ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Dancing the Night Away

Erotic Outlaws of the Democracy

The varied trajectories of Bengali cabaret/bar dancers who ferried themselves between the two cities of Mumbai and Kolkata in search of livelihood and shelter since the last decades of the 20th century are mapped. Taking Kolkata as the epicentre of research, the author proposes to trace the eviction drive of the city’s erotic dancers ascribing their large-scale exodus to the cultural crusade waged by the progressive state that forced out many poor and labouring dancers, calling them out as visceral symbols of apasanskriti or pervert culture.

The author is indebted to the dancers, bandleaders, customers, and police officers for sharing their experiences of life through countless candid conversations. A word of thanks to Akash Bakshi and Utsarjana Mutsuddi. She also thanks Jadavpur University for a generous research grant (under RUSA 2.0) that enabled her to embark on this research.

On 4 June 2019, Tathagata Roy, a Bharatiya Janata Party leader from Bengal and the then governor of Meghalaya, sparked off a controversy through a series of tweets. Bengal, he asserted, once a cultural hub of India, is now depleted of its hallowed tradition, which is particularly evident by Bengali womens record migration and engagement in Mumbai dance bars. He tweeted, Now from Haryana to Kerala, Bengali boys are sweeping floors and Bengali girls are bar dancers in Mumbai, which was unthinkable before (Shukla 2019). By the time he blamed it on the media for giving his comments a bizarre turn, the issue was taken up by Banga Janani Bahini, the womens wing of the ruling All India Trinamool Congress of Bengal, who promptly organised a protest march and dharna against the governors unconstitutional remarks on women. The law minister of West Bengal struck a chord with the latest verdict of the Supreme Court in 2019, which by quashing the ban on bar dancing endorses every citizens fundamental right to choose their occupation. The bitter battle over tweets could not, however, blot out the staggering presence of migrant Bengali dancers in Mumbai as field reports (SNDT and Forum 2006) on bar dancing confirm that West Bengal stands second (20.6%), next only to Uttar Pradesh (UP) (24.8%), in supplying dancing girls to Mumbai.

Interweaving many personal interviews with ethnographic and historical research, this paper maps the varied trajectories of Bengali bar dancers who ferried themselves between the two cities of Kolkata and Mumbai. While existing research on bar dancing takes the seminal moment of 2005 ban as its starting point, situating the study in the sin city of Mumbai that hosted the sleaze shows for maximum number of nights, I take Kolkata as the epicentre of my research. I push the timeline backward into history to trace the arrival of transnational exotic dancers in its colonial nightclubs and move forward along the alleyways of the postcolonial city to capture the changing faces of its subterranean world of pleasure. Moral policing, I will argue, which appeared as an abiding concern of the Maharashtra government before implementing the ban, resonated more stridently in the cultural crusade of the leftist state of West Bengal during the 1980s and 1990s as in both social scenarios, erotic dancers emerged as visceral symbols of moral perversion and cultural anarchy.

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Published On : 27th Feb, 2024

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