Gujarat’s liveliest nine nights begin on Sunday, October 15, with the Navratri festivities as cities gear up for garba that symbolically celebrates femininity and life that originates from the ‘garbha’ or the womb.
In several places, Gujarat continues to preserve its pleasantly old-fashioned folk dance form dedicated to Goddess Amba making them unique even with the ever-expanding pop garbas set to music played by disc jockeys (DJs) and swarmed by revellers.
Here are some of the garbas across the state which are performed as they were in the past:
Faculty of Fine Arts, Baroda
It was in 1953 at the Faculty of Fine Arts (FFA) of M S University in Baroda that during a performance of Tasher Desh, a 1933 play written by Rabindranath Tagore, a group of students performed garba to replace a “difficult and unknown” Bengali folk dance in the original story that the dance form became synonymous with the institution.
The following year, in 1954-55, then-professor and renowned artist Jyoti Bhatt along with the students organised the first garba at the faculty. Seventy years later, it remains the only garba which is performed without a single piece of electronic equipment, including microphones, loudspeakers or commercial singers.
Students, professors, and alumni of the faculty who participate in the garba, move in concentric circles matching steps with the rhythm of the vocals syncing with the dholaks and kansi jodas (hand cymbals), harmonium, temple bells, conch shells, and Nashik dhols. The songs sung by the artists — all alumni of the faculty — are from among the earliest known garbas of pre-Narmad Gujarat.
The FFA garba starts with ‘Tu Kali ne Kalyani re Ma’ moving to other popular songs like ‘Apna malak na mayalu manvi’, ‘Maru vanravan chhe rudu’, and ‘Mehendi te vavi mandve’.
Ambika Patel, Dean, Faculty, says, “The FFA garba is renowned not just in India but across the world for retaining the traditional fervour, without adding even an electronic microphone or discriminating on the basis of caste or creed… It stands for national unity”.
“It would be absolute truth to say that the garba was conceptualised by Professor Jyoti Bhatt, who is the Bhishmapitamah of artists in Vadodara. He was joined by (his wife) Jyotsana Bhatt, Vinod Shah, Ramesh Pandya, Raghav Kaneria, Nainaben Dalal, and Kumudben Patel among others… Even today, we have alumni who fly down from abroad especially to join the garba for nine nights,” adds Patel.
Alumnus and singer Manu Nirmal told The Indian Express, “I joined the garba in 1973 and we have continued to play it the traditional way without any electronic interventions. The ancient songs not only add to the players’ enthusiasm but also fill the air with utmost devotion”.
The students, often joined by professors and former principals, are skilled at the six-step garba, eight-step, 12, 14 and even 16-step garbas according to Ambika Patel, with each step determined by the number of half or full circles the dancer takes while moving forward.
Amba Mata ni Pol
About 3.5 km away from the FFA, at the Amba Mata ni Pol, a neighbourhood named after Goddess Amba, another garba has been following a tradition dating back over 200 years. The garba is performed only by men during all nine nights as women watch in the crowd, clap to the tune and sometimes, even sing along.
The Amba Mata temple — a Ghar Mandir which is without a shikhar or a turret in a house — lights the lamp to Goddess Amba on the first day of Navratri to last for nine nights and the flame is used to light a layered lamp of 108 diyas around which about 800-1000 men dance the garba.
Another unique thing about this garba is that it is not a circle but an oblong. While there is no commonly known folklore around the all-male garba, Durgesh Pandit, the priest of Amba Mata temple, says the tradition has been carried forward for over two centuries.
Pandit told The Indian Express, “The garba started here about 200 years ago when women were forbidden from stepping out of their homes at night and we believe that this part of the city, which has traditional homes with jharokas, had women sitting inside and watching the men play the garba through the jharokas”.
“The women continue to do that to date. They just watch the men, who tie the dupatta of the Goddess around their necks and play the garba to live vocals and music… We do have kanjaks (minor girls), who play the garba as they are worshipped during Navratri,” he adds.
Pandit explains why the garba in honour of Goddess Harisiddhi, who presiding deity of this temple, is considered so sacred. He says, “The temple has a folklore from about 2000 years ago that it was built by legendary king Vikramaditya (102 BC) of Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh. He was taking back Goddess Harisiddhi from Rajpipla to her original abode of Ujjain as he was ‘restless’ after his daughter had brought her along with her to Rajpipla (in present-day Narmada district) after her marriage”.
“The goddess had asked King Vikramaditya to lead the way but not to turn back to check on her as he would hear her anklet bells (ghungroo) all the time. But when they arrived here in Mandvi (in Vadodara), the Goddess stopped to test him and, unable to hear the sound, he turned around to see her and it is said that she decided to stay here forever… The garba played at this temple is because it is considered sacred,” he adds.
The popularity of this ‘sheri’ (street) garba is such that men from other parts of the state travel to Vadodara to participate.
Sadhu Mata ni Pol
Similarly, in Shahpur, in the walled city area of Ahmedabad, men from the Barot community congregate dressed up in sarees on the eighth (Ashtami) night of Navratri at the Sadu Mata ni pol.
Local residents say the tradition is believed to have started some 200 years ago to undo and atone for a curse by a woman called Saduba after whom the Pol is named. They say Saduba had cursed the men of that area when they had refused to help her to protect her dignity. She had also lost her child, they add.
There is also a temple dedicated to her where the men go to pray seeking her forgiveness and asking for healthy and long lives for their progeny.
In many parts of Saurashtra, the region known as Kathiyawad, garba players perform athango during Navratri. In athango, eight ropes or long colourful strips of cloth are tied to a wheel atop a pole erected at the centre of the stage and dancers weave them into a colourful rope as they dance.
“This is a folk dance so its origin is not known but today. Maldhari Ras Mandali of Surendranagar and Ambavadi Kala Vrund of Jamkhambhalia are among the best exponents of athango,” says Mahendra Andani, president of Patel Ras Mandali of Latipur village of Jamnagar district.
“Adding, besides dancing skill, this ras demands the highest degree of concentration of the dancers in a group. Even if one dancer puts a foot wrong, the group won’t be able to weave a rope,” adds Andani, who was recently conferred the Gujarat Gaurav Award for his contribution to folk dance.
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