November 01, 2007

Garba - a riot of colour, song and dance

Navratri in Gujarat. I had heard about it, but had never seen it. In fact, it was my first trip to Gujarat, the state mostly in the news for the wrong reasons. I went there for the ‘right’ reason: to see the garba Gujarat is so famous for, and to see a few places that interested me.

Garba is Gujarat’s best-known folk dance. Its name comes from a Sanskrit word "garbha deep" which refers to an oil lamp placed in a perforated earthen pot. The dance is performed around a pot in a circle to celebrate the festival of Navratri, which honors Goddess Amba and the nine nights she fought to defeat a demon. A form of worship offered by women, the dance consists of clapping hands and moving feet in various combinations and speeds, according to the rhythm of the song. (India Guide Gujarat, 2007, Anjali Desai, ed.
I carried this invaluable treasurehouse of information with me).

One finds signs of Garba everywhere. Colourful shops selling chaniya cholis and chunky silver jewellery, and accessories in rainbow hues...we saw these both in Law Garden in Ahmedabad and in several places in Vadodara. We were told that the girls wear nine different dresses, one on each night of the navratri.

As it nears 8 pm, the roads are full of scooters being driven by men/women, decked up in kurta-pyjama-dupatta/chaniya cholis respectively. Many scooters have two women, one driving and the other on the pillion...both in colourful garba garbs. Lovely! Unfortunately I couldn’t get a proper shot of this.

The Garba is held in many places all over the city, much like our Ganesh pandals. The biggest one in Vadodara was organised in a huge ground; there was a kind of a flower-shaped, brightly lit podium erected at a height. Around this were lamps hanging across the entire area. On the podium were the singers and the orchestra; and the dancers—thousands of them (yes!)—danced all around, in concentric circles. There was one old man dancing very elegantly and energetically...apparently he is a regular, and is well known.

There are prizes (sponsored by corporates) for the best male dancer, best female dancer, best dressed dancers, best couple, and so on.

The dance itself is very traditional and graceful, with 4-5 steps forward and then 3-4 steps backward, but the dancers surely move forward—much like the Indian economy, as my friend Mira commented! The girls dazzle in their chaniya cholis and colourful ornaments. Some of the men too were dressed in gorgeous costumes, like the ‘peacock man’ (see photo). The dance begins at about 9 pm and goes on till about 1 am. There are a few breaks when the dancers sit around in circles and have some refreshments. The songs are in Gujarati, at least where we went, but I am told that Bollywood has entered the Garba scene in a big way.

The next day we went to a children’s garba, which was similar, but on a smaller scale. There are only-girls garbas too. The newspaper supplements and the TV were full of garba scenes, and there were hoardings everywhere, showing garba and dandia. But I was disappointed that I had not seen any dandia...perhaps it is reserved for the last 2 days. I left before that.

Our hosts---Mira, Nandini and Indira---gave us a great taste (as on palate and otherwise) of Gujarati culture. There was a garba in their home too, where women danced around in a circle clapping their hands. The steps were much easier, and we happily joined in. And when they asked kem cho?, we heartily replied majha macho!

Among the interesting things I heard was that the dancers lose about 5 kg by the time navratri is over! Also, that many dancers attend practice sessions before the season begins.

I am quite sure if I lived in Gujarat, I wouldn’t be part of the garba, just as I am not an intrinsic part of the Bathkamma festival in Telangana where I live. I have unfortunately travelled away from certain simple delights...


Ramesh said...

Hi Sadhana,

Nice narrative,interesting observations and photos.Isn't it surprising that our exposure to raas is limited (having been brought up in culturally deficient Telangana family-myself) We were exposed to Garba & Dandiya Raas in our small town in USA by our friends who taught us the steps. We also did an onstage performance during An International Cultural Festival in Port Huron Michigan.An additional tidbit--at a recent Andhra-Gujarati Wedding the disparity in Raas skills,grace and energy was very evident.
Thanks for sharing your interesting observations.


dharmabum said...

don't be sure - sometimes the festivity and joy are so infectious, we just lose ourselves, only to rediscover the very same simple delights :)

Brian said...

Hi Sadhana,
This year we (The Chu family) danced the garba in San Diego. Although the celebration is in grander scale in the LA region, we had fun. The girls are now experts in Dandiya Raas. They love the music and the dancing. Bottom line, it was great fun!

Sadhana said...

Looks like the garba is very much alive and kicking in the US, thanks to the enterprising Gujjus!

Ramesh: great that you seem to be into a lot of cultural stuff. You were part of Atiya teacher's Shakespeare in school, weren't you?

Neelu: The Chu family seem to be doing more things Indian than we do here! Hats off!

Dharmabum: Yes, I think I'll ask the Gujarati family downstairs to teach me the steps and join the Hyderabad garba next year. :)