Garba: A modern tradition with ancient roots

Navratri garba at Ambaji temple. PHOTO: Anurag Agnihotri source Creative Commons generic

It is about time that the Gujarati Garba was listed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. In doing so, the United Nations has added even more value to this graceful folk dance that is common to so many festivals and get-togethers, from family gatherings and individual households to community celebrations.

Although labeled ‘a ritualistic and devotional dance performed throughout the State of Gujarat’, Garba is a dance of celebration at any joyous event. It is said that Garba originated among the cowherd friends of Krishna in Vrindavan who got together to take off the weariness of their day’s labor with dancing. Going around in circles while clapping their hands and singing was the basic form of that Garba. Author K.M. Munshi, in the first part of his 7 part ‘Krishnavatara’ in novel form, has described this in great detail, along with informative footnotes describing in which scriptures the references to these were found. Munshi also describes how some cowherds and cowherdesses picked up sticks and struck them against each other to form a ‘raas’.

Garba and Raas, both circular dances represent the cycle of life in Hinduism. Krishna’s presence in the Garba is the presence of the divine force in every one’s life.

In the Gujarati prayer of the ‘Ambaji’ form of the mother goddess, Swami Shivananda gives the dates of Amba’s birth as Vikram samvat 1622. The Garbas of Navratri festival are full of references to Amba coming down from her abode on the mountain and playing Garba along with other folks. It may be after that time that Garbas began to be dedicated to the mother goddess who is considered the ultimate female principle in Hinduism.

A group of men dancing the traditional garba vigorously. PHOTO: Nimesh Dusra, courtesy Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Garbas were simple and respectful till the middle of the twentieth century as inscribed in literature. Gradually, dance movements were added to the circle dance, making Garbas modern. However, the tribals of Gujarat still dance a rigorous Garba dance as a form of celebration to relieve fatigue of their hard day’s work. Modern day Garba has incorporated some of  these vigorous movements into softer dance movements. Institutions like Darpan, established by Mrinalini Sarabhai who was herself a classical dancer, now run by her daughter Mallika Sarabhai (wife and daughter of scientist Vikram Sarabhai respectively) have been teaching the traditional Garba dance in Ahmedabad, Gujarat.

Traditional rustic style of Garbas is coming back in fashion with street side public performances in London, Germany, Netherlands, Australia and other countries where Gujaratis celebrate Navratri festival.

Garba is a Gujarati word that is used for not just the Garba dance, but the Garba song and also the earthen pot with holes in which a lamp is lit every night for the nine days of Navratri festival. A lot of Gujaratis keep the earthen Garba in their altars at home and worship it and pray to it with the traditional aarati. It is only after the initial prayer has been performed that the night can go wild with dancing around in joy. Today, the Navratri festivals have thus become social group date nights. The national and international recognition of the Garba as a cultural heritage is a matter of pride for Gujaratis, and for India.

UNESCO identifies oral traditions, performing artssocial practices, rituals, festive eventsknowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe, and the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts as cultural heritage.

Safeguarding of the intangible cultural heritage is important first at the national level, according to UNESCO. UNESCO also requires countries to adopt a general policy in their planning to  foster scientific, technical and artistic studies for the preservation of intangible cultural heritage.

UNESCO New Delhi Regional Office for South Asia director Tim Curtis said, in a statement, “I hope this inscription helps ensure the viability of this tradition and inspires the community, particularly young people, to continue with the knowledge, skills and oral traditions associated with Garba.”

India’s current inventory list of Intangible Cultural Heritage includes Garba of Gujarat, Durga Puja in Kolkata, Kumbh Mela, Nawrouz, Yoga, Traditional brass and copper craft of utensil making among the Thatheras of Jandiala Guru in Punjab, Sankirtana-ritual singing and drumming and dancing of Manipur, Buddhist chanting of Ladakh: recitation of sacred Buddhist texts in the trans-Himalayan Ladakh region in Jammu and Kashmir,  Chhau dance, Kalbelia folk songs and dances of Rajasthan, Mudiyettu-ritual theatre and dance drama of Kerala, Kutiyattam-Sanskrit theatre, Tradition of Vedic chanting and Ramlila-the traditional performance of the Ramayana.

The Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity of the 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage currently has some 704 elements corresponding to 5 regions and 143 countries.



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