If today's item-girls have an ancestor, who would it be? Surely, Helen - dancing her way through hundreds of films, drawing crowds with every shake of the hips. In her days, Helen was the only one of her type. The heroines were coy, demure and sari-clad, while other vamps were simpering, villainous varieties. Yet, like today's item-girls and bar-girls, Helen too danced to others' tunes - making a livelihood through her seductive dancing.
A role that devadasis (temple dancers) played in different parts of India - dancing for the gods, and also for select male patrons. Tawaifs (courtesans) too danced, and sang, for wealthy patrons. All these women are emblematic of a tradition that places a premium on male sexuality, and ensures that women are available - in fact or in fantasy - for fulfilling male desire outside of marriage.
Several tawaifs made significant contributions to song and dance. Nargis, 48, of Kanpur, explains, "People do not understand what tawaifs were. The nobility sent their sons to learn tehzib (culture, etiquette) from us. We breathed music and learnt dance from the time we could walk. We had art flowing through our veins. All that is gone now!" Today, she lives in a poky two-roomed tenement in a slum area, and earns her living dancing at private functions, and as a 'filler' between Nautanki scenes (musical plays). She developed her own style of dancing and was given the sobriquet 'Chhoti Helen' for most of her career. Or 'Saira Banu', the Bollywood heroine whom she strongly resembles!
Women who acted in Nautankis were often talented actors, trained in classical performing arts. With the degeneration of the tawaif culture and degradation of theatre traditions like Nautanki, daughters of erstwhile tawaifs and dancers have joined the ranks of beer-bar dancers or as dancers in private functions. More often than not, their work consists of playing at being cheap imitations of Bollywood item-girls.
Sonali, 45, has a daughter who works in Mumbai's beer-bars. She herself was a well-known actor in Nautankis. "Today there are no such plays, so they are using their talents elsewhere," she explains. "She dances in Mumbai, and also goes to Dubai, to sing and dance in hotels there. She is a wonderful girl. As soon as she was old enough, she left school and began to work. She told me I should rest now. I have worked hard enough all my life!"
Like many other women who dance for a living, Sonali had a patron for several years of her youth, and had three children with him. After a decade, he married another woman, leaving Sonali to bring up the children.
Few people are aware that early in her career Helen, the quintessential Bollywood cabaret dancer, was "raring to step out of her dancing shoes and play heroine...P N Arora managed her life now and dancing was encouraged as it was more lucrative. After all a dance took only three shifts to complete, whereas a performing role took far too many." (Dinesh Raheja and Jitendra Kothari, 'The 100 Luminaries of Hindi Cinema')
Filmmaker Arora, who was much older than Helen, was her patron for several years. He was also exploitative and over-possessive. It was many years before she could muster up the courage to leave him.
Although men in the audience like to imagine that women like Helen, bar dancers and item-girls love to dance, the fact is that usually this is only way they can earn a living. Even the pretence of enjoyment is part of the act. At bottom, it is sheer hard work, labor put in for the salary that comes in at the end of the day.
Like today's bar-girls, Helen came from a background of hardship and poverty. As a child, she walked with her mother from Burma to India. They were poor. At 12, Helen left school in order to learn dancing and entered films soon after.
Like other dancers, Helen too was tainted by the brush of non-respectability. The stuff of male fantasy, cine journals dubbed her an 'H-Bomb'. Her 'non-Indian' looks (she was of Spanish, French and Burmese blood) added to her appeal as 'the other woman' - who could be devoured voyeuristically, sans guilt.
Today, the female image as commodity has become widely accepted. The image titillates, arouses and pleases. This is part and parcel of the same culture that commodifies female sexuality. Thus, sex work is a deeply entrenched practice. According to the Durbar Mahila Samanvaya Committee, a Kolkata-based union of sex workers, there are 1.5 crore sex workers in India today.
If female bodies are up for sale - and this is widely recognized and accepted - it subtly affects the social valuation of all women. But the female body is up for sale even in marriage - that most 'respectable' of social institutions. In fact, by paying cash along with the bride, her parents literally 'buy' her respectability - the name and protection of the groom and his family. They gain a whole woman in exchange, catering to the man's sexual desires, and providing heirs for the family. She is a sex object. That is part of the role she plays in life. Women's 'inferiority' to men is celebrated through economics.
Sonagachi sex workers say sex work is "marginal, sexist, exploitative and low-status". Yet, they claim that, like other workers, they too have a right to pursue their trade. They sure have a point. There really is no justification for legalizing one kind of exploitative structure, and criminalizing another. As women's groups have said in defense of Mumbai's bar-girls, they will lose their source of survival if their profession is outlawed. And who will provide them with other sources of livelihood?
Sonagachi women have gone a step further - claiming that sex work is a 'rational choice'. This is no more pathetic than the routine justification of marriage as a 'rational choice'. How many women are pushed into marriage, and how many remain caught in conflict-ridden marriages, their personal aspirations crushed and shattered, afraid to walk out?
Women compromise: simply in order to survive. Many learn to celebrate the sale of their own bodies, since it is the only means they have of generating an income. Others revel in the fantasy-world of patriarchal marriage, with its attendant violence, suffocation and inevitable lies. And in every compromise a woman makes, she strengthens violent patriarchies - just that little bit more.
The truth of the matter is that while some women do find a dignified niche within whichever kind of life they are living, by and large most women are forced to dance to others' tunes. Their own identities, desires and dreams are crushed, lost, sold out. They wear borrowed garments, dress glamorously or soberly as suits the male gaze - forgetting what it really means to live in one's own skin, or to dance from the pure delight of being.