On July 3, Midsummer Night Swing will present Garba in the Park. In this guide for the uninitiated, the evening's producer, curator, and lead dance instructor Heena Patel of MELA Arts Connect and Payal Kadakia, artistic director of the Sa Dance Company, share a few things you need to know about this quintessential Gujarati dance experience that has been a cornerstone of their cultural upbringing in Canada and the United States, respectively.


1. Garba is a form of dance, as well as a religious and social event that originates in Gujarat, India.
Garba is a community circle dance from the northwestern Indian state of Gujarat. The word "garba" is also used to refer to the event at which the garba is performed. The dance form originated in the villages of Gujarat, where it was (and continues to be) performed in communal gathering spaces in the center of the village with the entire community participating. As with many social events that happen in rural areas, garba also has religious significance.

2. Garba is performed during Navratri, the longest and largest dance festival in the world.
Navratri, literally meaning "nine nights," is the Hindu festival dedicated to Durga—the feminine form of divinity and her nine forms, from the fierce sword-wielding Kaalratri to the smiling creator of the universe Kushmanda. This festival is observed in many ways, each unique to the region of India in which it is celebrated. In Gujarat, it is observed with nine nights of dancing as a form of veneration and worship. Starting in the evening, men and women dance late into the night in honor of Durga. Many people also fast or observe a special diet with restricted foods during these nine days and nights. And while garba is central to Navratri observances in Gujarat, it is not exclusively performed only during Navratri. Garba also is performed during social events such as weddings and parties.

9 Things to Know about Garba (and Raas)
Photo by Memories Photography
Garba during a wedding celebration in New Jersey.

3. Garba is layered with symbolism of the feminine divine and cyclical nature of life.
Garba is a dance that honors, worships, and celebrates the feminine form of divinity. The word "garba" comes from the Sanskrit word garbha, meaning "womb." Traditionally, the dance is performed by women in a circle around a clay lantern with a light inside, called a garbha deep ("womb lamp"). The garbha deep has another symbolic interpretation. The vessel itself is a symbol of the body, within whom divinity (in the form of the Goddess or Devi) resides. Garba is danced around this symbol to honor the fact that all humans have the divine energy of Devi within them. Today, it is common to have images of Durga at the center of the circle in lieu of the garbha deep.

Garba is performed in a circle (concentric circles when there are many people). The circle represents the Hindu view of time. In Hinduism, time is cyclical. As the cycle of time revolves, from birth to life to death to rebirth, the only thing that is constant is the Goddess, an unmoving symbol in the midst of all of this unending and infinite movement. The dance symbolizes that God, represented in feminine form in this case, is the only thing that remains unchanging in a constantly changing universe (jagat).

As garba is part of a religious practice, as with other Hindu rituals and worship, it is done barefoot (and on all kinds of surfaces). Going barefoot signifies respect for the earth upon which people walk. The foot is the body part that touches the earth – the sacred mother of all. The earth is imbued with generative powers and the foot is thought of as the conduit through which the vital energy of the earth travels through humans. Dancing barefoot is another way to connect with Devi.

9 Things to Know about Garba (and Raas)
Photo by Rupal Vaidya
A garbha deep

4. A garba event is comprised of several Gujarat folk dances forms and is often referred to as "raas-garba."
A garba event consists of several segments and Gujarati folk dance forms, including be taali garba (2-clap garba), tran taali garba (3-clap garba), raas, hinch, and more. The two primary forms are garba (both be taali and tran taali) as well as raas. Garba typically consists of snaps and claps to keep the beat of the dance as well as twirls, all done in a circle and performed in Durga's honor.

Raas, or dandiya-raas, is performed with sticks (dandiya) and rotating partners. The dance is associated with two Indian deities: the Goddess Durga and Lord Krishna. The dance itself comes from the staging of a mock-fight and is nicknamed "The Sword Dance," with the dandiya representing Durga's swords. The other influence lies in the partner dance that Lord Krishna performed with milkmaids known as the raas lila.

A typical raas-garba event will have four dance segments—be taali garba, tran taali garba, raas, and a potpourri of Gujarati folk forms. Be taali, tran taali, and raas segments start at a slow tempo, gradually increasing to a fast pace. The last part of the evening features dance forms and steps, both traditional and modern, which can include hinch, sanedo, and Gujarati equivalents to conga lines and the electric slide. During Navratri, garba is performed before aarti (worshipping ritual) as devotional performances in the honor of the Goddess, while raas is performed after it, as a part of merriment. Each of the dances are easy to follow along with and are meant to be performed by people of all ages and dance abilities.

Note: Thanks to the support of the India Center Foundation, dandiyas brought in especially from India for the event, will be available for free on a first come, first serve basis at Garba in the Park.

5. Garba is both meditative and a workout.
Done in concentric circles, surrounded by a community of people, garba is both a personal and group experience. With repetitive movements, the communal experience, and increasing speed, the act of doing garba can become a meditative experience leading to a trancelike state. With a segment of garba lasting anywhere from 30 to 40 minutes and the pace of the movement increasing steadily, garba is also a workout.

6. Percussion and lyrics make for great music.
Garba music is grounded by strong percussion. Traditional Indian percussion instruments used are dholak, tabla, and dhol. Today, the use of an Octopad is standard instrumentation in a garba music group, while it is also not uncommon to see bongos.

The music for garba and raas is sung in Gujarati. Two common themes of garba and raas songs are homage and prayers to Durga, and themes around Lord Krishna. Ranging from being devotional and philosophical to romantic and playful in nature, the lyrics of garba represent a variety of emotions and ideas, while also being catchy and energetic—after all the music is made for dancing!
 

9 Things to Know about Garba (and Raas)
Jim Watkins / Yerba Buena Gardens Festival

7. Traditional attire for men and women involves flowing "skirts."
The attire worn at garba is vibrant, colorful, and flowy. It allows for freedom of movement, especially in arms and legs, and also spins with the dancers as they clap and twirl. Traditionally, women wear chaniya choli—a traditional Gujarati three-piece outfit comprising choli (a blouse), a chaniya (long flared skirt), and an embellished dupatta (long scarf). Chaniya cholis are paired with glittering bangles, payals (ankle bracelets), necklaces, and belts. Typically, the jewelry is made of oxidized silver, shells, beads, and colorful threads. Men traditionally wear a kediyu and kafni pajama. The kediyu is a long-sleeved top also known as a "gathered frock." It is snug around the chest and flared around the waist and hips, extending above the knees in length. Kafni pajamas are pants with multiple pleats at the waist that balloon outwards when the wearer swirls. Today, it is common to see men wearing kurta (long shirts that extend below the knees) with more fitted bottoms. Both chaniya cholis and kediyu pajamas are elaborately designed. Traditional embellishments include mirrors, elaborate embroidery, and shells.

Heena says: But don't worry if you don't have these—simply dress in loose, comfortable clothing and you'll fit in perfectly at Garba in the Park.

8. Raas-garba is performed by tens of millions of people globally during Navratri.
In Gujarat during Navratri, the size of garba gatherings can range from less than 100 people dancing together in the common space of an apartment complex or the center of a small village to tens of thousands on several acres of land. As Gujarati migrated around the world, they brought along the community and religious traditions of raas-garba. Today, raas-garba events take place globally outside of Gujarat in community spaces, temples, high school gymnasiums, and even arenas during the festival of Navratri. Collectively, tens of millions of people do raas-garba during the nine-day festival, as well as the weekends before and after.

 

Aerial View of United Way of Baroda garba (considered one of the largest garba events in the world).

9. Raas-garba are not only performed socially, but also competitively.
Beginning in the United States in the 1980s, in an effort to pass on traditions of Gujarati folk dances to the next generation, Gujarati immigrants began organizing Gujarati folk dance competitions. Participants ranging from children to adults compete in various categories based on age and dance styles at the regional and national level. In the early 2000s, first-generation Americans of Gujarati heritage adapted the community competition to create intercollegiate raas-garba competitions. There are now nearly 15 collegiate raas-garba competitions and over 35 collegiate teams nationwide.

 

9 Things to Know about Garba (and Raas)
Photo by Ivana and Steve Photography
Collegiate raas team performing at a collegiate raas-garba competition.

Dance garba and raas July 3 at Midsummer Night Swing!