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WORLD

Bar dance girls on the march

By Marianne Bray
CNN

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A Mumbai bar dancer draped by a garland of currency notes offered by a customer.

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MUMBAI, India (CNN) -- It is 3 a.m. on a Tuesday in Mumbai's northwestern Malad district, and in the far distance a group begins to emerge from the empty darkness.

As they walk closer -- past the shuttered storefronts, stray dogs and sleeping families on sidewalks -- the faces of pretty young girls, maybe 20 in all, light up under the lamp posts.

They are bare-footed, doing little to dodge the plastic bags of litter and foul-smelling drains, and are just a fraction of the way on their 35-kilometer (22-mile) journey to the Siddhivinayak temple in Prabhadevi.

Tonight is one of the most auspicious days for Mumbai's most popular god.

Of the many deities in India, Lord Ganesha is the first to go to, particularly if you are embarking on a new project. This is because he is "Vighnaharta," a remover of obstacles.

Just weeks before, Indian Bollywood idol Amitabh Bachchan and former Miss World Aishwarya Rai had made their late-night visit in the rain. But tonight it is the turn of Mumbai's bar girls to join the hordes making their way to the temple.

The western state of Maharashtra has long been famous for its bawdy dances or "tamasha" acts, and dance bar girls are synonymous with Mumbai's nightlife, home to Bollywood wannabes, stockbrokers and the infamous mafia.

But on India's Independence Day of August 15, Maharashtra banned dance bars where the girls work, saying they corrupted young people and were a front for prostitution.

Almost as if on cue, Manjit Singh Abrol, spokesperson for the Dance Bar Co-ordination Committee, pulled up on the side of a road in a dark-colored Mercedes.

There is no sex in legal bars, the tall Sikh said, as he stood by his car dressed in a black turban and freshly ironed clothes. But, he conceded, sex does take place in illegal bars.

The girls, whom he said numbered 100,000, were aged mostly between 24 and 28 years.

He added that while they were illiterate, they knew how to dance in the "mujra" way to classical Indian music, wearing a beaded and shiny top, a flared skirt and a wrap called a "chaniya-choli."

And despite government claims the bars were immoral and vulgar, he could find no reports of exploitation or complaints from the girls under the nation's information act, he said.

The committee, along with a group of bar owners called Aahar, had filed petitions to the Bombay High Court, challenging the ban.

"The industry was punched on Independence Day," he said, before jumping back into his Mercedes and driving off to his next destination.

At that moment the girls emerged, chatting amongst themselves, until two boys on a motorcycle yelled out and waved their fist in the air in support, to which the girls immediately responded in chorus "morya," or victory.

Soon a crowd had gathered, perhaps 30 in all, many of them girls, but also a transvestite, a social worker and the president of the Trade Union of Indian Bar Girls.

Rekhar Chavan, a 21-year-old dancer from Punjab, said they had come out that night to pray that the ban be lifted.

If they couldn't dance they would only try to sell themselves in the dark on the crowded streets, she said.

Soon the group was talking over each other, so Varsha Kale, National President of the Womanist Party of India (and president of the bar girls association)stepped in.

They had family to support, they had no other options, and the government wasn't helping girls from out of state, she said, wiping the beads of sweat pouring down her forehead as she leant on the car.

As the girls moved on, an activist who is trying to help the dancers, Ravi Deshpande, said the ban was a response to the United States' wish for India to crack down on human trade.

"The state government has made the bars a soft target to show it is taking some measures to stop human trafficking," he said.

In a report last year, the U.S. State Department said India had failed to respond to a huge trafficking problem, singling out Mumbai and Kolkata.

Closer to the temple, which flung open its gates at 4 a.m. to the thousands of people who had braved the pungent and humid night air, was 39-year-old Geeta Chandramohan from Santa Cruz, 20 kilometers away.

Last time he had visited the temple, he had prayed to go to London, and it had been granted. Next week he would go to a job at a hotel in Leicester, leaving his wife behind. He had come to say thank you.

The dance girls, who were many kilometers behind, could only hope for that much when they used their 15 seconds to kneel down and offer their marigolds and sweet coconut treats to the gods at Siddhivinayak temple.

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