Gujarat is a treasure trove of folk culture. This jewel of Western India is nestled inside the Kathiawar peninsula, with the turbulent waves of the Arabian Sea lashing its shores. Though Gujarat is perhaps today better known for its industries, infrastructure, GDP and overall development, it has been synonymous with song and dance for long. Apart from the very popular Dandiya dance, Gujarat’s folk culture also offers Bhavai, which is a folk theatre in praise of Goddess Amba (Durga), and Raas-Garba (or simply Garba), which is a ritual dance celebrated during the Hindu festival of Navaratri (nine auspicious nights). Garba is also performed during other Hindu festivals like Basant Panchami, Holi and Poornima.
The word garba is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘garbha’, which means womb - symbolising the eternal nature of life. Also known as Garbi, Garbha and Garbha Deep (earthen lamp), Garba is performed by women dancers, who place themselves in concentric circles around an earthen lamp, which depicts the triumph of light over darkness. The Garbha Deep is said to house the light of Goddess Durga within itself. The circular movements of the dancers resemble the circle of life, death and rebirth, with the world being protected by the omnipresent Durga. Since Durga symbolises womanhood, the Garba dance is associated with the onset of womanly virtues - like menstruation, marriage and pregnancy. In addition to being a prayer for Goddess Durga, Garba is also devoted to Lord Krishna. Originally Garba was known as Lasya Nritya, which was popularised by a female descendent of Lord Krishna. Like Bhavai, which pays homage to Goddess Amba, Garba invokes Amba and the deity Jagdamba, who is popular in the villages of Gujarat. Songs and verses in praise of Durga and Amba are rendered during a Garba dance performance. The movements of the Garba dance are rhythmic in nature. Garba is generally performed in a counter-clockwise direction, around the Garbha Deep. In some places the lamp is placed on the head, while the women indulge in dancing, singing and clapping in unison. The accompanying instruments (to the dance) are damru, tabla, nagara, ektaro, jantar, pavo, murli and taturi. The dance begins at a slow pace and picks up speed as it progresses. Some women also carry ‘Mandavali’, which are bamboo chips wrapped in red silk cloth, on their heads, making sweeping movements from one side to another. The variations in Garba are Deevo, Ghado and Garbi. The costumes worn by the dancers are unique. Women wear multicoloured clothes, consisting of an ensemble of a chaniya (skirt), choli (embroidered blouse) and a dupatta (sash), which flows over the right shoulder in a typically Gujarati fashion. Women also adorn themselves with ornate jewellery, like necklaces, Jhumkis (big earrings) and choodiyan (bangles). In rural Gujarat, women wear kapdu (backless blouse) and odhani (head cover). Since Garba involves women, it is performed mainly in the evenings, after the womenfolk have completed their household chores. On special occasions the women often dance joyously to Goddess Durga till the wee hours of the morning.
Garba is often confused with Dandiya Raas, a dance that has traditionally been performed by males, with dandiyas (sticks) in hand. Of late though, both the sexes have embraced Garba and Dandiya, leading to a beautiful fusion between these dances. Men wear pyjamas with a round-bottomed kurta (long shirt), and a turban on the head. The traditional male Garba costumes are kediyum (upper garment), vajani (trouser pants) and colourful embroidered caps. Garba and Dandiya Raas have become popular in the West, mainly in UK, USA and Canada, and other countries that have a sizable Gujarati population. In fact Toronto hosts an annual Gujarati Dance festival. The Indian Diaspora has also helped popularise Garba among the westerners. The latter flock to Gujarat during Navaratri and indulge in ‘fun dancing’. However, this has also led to the traditional aspect of the dance becoming diluted. On the positive side, the merging of Garba and Dandiya has led to the ‘development’ of an innovative, rhythmic, quick-paced freestyle dance. The tagline of Gujarat Tourism reads, ‘Breathe in a bit of Gujarat’: it would be only fair to assume that the aroma of Gujarat emanates from the Garbha Deep, which symbolises the Mother Goddess who bestows life to the world.
The writer is a renowned Kuchipudi danseuse and choreographer