The Slow But Steady Rise Of Women In India’s Nightlife Industry

The Slow But Steady Rise Of Women In India’s Nightlife Industry
Karan Kumar for Homegrown

[On 16th-19th January, 2019, Homegrown is throwing a first-of-its-kind music festival in Mumbai designed to celebrate the city’s vast and diverse music culture. Dive deep into a wide variety of dynamic workshops, exhibitions, curated tours, panels, pop-ups, performances and parties that promise to be inclusive of all kinds of tastes and people.

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[This article is based, in part, on our ‘Homegrown Disrobed’ Panel discussion with four inimitable women from India’s nightlife industry about how we can increase female representation within it. You can watch the Facebook Live video here.]

In 2015, feminist art collective Pussy Galore took a cue from their ‘80s predecessors, Guerilla Girls and posted a report card on Facebook. The idea was to rank New York’s top galleries based on the number of solo shows they had mounted by female artists over the last year. Unsurprisingly, the numbers were almost as dismal as they were nearly 30 years ago. While we may not have such specific examples within an Indian context, few would disagree that things here aren’t much better. Women still face a daily battle for visibility in the workforce, especially within industries that are still young themselves, like nightlife.

When was the last time you walked into an Indian bar or club and found yourself greeted by a female bouncer? Or maybe the bartender who served up your cocktail of choice was a woman? No? All right, it’s the owner of the venue then, that woman you’ve always spotted around, making sure every night runs as smoothly as the one before it? The people pottering around at the visual console making the lights and LED strips come alive? Nobody?

The irony in the ‘artistic’ or ‘entertainment’ sphere is lost on no one. Given the nascence of these scenes and the fact that the people who make it up are often stereotyped as unconventional, most assume that these spaces are free from the typical prejudices. Not only is that not always the case, but sometimes it even works against people who lack the immediate privilege or access to these spaces.

Even on-stage, the disparity is painfully visible. While the number of female performers in the country has slowly increased, puppeteering more diverse lineups is something even the most veteran programmers in the country struggle with. There are movements underway to rectify this disparity however and at events like Magnetic Fields there is a conscious shift towards including more women in the line-up to increase representation, and another shining example are the skills workshops for women arranged by Wild City. According to Wild City’s owner Sarah Elizabeth Chawla, this is only the beginning of changing the face of the industry for good, “I’ve been working in the music industry in India for 6 years” she says, “and through my interaction with women here, despite there being very few who make music/DJ or work in the industry, I know there is a huge interest to learn new skills or build upon existing ones. I started this project based on a little survey we put out on Wild City and quickly got data from over 300 women keen to develop skills in music production, DJ-ing, sound engineering and artist management amongst others. It’s not just India and it’s not just music but most countries and most industries are built on patriarchal systems that make it challenging for women to engage with them or succeed beyond a particular level.”

Though of course there are many female performers in the country, the electronic music multiverse is for the most part, male-dominated, and if you’re looking for female producers or sound technicians, it’s virtually unheard of. Perhaps people comfort themselves with the belief that women are working behind the scenes and gender discrimination isn’t a reality among ‘our friends’, but it’s there and it’s often a hard task for women to achieve even a small role in this bias atmosphere. The basis of this disparity often comes from our rigid societal roles and the belief that working in clubs is not something ‘decent girls’ do. There are a handful of women stepping away from these misconceptions and challenging the face of the nightlife industry across the spectrum, whether in mixology or event management, they’re proving that it is possible to shake off traditionalist ideas, pursue a career in a male-dominated workspace and succeed. For these pioneering individuals the road to their success was difficult but they’re eager to share their experiences and perhaps ease the transition into a new era of Indian nightlife.

Despite the metropolitan attitude in Indian cities, the cultural throwbacks are still ingrained in some ways, and it still comes into play when discussing something as drastic as a woman entering the nightlife space. “A lot of times girls have issues signing up for these jobs because their parents are concerned,” says Shobita, the director of marketing and strategy for Impresario. There’s also a long-standing fallacy that working in nightlife is all fun and games, that because you ‘like to party’ it automatically qualifies you for the position. Most people still view the concept of a job as being a traditional 9-5 and they have to work to come to terms with the possibility that a serious career option is available outside these prescribed guidelines. Somehow coming to terms with a ‘club job’ as an accessible option for a full-time career has just never been something Indian women can do.

Articulating this truth to general society is the next big hurdle, accepting a job as a bartender or nightlife manager can be seen as inferior by many, so women who do enter this space find themselves having to justify themselves at every turn. Then of course there’s the question of women’s safety, India isn’t really a shining beacon of security when it comes to being out after dark and naturally working in the nightlife industry comes with that territory. Whether it’s from their families or their own personal misgivings women are concerned about their well-being, both while travelling to and from work and while they’re there.

Asserting yourself over men in the same position can be a problem because of working with vendors who respond better to a male presence. Shobita believes that women who raise their voices or are overly forceful tend to be labelled ‘the bitch’ and risk losing the loyalty of their employees, but sometimes it’s unavoidable when you need to be heard. Shatbhi Basu, also known as the “Queen of Mixology” as the head of India’s first institute for professional bartending, however has never felt this gender disparity. She claims that when it comes to asserting power, it’s a subtle game of self-confidence and she never faced any trouble putting herself on the same level as her male co-workers. “It’s difficult sometimes, but it’s possible [to be treated respectfully],” she insists.

When it comes to entrepreneurial spirit in this industry, Mixtape’s A&R Representative, Anu Anna George believes that it’s simply a lack of representation that discourages women from starting their own business. “Even though it’s normal for women to be working, finding a mentor in this industry is very difficult.” Shobita believes that finding a mentor is completely separate from gender, however. “My mentor is a man, he’s the person who inspires me. I don’t have a woman I look up to. Own your aggression, don’t see it as a bad thing,” she says. The bottom line is that to be there and be successful has to be rooted in passion, so as long as people are ready to give their full potential to the job, gender is irrelevant.

Aside from a fearless attitude, there are a number of factors that can help you on the road to a successful career. “You have to remember that as a woman, you are not going to be ‘one of the guys’. So don’t try to be,” Shatbhi says. The necessity to own your identity and be conscious of your personal skill set is essential. Trying to prove yourself by taking on challenges that you aren’t confident about may eventually prove detrimental, but knowing your strengths and playing to them will pay off. Having women in the industry should no longer be a novelty, there’s no lack of female representation in a party-going crowd so why should there be any on the other side of the playing field.

Though for the most part it has been a controversial industry for women to be a part of, India is moving towards a change. More women are being accepted in the space and realising that despite society’s preconceptions, it is a legitimate career option. Though it can feel like an uphill battle to validation it’s becoming easier with women ready to make the leap and defy what is thought of as the ‘norm’. Many businesses are ready to see women in leadership positions, helming the nightlife industry and it’s now upon India’s individuals to step into the limelight and claim the space that they deserve.

[To watch the entire video on the same topic, click here.]

Feature image illustrated by Karan Kumar for Homegrown

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