The women of Rajasthan’s Rajnat community know what it’s like to leap forward and then land up right where they began.
As the battle over reopening dance bars in Maharashtra continues in the SC, far away from the arc lights of Mumbai’s bars is a community feeling the greatest impact of the eight-year ban on dance bars in the state.
The Nats have led a marginalised existence for decades. A Scheduled Caste community, they were historically performers before prostitution became the norm. Girls would become prostitutes as soon as they hit puberty or when they turned 18, depending on how poor their families were. They continued to be in the trade until their daughters succeeded them. The impoverished community was stuck in a vicious cycle, generation after generation – until the dance bars became popular.
The bars gave them an opportunity to quit sex work. Many women came to Mumbai and started earning well enough to ensure their sisters and daughters got a good education and never had to enter the trade. Their families started living better too — bigger homes, not the kaccha mud-thatched houses they once lived in. And, the income meant women had control over their own life.
Sangeeta Madhiwal’s story stands testimony to this change.
The year was 2004. Sangeeta’s family of eight — two brothers, three sisters and her parents – were barely making ends meet in the Dudu village of Rajasthan.
The brothers had been married off as minors and were starting families, but they struggled to earn a living. Her parents were ageing. As the oldest, Sangeeta had two options — become a prostitute or join her bua (aunt) in Mumbai’s dance bars. She chose the latter and moved to the city with a sister.
“I went there for a year before the ban, and then went back again when the orchestra bars started. The income sent one sister to school. I could marry the other one off. Neither of them ever had to do sex work or even come to bars. I am proud of that,” says Sangeeta, who now works as a waitress at a Ghatkopar bar. She built pucca houses for her brothers and sent their children to school. Locals said she built the village’s “best home” for her parents – a ground-plus-one house with marble porch.
“People in Mumbai don’t realise this, but all this was possible only because of the dance bars,” says Pappu Kumar Lachiya, a powerful sarpanch in the state’s Dudu taluka. Lachiya said he owes his success too to a stint in Mumbai as a driver for bar dancers. “In every Nat community village, a bar dancer’s house will stand out.”
The dance bars not only gave the women a boost financially, but also got other villagers to sit up and take notice: the Nats have been discriminated against for their practice of pushing daughters into prostitution, allowing women to have children outside wedlock and not letting them marry if they enter the sex trade. They weren’t allowed to live inside the village, but had to live on the outskirts, in clusters called ‘Naton ki Dhaini’ (Nat villages). Nat children were harassed at school. But all this, the community insists, was changing because of the progress they made with the income as bar dancers.
“Earlier, well-to-do families would not attend our functions. Once we started doing well, they automatically came to our homes,” said Pinky Madhiwal, a sex worker-turned bar dancer, who has now retired. The community had finally found a way out. Families were better off, young girls were finding their way into schools, not the sex trade. But this is getting undone. The ban, and the subsequent tussle over the bars reopening, has pushed women — barely educated and with no employment in their villages — back into sex work. Rekha (name changed) is one of them. She insisted on not getting into prostitution, went to Mumbai to become a dancer and it paid off. She earned Rs3,000 a day, but is today back in her village Nandlalpura, soliciting customers at home while her son is at school. She makes Rs150 on a slow day. “My son doesn’t know. No woman wants to willingly sell her body. But if I don’t do this, how will I ensure my kid gets educated?”
“When bars were working, we had only a couple of sex workers. Now, there are 80 or 90,” said Narendra Nihala, a social worker with World Vision India. Nihala has one daughter working at a bar. “The community has gone back a few steps. If women want to do well in life, they will need to do this ganda kaam. Now tell me, how was the ban helpful?”
Saving a generation of girls from the sex trade
Pinky Madhiwal’s ‘Nath utrayee’— an initiation into prostitution — took place when she was a minor.
Being the oldest of ten, Pinky was pushed to into the sex trade, something she calls ‘gandaa kaam’.
She consoled herself saying her work helped her family have two meals a day.
After more than a decade of being a prostitute — on highways and roadside dhabas — Pinky decided to get out.
Mumbai’s dance bars were taking off and she was the first from her village to be brave enough to take the plunge. Nearly two decades later, Pinky, now in her 40s, is a celebrity in her village. “When I returned for vacations from Mumbai, young girls would whisper into my ears asking me to take them with me,” says Pinky.
The village saw how Pinky single-handedly managed to get three pucca houses built, two for her brothers and one for her mother and turned her life around.
Pinky saved an entire generation of girls from the sex trade. She has retired now, and works as an activist who has ‘settled down’ with her partner in Mumbai.
Getting men to step up
Surekha Madhani (name changed) had been a sex worker in Bandar Sindri for nearly a decade. She is one of the 150-odd women from the village who practiced the trade. The village was used to it. Like their counterparts elsewhere, most men in the community barely worked, while the women ran the household. This started changing in 1997.
Stung by societal criticism, villagers came together and decided things had to change. The challenge was enormous — to stop women from becoming sex workers and, more importantly, get the men to step up and accept financial responsibilities.
Two decades later, the transformation is near-complete. Madhani is no longer a sex worker. None of the women in her village are. Most of them decided to become bar dancers to earn money. The 40 Nat families in the village are no longer, according to locals, ostracized by other communities. The community even managed to appoint a former sex worker as a member of the Gram Panchayat.
“This village was infamous for the trade, so much so villagers would hire women from other villagers and bring them here,” said Madhani’s brother, Surendra.
The village owes its transformation entirely to Mumbai’s dance bars. “We realised women were earning a pittance at the cost of respect and dignity. Instead, they could earn ten times the money in Mumbai,” said Rajkumar Madhani, 47, not related to Surendra. The committee decided to impose penalties on homes where women solicited customers. They would insist the women go to Mumbai’s bars. The women earned much more, prodding men to start working.
This change, however, is in danger of being reversed. Hounded by uncertainty over the re-opening of bars, families in this village are unnerved. “If the bars don’t re-open, all that we achieved might be negated,” Surendra said.
(Pinky Madhiwal made it clear she wanted her photograph published along with her story).