Around the 1970s, bars in Bombay began to employ young women irrespective of their experience. This was for a new innovation called ‘waiter service’. Waiters, in this context, referred to female servers. These women wore saris, not uniforms, and they were paid a monthly salary and did not have to survive on a collection. They were entirely different from the waiters who would go on to work in Silent Bars. Another innovation, ‘orchestra service’, referred to a live musical performance with a female lead. Bars then took a cue from Hindi films and the ‘item numbers’ gaining popularity -- these were dance songs featuring starlets in plunging necklines and were conceptualized to sexualize a film without doing so overtly. Bars paid young women to dance to popular item numbers of the time and when this became their primary attraction they began to identify themselves as ‘dance bars’.
Their success was evident in their growing numbers. In 1984, there were just twenty-four registered dance bars in the state. Ten years later, there were more than 200. And by 2005, this number had climbed to 1,500.
For women not mired in sex work, bar dancing offered lucrative advantages over other kinds of low-grade employment. In 2005, a bar dancer in a mid-level bar like Night Lovers, brought home in one night what a cleaning woman or bai earned in a month.
More often than not, however, this new profession attracted girls like Leela -- poor, barely educated runaways low on options. With its promise of immediate financial independence, bar dancing was a refuge from the horror of family life a young woman had no power to affect except by leaving.
Leela danced alongside about twenty other girls on a slightly elevated stage in the middle of the bar. For the first few hours she was enthusiastic, for she was drunk and had dragged on an accommodating waiter’s joint. She feigned pleasure, winking naughtily at the customers, pouting at their glassy-eyed reflections in the mirrored wall behind her. And she was careful not to miss a single step of the dance routines she practised so diligently at home. That was what she was tipped for after all--to beguile like an Aishwarya, a Sushmita, a Priyanka.
Do what you want, Shetty instructed his girls, but give kustomersahib ‘paisa wasool’. The customers should get their money’s worth.
Leela wasn’t allowed to speak with customers during her performance and she rarely did. In fact, she noticed only those who threw money on her, as was the custom, or asked the steward standing by for this purpose to place a garland of hundred or five hundred rupee notes around her neck.
If she was feeling wicked, she would accept the money and staring deep into a customer’s eyes, silently mouth: ‘Is this all you think I’m worth?’ She would ‘A bar dancer’s game is to rob, to fool a kustomer’ rub her eyes and pout, murmuring, ‘Hai! Kyun na main sweecide karoon? Kyun na main apna sar ohven mein daloon?’ Why shouldn’t I commit suicide? Why shouldn’t I stick my head into an oven?