On Navratri Festival, the Goddess Dances

The nine-day Navratri festival, commemorating the Goddess Durga's victory over a demon, is celebrated with joyous traditional Hindu dances.

BY: Lavina Melwani


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Both Garba and Dandiya Raas have taken staunch hold in immigrant communities, handed over by grandparents and parents as a ritual that is part religious, part cultural. Garba is a religious and social event and harks back to the village traditions.

"All social events that happen in the rural areas always have a ritualistic or religious significance," says Patel, "whether it's the drawings on the walls of the huts, whether it's the motifs you see on the women's skirts--all of them have significance in their religious life and their vratas, the rituals they perform."

The circle formation in garba has a great deal of symbolic and metaphorical importance because life itself is a circle, without beginning or end--an unending cycle. When you perform a garba, you do not break the circle; people go in and come out but the circle remains.

"Garba is definitely a village dance, and it's a participatory type of folk art rather than something that is learned and taught and has tenets," explains Patel. "It is something young women grow up with and infuse it into their being and every time there is a celebration, that is what they perform."

Dandiya Raas was danced by Lord Krishna, the Celestial Cowherd, with the Gopis or milkmaids. "Each of the Gopis thought that Krishna was dancing with her alone because he seemed to be everywhere at the same time," says Patel. "But of course, he is a metaphor for the Almighty, because each one of us calls the Almighty by different names."

While the Garba is performed by women in a circle, singing and clapping rhythmically as they worship the Goddess, both men and women participate in Dandiya Raas, moving in two circles in clockwise and anti-clockwise directions, clicking dandiya, wooden sticks, with changing partners.

Both Garba and Dandiya Raas have many variations, depending on regions and communities, but the basics are always adhered to. The dance is at the heart of any celebration, and no wedding or birth of a child in a Gujarati household would be complete without them. It is so much a part of religious ritual and social interaction, that you see women of all ages, even the elderly, performing with joy and abandon, for they are celebrating the Goddess within them.

The Federation of Gujarati Associations of North America , the umbrella group for all Gujarati groups in the U.S., organizes Garba and Raas contests to ensure that the authenticity is maintained. The children of immigrants still perform these ancient dances, but they also bring in variations, influenced by Bollywood, Indipop, and Western music. So now you also see Disco Dandiya and Disco Garba.

Indeed many colleges with large Hindu populations--such as Rutgers University in New Jersey and New York University--have Raas Clubs and have Garba contests. With its emphasis on female energy, the dance has a special allure even in these modern times and connects women to their strength and potency.

As the poet Chitra Divakaruni Banerjee wrote in her poem, "The Garba":

We spin and spin
back to the villages of our
mothers' mothers.
We leave behind the men, a
white blur
like moonlight on empty
bajra fields
seen from a speeding train.

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