Raas Garba, Anyone?

Pick a partner, click your sticks and join the fun.


Motel owners, housewives, MBA graduates, pharmacists, grandmas, students and doctors are all in a tizzy. Navratri is coming to town and they need to hone in on their dandiya skills! Young girls are looking for the most colorful costumes and the guys are looking forward to the social interaction in the huge dandiya raas tents as thousands and thousands dance, not in Gujarat, not in Mumbai but in the US of A.

The farmers in the villages of Gujarat would be stunned to see the dance of their ancestors recreated in America, down to the costumes, the rhythms and the lyrics, which have been passed through the ages. Both Garba and Dandiya Raas, Gujarati folk dances, have taken staunch hold in the New World, handed down by grandparents and parents in a ritual that is part religious, part cultural. Indeed, there is no incongruity in a heart surgeon in Ohio or a mathematician from MIT picking up the dandiya sticks and breaking into these rustic dances.

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 Smita Amin Patel, who lives in Boston, Mass., and is an educator in the folk arts of Gujarat. “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.”

Amin Patel, who also sits on the Board of Overseers at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, says keeping the Gujarati culture alive has been a mandate for The Federation of Gujarati Organizations in North America (FOGANA), the umbrella organization of all Gujarati groups, of which she was past president. Using such tools as folk dancing, which is an integral part of any celebration in the Gujarati culture, Fogana introduced folk dance competitions in various regions that culminate in the grand finals in a North American city.

This year Fogana is celebrating the silver jubilee of the North American Raas Garba and Folk Dance Competition with over 600 young participants at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark.
“It’s the Super Bowl of Raas Garba,” says Smita Miki Patel, a choreographer (no relation to Smita Amin Patel – Smita and Patel are both common Gujarati names) who has a dance school in Edison, New Jersey called the India Performing Arts Center. Her students have often participated in and won the regional Fogana competitions. Ask her why Garba is so important, Miki Patel, who came to New Jersey from Bombay in 1981, says, “It’s very dear to all the Gujaratis because it’s worship of the Goddess.”
Indeed, the word Garba is derived from the Sanskrit word Garbadeep, which means a light inside a pot and represents the Almighty shining through the perforations of the pot, which symbolizes the universe. The garba tradition revolves around Shakti-Ma or Amba, the Mother Goddess, and garba or the clay pot also represents the womb and fertility. It’s a very meaningful ritual for females because it honors the Goddess and also their own ability for creation.

In earlier times only male priests were allowed to conduct religious ceremonies so the women, for their part, conceived these vratas or rituals to partake of this time of religious activity. Says Amin Patel, “It’s about parampara, the female lineage that goes back to eternity, before memory, and it’s been passed down to the females through generations.”

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 Amin 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.”
Garba, the state dance of Gujarat, dates back to the Vedic Shastras and its essence requires it to be performed in a circle with claps and clicks.

Dandiya Raas was performed 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 Amin 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 Amba, in Dandiya Raas, both men and women participate, moving in two circles in clockwise and anti-clockwise directions, clicking dandiya or wooden sticks with changing partners.
As the dandiyazone website explains it, “The song sung on the occasion is essentially an amorous one. Raas is a very energetic, colorful and playful dance providing opportunity for acting and exchanging messages through eye contact. It is no wonder that many romances bloom during Navratri and hence the popularity of the dance among the younger generation.”

Asked about those romantic connections, Amin Patel said, “It is becoming so in the modern world – and it was so before. Obviously the social interaction is different. In a rural area it may be from a distance, here the connection is much closer, and more.” Indeed, these events have become social icebreakers wherever Gujaratis live, be it in India, Africa, the U.S. or England.

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 the guests breaking into garba and dandiya raas, to the beat of drums.

The biggest celebrations are during Navratri, which falls on October 4 this year, and the revelries go on for 10 days. In India there are big garba and dandiya raas parties in towns and cities, often with major dandiya performers joining in. In the United States, the celebrations are usually reserved for weekends.

Raas Garba performances and celebrations are held in many venues from huge catering places to high school auditoriums. The biggest Navratri celebrations are held in Edison, NJ, where thousands turn up on three weekends for dance, music and socializing. These events always highlight a major dandiya performer from India, and Phalguni Pathak, the Queen of Dandiya, is a major crowd puller. This year the Indian Cultural Society of Union is holding one of the largest events in Elizabeth, NJ.

Raas Garba has become big business and there are performers, dance teachers, drummers, costume designers and stores all catering to this big passion. Jayesh Mehta is one such impresario. His company Aum brings in leading performers from India, touring with them all over the United States, including New Jersey, Boston, Raleigh, Chicago and California. The entertainers that he brings in include The Beaters and Malhar the Musical, both very popular in India with the raas garba crowd. The performers stay here for three months, and also perform at Diwali events, since the two festivals fall back to back.
The two folk dances are a must at sangeet parties thrown during Gujarati weddings and there are special garba cards that are sent out on the occasion. These dances are now gaining new fans. “We’ve performed in so many colleges now, because India Clubs in various colleges organize garba raas events,” says Mehta.

High schools are also getting into the act, and Mehta’s group performed at the Edison High School’s India Club, Peacock Society. He says, “And now they want me to do it every year. Teachers and American students also joined in, because music is music, it has no language. Maybe they don’t understand the words, but that’s really not important.” So has this ancient dance changed in its journey over oceans and continents and does it still have relevance for the American born Gujarati children?

“In Fogana, folk arts are a way for us to reach our youngsters and make them proud of their heritage,” says Amin Patel. “Because it’s something participatory and not something people lecture you on, you can partake of it and be social with it, and it becomes a very wonderful vehicle for us to pass on our culture to the next generation.”

Having been reared with Raas-Garba, almost bottle-fed on it, most Gujarati children know it almost by osmosis. For them, it’s part of religious ritual and social interaction. The grace and confidence with which even middle-aged and the elderly join in the ever-expanding circle at Gujarati weddings and other celebrations can be amazing. They are performing for the Goddess, and feel no self-consciousness or shyness.

The children performing Garba and Dandiya are bringing their own variations into this age-old dance, influenced by Bollywood, Indi pop and western music. “Today because we have our youngsters in a western country and the influences are other music and disco, you will have disco garba and disco dandiya, but traditionally it was not there,” says Amin Patel. “Since folk art is not set in stone it is always a very lively thing that moves with the times, with the surrounding influences.”

Yet Fogana is committed to keeping the authenticity of the dances. In competitions they allow a little leeway, because it’s a stage performance rather than a ritual. Dances in the garba may break the circle for choreographic purposes, but they must immediately go into another circle.

Miki Patel says the dances have been modified over the years, but Fogana has detailed rules and regulations for ensuring authentic performances. In the folk category competition, for instance, there has to be a maximum of two props, such as hankies, pots, tambourines or the dhol, because the dances are about the joys of working on farms, fields and on the road. She says, “We are definitely trying to preserve the extreme ethnicity of the oldest garba. We are trying our level best with the styles, the lyrics, the costumes as well as the steps of the garba.”

But that does not mean innovations are not occurring. Disco dandiya and disco garba have become exceedingly popular with the youth and are the rage at Navratri celebrations. “Since five years I’ve seen big changes in garba,” says Miki Patel. ” There’s Phalguni Pathak and Bollywood music. We call it disco dandiya or disco garba. Music is livelier and faster moving. At Navratri celebrations you see the changes.” She says that while young people still like to wear loose ghagras to allow maximum movement rather than pants, they do combine these ethnic ghagras with tank tops.

In the Fogana competitions, however, these are a no-no, and only typical Gujarati costumes are used, just as the music and lyrics are also authentic. Says Miki Patel, “You cannot mix western music, and Bollywood lyrics are out of the question. The instruments used are drums, manjira, kartar and harmonium.”

The raas garba trend is also moving out of the Gujarati community to the larger Indian community and many Indian dance schools now teach these folk dances along with those of Rajasthan, Maharashtra and the South. The Nartan Rang Dance School of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in New York took home six awards in the regional Fogana competition in Marlborough, Mass. Swati Vaishnav, who teaches folk dances, semi classical and movie dances at this school, says many students learning raas garba comes from all parts of India.

She says, “It is very vigorous and kids enjoy the rhythm. Garba has varying rhythms – fast and slow – so it keeps the children very interested. It’s not only going in a circle all the time. They keep making different formations all the time. It makes it more creative.”

What changes has she seen in raas garba in America? She says that while garba has always been an all-women dance, here there’s an effort to get everyone involved and make it more interesting, so garba and dandiya raas are sometimes combined together. In spite of the modifications, Vaishnav says, “I’m just happy these kind of activities are going on in this country to keep our children aware of our culture and I hope all parents take interest and really send their children to learn all these different forms of dances and keep our culture alive.”

Vaishnav says the ages of her students range from four years of age to 45 years! She says, “They all started at young ages and have come back for repeat lessons because Fogana has now started a category for adults too, 30 and over. That’s the greatest thing they’ve done because there are so many people who are interested and this gives them an opportunity to continue.”

Sohini Sheth, 13, is born and bred in America, but is quite fervent about her dance classes and participates every year in the Fogana competition. She says, “I’ve been interested in Indian dance since I was four. It helps to know your heritage and your culture. If you go for the classes regularly you know a lot more about India and about its dances. You can relate to the friends you make, it’s fun to see the other participants as well – and it also helps in college!”

Indeed many colleges from Georgetown University to Rutgers to New York University have Raas Clubs and have major garba contests. The Cornell Raas Club is a competitive Indian dance team that is dedicated to spreading awareness of Gujarati culture, and its members attend competitions and host workshops throughout the year and have a Spring Navratri Garba in March.

Dandiya raas, with its high energy and music is a great way for Indian-Americans to gather and enjoy their culture, especially with the disco beats. In these lively gatherings even non-Indians join in, learn to master the wooden sticks and share lots of laughs and fun.

While bhangra and garba raas are both folk dances, the Gujarati folk dances don’t seem to have crossed over as much as bhangra. According to Vaishnav, bhangra’s rhythm has become so powerful and prominent in this country because it combines east and west, which the youth can relate to. In garba the western touch has not yet infiltrated. 

Amin Patel feels it’s all a matter of exposure. Young people often get their ideas from the movies, and want to incorporate what they see in their own events and weddings. She points out that bhangra is seen a lot more in Bollywood films. “If we were to have a 101 garba raas movies, I think you might see it more.”

Garba raas recently entered into the consciousness of pop culture, with Salman Khan and Aishwarya playing dandia raas in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. The recent Bride and Prejudice also had the lead couple connecting during dandiya raas. Now more Gujarati and Rajasthani folk dances are being introduced into movie dance sequences by choreographers. Amin Patel says even the rural, husky voice which one rarely heard before, is becoming popular in Bollywood movies.

While garba raas will continue to get its new twists and turns, the purists hope to keep the authenticity at its core, for these dances are so much more than social interaction. At their heart, garba and raas are about oneness with the Supreme Being, a religious experience.

Says Smita Amin Patel, “Dandiya raas and garba are performed at any celebration whether it be social or religious. When you are celebrating anything, the exuberance and the joy you feel inside always wants to make you dance.”

Photos: Courtesy Fogana

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