Gujarati folk dances for Navratri: Garba and Dandiya

Gujarat, India’s Westernmost state, is home to a cornucopia of musical culture. Several Hindustani classical stars, including 20th-century legends Pandit Omkarnath Thakur and Ustad Faiyaz Khan, hail from the region, which is also home to an influential branch of the Dhrupad-infused Haveli Sangeet tradition. Many of Gujarat classical and semi-classical artists have found fresh inspiration in area’s rich, celebratory folk lineages.

Garba is an exuberant dance tradition from Gujarat, linked in particular to Navratri, a nine-day veneration of the Hindu goddess Durga’s nine forms. Dancers dressed in wildly colourful outfits celebrate Durga’s power to vanquish evil, describing how she can slay demons and banish malevolent spirits. The word garba itself derives from the Sanskrit ‘garbhdeep’, meaning ‘womb lamp’, a symbol of the eternal soul, and performances often see dancers moving in rotation around a lamp or flame, backed by drums, voices, flutes, and other instruments.

Elements of the style are now performed in varying guises all over the world, as the global Indian diaspora seeks to remain connected to the artistic traditions of their ancestors. Its vibrant energy is increasingly turning Western heads too – in 2014 the Huffington Post even ran a ‘5 Reasons Why You Should Go To A Garba Raas Dance’ feature, subtitled ‘The Guest Of Honor Is Seriously Badass’ (“Durga encapsulates all of the universe’s material energy, i.e., she’s the kind of lady you wouldn’t want to mess with…”).

Dandiya (or ‘Dandiya Raas’) is another brightly coloured dance tradition associated with Gujarat’s Navratri festivities – Garba is usually performed prior to the main aarti ritual, and Dandiya comes afterwards. Performers hold painted bamboo sticks, whirling them above their heads and clashing them together in rhythmic cascades, aided by singers and drummers. They may form different-sized circle formations, rotating against each other in sequence and calling on a baffling array of footsteps – one source lists the “dodhiyu, simple five, simple seven, popatiyutrikoniya (hand movement which forms an imagery triangle), lehree, three claps, butterfly, hudo, two claps, and many more”.

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