calcutta when I want to marry," she says. "But I know there will be some problems for me marrying because of this work." But she insists her own youth has not been corrupted. "The customers are not corrupting me," she says. "They just sit and drink and watch."

One dancer who does have some formal training is Rakhi Singh, a 29-year-old in a long black dress glittering with silver jewellery. She comes from the Bhatu, a traditional dancing community in Uttar Pradesh near Delhi. "In my community the men never work," she says. "They always sit at home and eat what the women earn. I have five brothers, and none of them work. I have to support my two children, and all my brothers' children as well. My husband left me.

"I always knew I'd be a dancer, coming from my background. I didn't want to be one, but when my father died when I was very young I knew I had no alternative, not with five brothers. I came to Bombay because my family said I could make a living as a dancer here."

Ms Singh makes about £240 a month, and sends half of it home to her family. The rest she spends on her two children, who are in Bombay with her.

"I don't know what I'll do if the bars close," she says. "I just feel as if everybody in my family's life will be ruined. We dance fully clothed and we all dance in one room. How can we be corrupting the youth? Look what's on television, they have complete nudity. Why is nobody attacking them? Why only us?"

Janaki Trivedi ended up dancing here because of the terrible earthquake of 2001 in her home state of Gujarat. "I lost my father in the earthquake," she says. "I was working as a teacher at the time, but without my father bringing money into the family I wasn't earning enough. I met some girls who had been working at a dance bar in Bombay and decided to join them.

"I send money home to my family, but they don't know I'm working as a dancer. They think I'm a waitress. Now, with all the fuss about the dance bars in the news, maybe they'll find out. We don't have anything like this in Gujarat - I found it all very strange myself when I first came here." In Gujarat, India's most conservative state, prohibition is still in force.

"Look, I'm not going to kill myself like some of the other girls. But my brothers and sister will be affected. I'm paying for their education. If the bars close they'll have to give up their education and we'll all have to work."

But the Maharashtra state government has paid no attention to the plight of these women in the debate over closure. Instead they have been publicly vilified as prostitutes, and, bizarrely, as foreign spies. At one point a minister claimed that most of the dancers were illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and a "threat to India's national security", and even said he had had the women's phone calls to Bangladesh tapped.

The debate over the dance bars is very much part of a changing political dialogue in India. As Indian society becomes more permissive, it seems that the political debate is becoming more conservative.

Since the rise of the opposition Bharati Janata Party (BJP) to prominence on the back of a programme of Hindutva, or India's Hindu identity, conservative Hindu values have come to dominate the agenda - and anything that is accused of corrupting those values, like the dance bars, becomes a target.

Even the BJP's stunning loss in last year's general elections doesn't seem to have dampened the politicians' ardour for banning anything that offends "Indian values", and now it seems the fever has spread even to Bombay, India's most Westernised and permissive city.

A few particularly nasty incidents have been dredged up in support of the campaign to close the bars, including the case of one man who murdered his mother to get his hands on the family money, then showered it on dancers in one of the bars. But against the charge that the bars are corrupting the youth, the owners have responded with some justification that very few young people come to them. Instead they are seen as the preserve of seedy old men.

Young men in Bombay no longer need to ogle dancing girls, they can go to Western-style bars and nightclubs and meet women easily enough.

The state government stands to lose a fortune in tax on drinks sales and licensing fees from the dance bars. The Ellora alone needs no fewer than 18 licences to stay open, according to the owner, Mr Agrawal. "And the more licences there are the more bribes you have to pay to obtain the licences," he says.

"I own the place so I can just move into some other business," he says. "We can stay open as a regular bar. But the employees, and all the workers connected to the dance bars, are going to be affected very badly."

But Mr Agrawal's concern has more to do with his own bottom line than concern for the dancers. The Ellora is not a charity. It's a business, and Mr Agrawal, a hard-looking man in an immaculately pressed white shirt and jeans, is in it for the money.

The evening comes to a close. It's 1.30am - closing time for the dance bars, and the last stragglers are sent home. The dancers change out of their long shimmering dresses into more everyday clothes and head home too. Ms Pawar is off to see if her little boy is alright after another long evening alone, locked into their little flat. The women take one last look at the bar. It could be the last night they dance here. Their time here might have been seedy, but it was a steady living. The politicians are feeling self-righteous, tucked up in their grand residences on the seafront. For the dancers wending their way back to their less salubrious homes, the future looks bleak.