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Best choli forward, and anybody can dance

Leena Misra writes: When the Gujarat government allowed the garba this time, with restrictions, the dance returned with a vengeance.

Written by Leena Misra |
Updated: October 25, 2021 7:37:57 am
In the ’80s, two weeks to go for Navratri, mothers in a group would go looking for chania-cholis or hand-block-printed fabric (Express photo by Nirmal Harindran)

“Watch the footwork, don’t worry about the hands,” the dancer in front would say when you barged in, and that’s how we grew up learning the garba as teenagers. Most times, you either did not know who the dancer on either side was.

But you went with the flow, till you mastered the teen tali, dodhiyu, hinch and raas, readying you for any Navratri garba. Now, of course, there are dandiya “trainers” announcing sessions, months in advance.

In the ’80s, two weeks to go for Navratri, mothers in a group would go looking for chania-cholis or hand-block-printed fabric, with oxidized jewellery to match. We danced with friends, their parents, the milkman, the “kaka (uncle)” who dropped us to school. Most nights as the cymbals, tambourine and drums hit a high during aarti, the milkman would go into a “trance”. “He is possessed by the goddess,” people would whisper, and hopefully ask him about some missing jewellery, or their children’s exams and so on. The musicians were home-grown — none of the new-fangled DJs with Punjabi pop songs or Gangnam Style, or salons offering Navratri “grooming” packages.

The nine nights of dancing around the pandal of “Ma Amba”, as Goddess Durga is known in Gujarat, meant bonding into the night, and for some, a chance to go dating. The joke was not to go by what one looked like at garba, but “love” happened. Buying a different chania-choli for the nine nights was expensive, so most would share, mix and match. (Covid has put paid to that.)

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Vadodara, where I grew up, had among Gujarat’s best-known garbas —with up to 10,000 men and women dancing in a group, in 15-20 circles, so large that those in the outermost circle completed one round in nearly 20 minutes. Well past midnight, when the dance ended, we would zip away on Scooties, our biggest worry not any stalker but the waiting hostel warden or parents. On the night before Dussehra, we would dance till dawn.

In Ahmedabad, my first garba was at a club where people piled their belongings, including footwear, at the centre of the dance to “guard” them — a shocker for one used to strangers dancing together.

While curfew times for loudspeakers later curtailed dandiya hours, things actually began to change at the beginning of the millennium when a minister remarked that abortion rates in the state “soared” post-Navratri — putting a new colour on what was an open secret as boys and girls hung out together with social sanction. Soon, condom and pregnancy terminating pills were advertising at garba venues.

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In 2003, Narendra Modi as Chief Minister launched ‘Vibrant Navratri’, promoting the garba as “the world’s longest dance festival”. While it was to highlight the state as safe for women, soon there was talk of “terror attacks”, followed by “love jihad”, prompting garba organisers to seek I-cards. Around then, many organisers stopped allowing non-Hindus entry, while police deployed “anti-Romeo squads”.

A friend from Gujarat was not allowed entry at a garba all the way in North America as she was a Muslim.

Can the garba survive all this? I have hope as I look at my 15-year-old. If Ek Lal Darvaje, celebrating Ahmedabad’s founder Ahmed Shah, remains my favourite garba song, my daughter prefers the raas. In 2020, Covid curbs left such a void that apartments saw people dance on their lawns to music on mobile phones.

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When the Gujarat government allowed the garba this time, with restrictions, the dance returned with a vengeance. The news from Madhya Pradesh of controversies around the entry of minorities was just that — a distant news.

Meanwhile, a friend based in Zurich, Switzerland, sent news about a dandiya there. She had rushed back from Gujarat for it — a dance open to all.

National Editor Shalini Langer curates the She Said column

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First published on: 24-10-2021 at 04:20:51 am
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