Welcome to the “Draroakes”

On January 7, 2022, owners of drayangs and those working there were hard hit as the then Prime Minister (PM) issued an executive order, shutting down the drayangs, which had not been operating since March 2020, because of the Covid 19 pandemic. Both supporters and those opposing the move took it to social media, with some even suggesting that it was in contravention to the right to livelihood, as enshrined in the Constitution. The PM stuck to his decision and the drayangs were closed.

However, as the 2023-2024 elections neared, former drayang owners and workers met with political parties and submitted their pleas. While pledges of both the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the Bhutan Tendrel Party (BTP) does not have anything specifically mentioned about the return of the drayangs, those in the business say that they were assured that the matter “would be looked” into.

While this is a broad statement and could mean anything, the people are waiting for the government to look into the matter. Further, the matter necessitates the attention of those in power as the closure of the drayangs and the transformation of most to karoakes have led to the emergence of entertainment, that has elements of both the drayang and the karoake business. Additionally, there is an increase in the flow of alcohol and at this rate Bhutan could take the prize for topping in alcohol liver disease (ALD), which is already a health issue in Bhutan.

With the formal closure of drayangs, most establishments of the kind mentioned above have transformed to karoakes. The Cambridge dictionary defines karoakes as “a form of entertainment, originally from Japan, in which recordings of the music but not the words of popular songs are played, so that people can sing the words themselves.” Today, we see the words too on screen and sing along. In between, people treat themselves to alcohol of different kinds.

How are today’s karoakes, especially the hybrid ones, like those mentioned above functioning?

Most have women employees, who are supposed to be there to serve customers drinks and food. But they go beyond it. It is here that the elements of the drayang come in.

Drayangs were places favoured and frequented mostly by men. Right after entry, women would approach them, asking for “requests.” In layman terms, a customer paid whatever he could to make a girl sing a song of his choice on the stage. The customer could even ask for a dance, if he wanted. From the money that a woman would get per night, a certain percentage would go to the owner, while the girls would keep the other percent. That is how everyone became happy.

Similarly, in today’s hybrid karoakes, women approach men the moment they walk in. They are asked what they would drink. The drink is served and then the girl(s) begin to “request.” The request is not for a song, but for a peg or more of alcohol. The gentleman concedes and says the girl can have one. The girl then asks what brand she could have. If the gentleman leaves it to the girl, he has had it. The girl would go for the most expensive drink as she gets a certain percentage of the cost of the drink from the house.

What is the danger here? In the endeavor to take home more money, girls go on a drinking spree. Simultaneously, they make the customer drink. Once drunk, the probabilities of a lot of things not warranted to happen will occur. There is another element adding to the beauty of the story. Entertainment houses can remain open from 6.00 pm till 3.00 am the next day. The girls have nine hours to drink. Imagine that a girl on an average has one customer offering drinks per hour. Imagine that the girl drinks two pegs from one customer. She consumes 18 pegs of liquor, which is more than a liter or bottle of alcohol.

It doesn’t mean there are no singers. As one is in a hybrid karaoke, one can sing your lungs out with all the girls there. So, the establishment qualifies as a karaoke. The Penal Code does not say that women working in bars or other entertainment centers cannot ask customers for a drink. So, whatever happens is within the gamut of the law.

A line from the Executive Order shutting drayangs read. “It is time we acknowledge that our women working in drayangs are the most vulnerable. They are sexually objectified and disparaged in communities due to the nature of their job.” Without any formal study on drayangs conducted, we do not know how true it is. Generally, every woman working in a bar, karaoke and even hotels are sexually objectified. Does this mean that we bar women from working in all such establishments?

Bhutan had 60 drayangs when the establishments were closed. Even if we take 10 as the number of employees, there were 600 workers who lost their jobs. Yes! The government tried to reintegrate them and some are working in different places. But what policy makers should know is the fact that most women working in drayangs and now the hybrid karoakes are already the most vulnerable and those disparaged in communities. Most are single mothers, who do not have the luxury of a day job. They have to look after their kids.

Even if the government had managed to reintegrate all 600 working in drayangs, new women, lured by the promises of urban life would have provided continuity.

This piece is not one campaigning for the opening of drayangs. It is to bring out clearly the conditions that prevail now. If the government or the opposition of the day had told former drayang owners and employees that they “would look into it,” there is an urgency to do so. Drayang owners and employees are like all Bhutanese, trying to eke out a living. They are law abiding. They pay taxes. By working together, drayangs, with certain reforms and restrictions can see the day. Or do we wait for the ALD figure to attain new heights and the draroakes to multiply?

By Tandin Wangchuk, Olokha