C J Kurrien

May 6, 2005

Come to the cabaret

Filed under: Cabaret, Dance Bars, India, Mumbai, Music, Time Out Mumbai, Uncategorized — cjkurrien @ 1:53 pm

Time Out Mumbai- Volume 1, Issue 18

It’s disingenuous for Mumbai’s moral guardians to suggest this was a purer place before the phenomenon of the ladies bar. The city has had a long tradition of cabaret performances dating back to World War II − and many of those shows were far more risqué than the hyped (but distinctly underwhelming) performances in present-day dance bars.

Some of the city’s first “floor shows”, as they were known then, were staged at Eros cinema’s classy top-floor restaurant, where European cabaret troupes entertained homesick GIs stationed here during the war. The cabaret would almost always be one part of an evening’s programme; a feature film, a set by a live band and a dog show were among the other features.

From the middle to the late 1960s, the city’s most classy nightclub, the original Blue Nile located at 35, New Marine Lines, hosted a formidable line-up of striptease artists from Calcutta, but none more popular than sassy Anglo-Burmese siren, Tamiko the Tomato, renowned for her humour and jiggling bosom. Some Mumbai’s most prominent and well-heeled citizens attended these shows (at Rs 50 a pop, it was clearly off limits to most) and since it was the prohibition era, Blue Nile’s guests had to settle for sipping cups of espresso, which was widely considered the height of sophistication at the time. Other venues with regular cabaret shows included the Ritz Hotel’s ultra-exclusive Little Hut as well as the Ambassador Hotel, then owned by the flamboyant Greek bon vivant, Jack Voyantzis, often seen with an attractive female on his arm and a giant Cuban wedged in his mouth.

Even the Indian state acknowledged the value of these performances and through the 1970s, there were innumerable Indo-Turkish cultural exchange performances that brought some of the best belly dancers in the Mediterranean for ticketed shows open to the public at mainstream venues like the Birla Matushree Hall. Not surprisingly, these performances were immensely popular, though the audience would also have to first endure a yawn-inducing lecture on Indo-Turkish cooperation, not to mention a never-ending series of speeches with bureaucrats singing paeans to everlasting Indo-Turkish friendship.

By the late 1970s, a striptease venue in Colaba, also called Blue Nile, sprung into prominence hosting several performances daily and charging customers Rs 150 for each show. No alcohol was served and to project an impression of absolute legality, a large sign greeted patrons as they entered the club: “Under BMC rules drinking water shall be supplied.”

Blue Nile’s management fought tooth-and-nail to remain open, scoring a major court victory over the Mumbai Police (after that, it famously became the only Colaba nightstop exempt from paying hafta). But a series of high-profile raids in the late 1990s broke the back of Mumbai’s last striptease venue, and was finally shuttered two years ago. It has since been converted into a swish bakery.

At the moment, there are no cabaret shows in the city. Until two weeks ago, the closest thing available was a performance by a pole dancer from Belarus at The Orchid in Santa Cruz. But the show has been temporarily discontinued. “With dance bars being such a hot issue at the moment we’ve decided to wait and watch the situation before we decid to bring her back,” says the hotel’s F & B manager. “For the time being we’ve sent the dancer to Mauritius.”


March 25, 2005

Edgy pleasures

Filed under: Dance Bars, Mumbai, Nightlife, Time Out Mumbai, Uncategorized — cjkurrien @ 1:50 pm

Time Out Mumbai- Volume 1, Issue 15

The neon lights shine brighter just across Mumbai’s border with Thane, CJ Kurrien discovers.

The law takes a breather just past Mumbai’s border, on a kilometre-long stretch of the grubby Eastern Express Highway in Thane district that lights up every evening into a neon strip lined with ladies’ bars and room-by-the hour hotels. About ten bordellos posing as dance bars immediately appear on the horizon as I walk across the eight-lane Dahisar check point and enter a sandy field at the side of the road bustling with rickshaws, hustlers who double up as drivers, a few state police and hordes of eager gentlemen who’ve crossed over from Mumbai for a night out on the frontier.

While nightclubs in the city fight to stay open past the1.30am deadline, the strip is usually alive till sunrise. Though recent police raids have caused the neon signs to go off past midnight these days, it’s nothing serious. Inside the bars, the music blares on, the girls dance, the men ogle and fumble, rooms are rented, and kebabs are consumed. A complete package for approximately Rs 2,000.

Since they operate outside Mumbai limits, the rickshaw drivers don’t go by the meter, and pad their daily wages by dropping off first-timer customers to select establishments. I’m driven straight to the Swagat and Hina complex, two bars that share their premises with the Maharaja hotel. The girls working at Swagat come over to chat if a patron indicates interest, but I play it cool, sipping a Rs 150 Thumbs Up on the sidelines. The managers are eager to recommend company but lose interest when I explain I’m only around for the show.

While most dancers in Mumbai’s upscale bars maintain stony expressions until the cash hits the ceiling, the females who work at these fringe establishments like the raucous Red Horse tend to be a little more generous with their attention. Teena, an attractive 20-year old from Goa who shares an apartment with a few colleagues in Mira Road, continues to sit by me even after realising I’m not interested in closing a deal. She plays mock carom on my table, striking peanuts into an ash tray. We cheer every time she nails a nut.

“I had a Muslim boyfriend (but) I don’t believe in love anymore,” she says to me in English. In the meantime a spunky female in low slung white jeans begins flirting with me brazenly, coming right up to my ear and bellowing a film song I don’t know the words of. I think she wants me to sing along, but all I can do is laugh (oh yes, she’s woefully out of tune).

Most dance bars across Mumbai have some standard trappings: managers who make you feel like royalty, tacky sofas, pineapple wedges, false ceilings, bored females, faux Greek statues, jhankaar beats and showers of currency. If you’ve been to one, you’ve seen them all. But though the establishments across the border may look like bars in the city, they run on different standards. At the Red Horse, patrons and bar girls freely comingle, something banned in most Mumbai bars. And unlike the city’s upscale institutions like Carnival and Nightlover, there are no qualms about sealing a deal at these venues: the managers aggressively push the women, a price is fixed, and a door inside the bar leads to a lodge that is located within the same building. One establishment, Karavali, even sells itself as the only “pure” dance bar in the neighbourhood.

The strip has fuelled a little industry along the highway: Chinese food carts, large cigarette shops, holes-in-the-wall selling fried fish, bhurji stalls, hotels with giant luminescent signboards and even some regular drinking houses. But there isn’t a residential building in sight, nor a single woman on the street.

Contrary to popular perception, these bars aren’t populated by truckers looking to tide over their loneliness: truck drivers could never afford these places. And not every visitor to the strip is looking to score. I chat with a group of sales executives, all in their twenties, who say that they come to the strip to dance, chug beers and flirt with a group of females who’ve become friends. And it’s evident from the way that the ladies slap the guys’ bottoms while dancing that they share something more intimate than a client-customer relationship.

It’s easy to understand why business is brisk on the fringes, where no one judges, everyone is anonymous. For me there’s no denying the thrill of zipping down a dusty, neon spangled highway that’s reminiscent of the sinful stretch that leads out of Vegas into the Nevada desert. It’s all here – the lights, the scum, the money and the message: live like an outlaw.

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