Cabaret at Calicut
Posted on: 26 May 2010
C P Vijayakrishnan
Calicut is small and as conservative as any other town of similar size. It was called a 'nagaram' meaning city perhaps even in old times. The place even has a village office called nagaram. How a city and a village can coexist under the same roof is not so baffling as it might seem, it is a town surrounded by villages both attitudinally and geographically. Though its love for football is going through a very bad patch its mind is globally integrated with that game. This is one of the few areas Calicut can match any other city. But The local game has few takers. Recently the lights of the flood light towers failed and football matches were abandoned. But Its halwa still oozes oil and the banana chips are as crispy as ever and there are many takers for both. Hotels that sell 'chicken parts' as a dish to go with 'porotta' and 'puttu' remain the same.
Poets who have migrated to this town seeking employment in radio stations and news papers have written poems about how it's 'urban' attitudes have impacted them negatively. Was it a city thirty five years ago? It had amenities the rural hinterland was lacking. When I visited Calicut as a small child , an insignificant member of a wedding party, I had the misfortune to go to the toilet exactly when the cleaner made his visit and saw a human figure with tight, mute lips and with a face as blank as a sheet of unwritten paper, waiting outside the toilet to carry the night soil away. Though the contours of the picture have faded the dark slender figure, with a tinge of betal leaf red on his lips, still occupies the centre of the frame. It is a past we all want to forget soon. We can't be nostalgic about that. The alternative to this in the villages was to relieve yourself in the open. We can't be nostalgic about this either.
Poet Akkitham has written about the lipstick wearing fashionable women and their fashionable hairdos. The darker side of the town has been imagined to be harbouring monstrosities. Poets like Akkitham and Kakkad carried memories of their ancestral villages to this small town and perhaps felt anguish over the world slowly changing around them. Were they speaking metaphorically? Only partly, the surroundings must have had a bearing on them. Calicut challenged them with it's proletarian attitudes and also with it's disregard for feudal niceties.
Till a few years back the geographical town extended a few kilometers from Mananchira on all sides. This was what we call the 'city'. It is not that the city didn't have a dirty underbelly. The dark underside would shock the petty bourgeoisie. The poets definitely had reason to see themselves in a dimly lit world where monstrous figures appeared and disappeared. The parks around Mananchira acted as an exchange market for the dual sexed and if you had forgotten to close your fly you are sure to be approached either to sell or buy. Sex workers plied their trade in the dingy lodges, as they still do, or if they were poor did business in the streets. After dark they openly solicited customers in the lanes .it was not an uncommon sight to see some poor city dwellers waiting patiently for their turn near dilapidated buildings off the railway lines. With dhotis tucked up, perhaps anxious to catch the next train or to reach their workplaces early in the morning. When you walked home after night shift suddenly a sex worker might emerge from the dark bye lanes of Chalappuram and would ask whether you wanted anything. Those were days when they were not called sex workers. In the day you could see some of them near the Thali tank drying their hair in the sun, with sleepy eyes .
So it was here that a quarter century back ,women , a few of them from other states, worked as striptease artists in front of a motley crowd of balding middle aged civil servants, students ,bank clerks and those faceless others who had different reasons to seek entertainment on makeshift dance floors. If you walked along the S.M.Steet in the evening you could here music wafting out of a restaurant cum cabaret joint in the upper floor of a row of shops beckoning you with it's offer of half naked women's bodies and a chance to grope at them for an amount of 15 rupees or so. The restaurant served meals at noon ,something a Malayali can not do without ,and in the evening it changed into a cabaret hall producing a mixture of sounds emanating from drums and guitars. When you looked out of the restaurant you could see the tiled roofs of old buildings. The shoppers strolled the street looking for clothes . Halwa and banana chips unmindful of what went on in the cabaret hall .their curiosity might have been aroused by the startling music that fell on their ears when they reached that part of the street , but perhaps they felt that they were unwelcome. A carpeted wooden staircase led to the hall and you tried to convince yourself that you were entering a world of glamorous entertainment ,hiding your true intention without much success.
Until then Malayalies knew of cabaret from films which usually contained a dance where a starlet in garish clothes danced to the tune of a Malayalam song, the musicians looking every bit like extra artistes, the audience including the villain sitting on cheap chairs. Everything in an ill painted set. Now it evokes only laughter. But the cabarets that came up in the late seventies offered to a few towns in kerala something real, only the sets looked filmy . The music, the lights, and the general ambience were imitations. only the people looked real.
The regular patrons awaited the arrival of dancers with smug contentment and an air of superiority whereas the new entrants into a world of sinful exhibitionism were obviously sheepish. After an initial flourish of the guitar and the drum the dancers would arrive. A twist or two later they would start moving around . An acolyte might be encouraged by his guru with these words 'grab man grab' when the time came ; after all you have to have your movie's worth. The restaurant flaunted an announcement board saying that it was started by 'unemployed post graduates'. Students who stayed in hostels definitely had a chance here to graduate into an unreal milieu where at least a small portion of their fantasies might come true and would last them for a week. That is, they would be under it's spell for a week. That was the start .slowly it went down and down into darker caverns. Ordinary folks shut their eyes to the cabaret, and didn't think of meddling with it, may be because they did not know what was going on.
Sure enough the dancers didn't disappoint the new ones , those who were kind and motherly among them prodded those shy youth to touch them and feel the real world. the older dancers allowed the patrons to momentarily feel their bodies as they moved among them and sometimes sat on their laps often producing artificial squeals and laughter completely drained of mirth reminding you of the rattling noise of an unfilled steel tumbler when it touched the ground. The smile remained fixed on their heavily made up faces as in a photograph. The younger ones ,in embroidered bras and panties and strips of ornamental clothes just covering their bodies drew away when fingers crawled towards them. The gilt covered clothes ,music ,and what passed off as dance did little to assuage a feeling of guilt among some in the audience. The musicians played on showing a practiced disinterest in what was taking place on the floor. Classified ads regularly appeared in news papers showing photographs of dancers with exotic names. The media or at least the ad department didn't think that something was amiss.
Gradually as more and more joints opened shop, competition began to stiffen ,what little clothe there was on the dancers began to be discarded .finally all pretense of dance was given up . Even the eating part was done away with, establishments came up just for the shows. Certainly the dancers bore the brunt of it .in dim light the they started to move about stark naked and performed tricks with implements . Somebody from the audience would say , 'Now she will do it, just watch'. The night darkened and as we descended into a thicker envelope of the darkness of the mind ,the scene became more secretive and cabbalistic with a lone dancer and fifty glowing eyes watching intently.
Very soon there was further progress in the performance and novelties were introduced as the police looked the other way. A joint was opened even at the busy Wynad road in a neighborhood where middle class residents stayed within earshot of the cacophony kicked up at the cabaret floor. The hall normally was filled with people from the middle class as workers usually kept away. .as the establishments vied with one another for viewers ,there was nothing shady about them since everything was in the open, so the number of dancers began to go up. It had started with one or two but soon went up to five and six. Soon word spread that the show had become more daring ,just like a circus, advertising it's trapeze artists performing without a safety net. It was when male performers also started making their entry of course in their underclothes . That was the innovation everybody wanted to try out. Female artists were by then made to travel the whole distance, the experienced among them shed their last bit of clothe with 'oohs and aahs' accompanied by the rising tempo of the drums and the younger ones with trepidation ,their eyes clearly betraying fear and loathing as they approached the final moment of nakedness silently pleading with the viewers not to force them.. Since the dim lights had been discarded for brighter lights, obviously to pander to the libidinal urges of the viewers there was no corner left for them to run and hide. Of course some of them performed in a matter of fact way hiding their true feelings, and business like finishing their work quickly as you would mop a floor. The male dancers were accomplices in the act ,their job was to fondle the women, and usually the older ones and the males seemed to have deserted the community of men looking on, crossing the lines and joining forces with the women, perhaps expressing solidarity with them. The sex act was simulated with their faces as if cast in wax. This wasn't Amsterdam ,New York or some such western city but Calicut tried to reach there for a brief while. The drums and guitars dying down the crowd dispersed. The houses nearby had gone to sleep long before. It did not cause much turbulence then as it would were they to make a re entry today. For one thing the patrons were in a minority and perhaps as members of a cabal , they kept the secrets well not betraying the owners of these places.
Surprisingly even without the threatening presence of bouncers the crowds were usually well behaved. It might be because they belonged to the middle class . A little squeamish in such things or they feared the toy they were given to play with would be snatched away. The absence of alcohol was anther factor which helped in the running of the shows smoothly. Very rarely did something unpleasant happen. when an onlooker crossed the lines the women were within their rights to retaliate and retaliate they did with a kick or abuse.
Finally women's and other organizations woke up to the situation and the demand to close down the joints was raised . A debate in the media followed , ranged on the one side were organizations and concerned members from the public and on the other side owners of the joints and a few cabaret artists themselves. This is our livelihood. Give us a better paid job then we will quit said the artists. Some reports focusing on the plight of the women had appeared in the press ,telling readers how an artist breast fed her child between shows , how another had to go through daily dose of harassment from officials . the arguments in favor of the cabaret was weak even in those pre fundamentalist days .the arguments against it gathered force ,agitations were launched .and soon the cabaret folded up for the last time, silence engulfing the dance floors.
Where did all those dancers go? Did they find alternate employment? Do we still carry some remnants of these occurrences of the recent past? Were we mute or more liberal those days ? Or more illiberal today? In an age of internet pornography are we so deprived as to hide cameras in closets? My only answer is we are not more liberal or illiberal today as we were in those days. We are the same , only the gadgets and the scene seemed to have changed ,we now look at women through the ubiquitous camera eye of the mobile handsets.
-C P Vijayakrishnan