For the important nights of this year’s garba, Priya Shah, a 24-year-old management student from Vadodara has her look down pat: five ornate but trendy cholis to go with embroidered chanias, those flowing, layered skirts that swirl tantalisingly as the music takes over the night; the dupattas and the brass jewellery are just like the ones Deepika Padukone had worn in Goliyon ki Raasleela Ram-Leela. But, that’s not to forget the tattoos. “Most of us (her gang of girls) wear backless cholis. We have some colourful floral tattoos to go on the waist, a ‘Love like crazy’ ink one on the back and a tattoo that reads ‘Femme Belle’ for the night on which we do the belly-dance garba,” says Shah. The tattoos are stuck on, and can be washed away, nothing so permanent that they can raise eyebrows later. The fun lasts only as long as the nine long nights.
The Navratri in Gujarat is a breathtaking spectacle, a riot of colours, and, like many festivals, it upends the crusty rules of everyday life. So it follows that for young and single people it is a chance to mingle—with abandon, and away from parental disapproval. Nine nights of the year, young women in Gujarat let their hair down, as the men make the most of the opportunity, by wooing the ladies with their moves. In some garbas, like one in Vadodara, there are nearly 25 concentric circles of dancers, with some 20,000 people, mostly girls, dancing at one go. “It is difficult to keep your eyes on one girl,” says a 27-year old student, who goes garba-hopping with his gang of friends each year. But to play the game, you need the wheels—the snazziest SUVs, the best bikes— and the smart lines, to take your dates out for a coffee shop or on long rides as winter begins to set in.
“During Navratri, young people are allowed to go out on their own. They don’t have parents watching them through a microscope. It gives you a sense of independence,” says Kshama Shah, 23, who met her husband Rinkal at a popular garba venue in Vadodara six years ago. She was the consummate dancer, her performances mesmeric and prize-winning — specially the way she moved from the slow-paced teen taali, to the faster heench and the final whirlwind of the dandiya-raas. He was the guy with two left feet. “We were still students. When I approached her, I asked her to teach me to dance and she obliged,” says Rinkal. Kshama says she felt the sparks from the start. “I had my eye on him just like he had noticed me. But, as a girl, I could not make the first move. So I agreed to teach him, but he has still not learnt the steps,” she says, laughing. Rinkal popped the question three years later in 2011. They were married in November last year.
Once, the garbas were a simpler affair. Young women and girls in a neighbourhood would dance to the beat of a dhol as an elderly woman, on a fast, sang in front of a shrine to goddess Durga. Now, they are much more elaborate, involving thousands of dancers, with people from all communities joining in. In the manufactured hysteria over “love jihad”, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad in the state has willingly taken the cue from an Indore BJP MLA’s call to stop Muslim men from attending the dances, ignoring the long tradition of Muslims taking part in garba in the state — as dancers, organisers and even dance teachers. Some of the popular garba singers in Gujarat are Muslims, like Usman Mir, who sang Mor bani thanghat kare in Goliyon ki Raasleela Ram-Leela.
Even a few years ago, the love police had left the garba grounds alone. Mohammad Abbas, a skilful wielder of the dandiya, and Farah nee Preeti Bhatt (names changed) met at a Vadodara garba in 2004, in a city smarting from the riots two years ago. But love blossomed, the lovers rebelled and got married. Preeti’s parents have not welcomed her back yet, angry at her decision to convert to Islam. “They have not been able to forgive me for marrying a Muslim, but I know Abbas is the perfect companion for me. My parents now stop all the girls in the family from going to the garba grounds. They only allow my sisters to attend the street garbas, if at all,” she says.
Abbas and Preeti are not alone. The garba ground is the backdrop to countless romances, and in the heady rush of rhythm and music, old prejudices get cast aside. Forty-five-year-old Sanat Pandya from Vadodara is a lead singer at the dances. Once at a garba in 1989, two of his chorus vocalists sounded dull, so he called a dancer, Hema, to sing along. “She sang the Maa Jai Adhyashakti bhajan in a very melodious voice and I complimented her,” says Pandya. Four years later Pandya and Hema were husband and wife. Sanat’s Brahmin family protested the match as Hema was an OBC. Hema’s parents objected to the fact that Sanat had polio. “We faced a lot of problems, but have emerged stronger,” says Hema.
Two months before Navratri, billboards come up in Vadodara and Ahmedabad advertising ways to get the perfect curve and tuck in the tummy in a matter of weeks. Beauty salons make a killing, with clients spending up to Rs25,000. Nicky Agrawal, manager, hairstylist and make-up artist at Blackk Spalon in Ahmedabad, says, “While girls get their hair streaked in colours like purple, pink and blue, they also polish their backs, the better to sport backless blouses in.” When morning-after pills were launched in 2008, the ads quietly positioned themselves around garba venues. For a state that prides itself on its ban on alcohol and pub-less culture, the Navratri is its nod to the pleasure principle — even if the loudspeakers are silent by midnight.
If the garba gets a bad rep, it is because it is a celebration with a lot of oomph. Like birds, bees, and educated fleas, the young people on the garba floor find a way to get together in ways that parents will never approve. Three months after the festival, say gynaecologists, cases of medical termination of pregnancies rise. This figure has declined in the last few years with the growing use and misuse of over-the-counter morning-after pills. Dr Shilpi Shukla, gynaecologist with Isha Hospital, Vadodara, recounts the case of a teenager with an ectopic pregnancy, who had a near-fatal experience after consuming emergency contraceptive pills. “Usually, as many as 25 customers in their early 20s come to my shop every day during garba nights to buy morning-after pills. Most of them are boys as girls are still shy to come up to the store,” says a chemist in Vadodara.The sale of pregnancy kits also soars.
But for most, it is the leela of love and attraction that brings them back every year — or the memories of it. Abbas recalls the young man he was once, with all the right moves on the floor, and how he would buy a new bike every year to impress the girls — and promptly sell it after Navratri. Sumesh Nair, a 34-year-old from Ahmedabad, has just told his son about the love marriage that began with a mistimed dandiya flick at a garba in 1998. “During the dandiya-raas, where the guys and girls dance together, Namrata hit me accidentally with her dandiya. I scolded her, leaving her in tears. I later sent her a sorry message through a common friend and learnt that she lived in a society opposite mine,” says Sumesh. Several conversations later, they began an old-fashioned romance through letters. “She was just 14 and I was 18. Once her parents got a whiff of things, they shifted their residence. I lost hope of us ever being together again. One day, she called me and we realised we were serious,” he says. Sumesh finished his MBA in 2004 and met the parents again. A storm of opposition broke out and then passed over. “Our parents gave in and we married in 2006,” he says.
Unaware of the shrill campaign about Hindu purity in her state, Priya Shah is getting ready for a finale designed on a “Turkish” theme. Her gang of girls has been practising for over a month with a professional choreographer to perfect the belly garba — modelled on the Arabian belly dance. “That we do on the last night. We will be dressed up in shimmery lehngas and tank tops, and Turkish-styled accessories that we have ordered through e-retail sites,” she says. She needs to look her best, in case a charming young man comes along.
Check out the garba magic unravel: