Garba grooves in Golu land
Long-time residents of the Gujarati community in Chennai recount decades of Navratri celebrations in the city and the traditions that they brought from home
A brightly decorated ground packed with over one lakh people in vivid chaniya cholis, kediyas and kurtas, all melting into each other to the sound of live music — on days of homesickness, Taara vina Shyam (a garba song) still transports me back to the best days of Navratri in Vadodara.
The festival of Navratri (you may know it as Durga Puja, Golu, Makharotsav or Bathukamma) in Gujarat comprises not only traditions, rituals and spirituality, but also unparalleled spectacle and revelry. Every night, a different form of Goddess Durga is worshipped.
A coloured earthen pot called garbo with a diya in the middle — kept lit for all nine days — is placed in front of the Goddess, who is serenaded with aarti and puja daily, followed by hours of garba and dandiya.
“The matti ka gada (pot) is like the perishable human body and the diya is atma swaroop (self-actualisation). To reach atma swaroop, there is a need for introspection that requires physical strength, for which we perform garba,” says 73-year-old Yogesh Patel, a member of Kutch Kadava Patidar Samaj, Chennai. Despite being born and raised here, miles away from his native in Kutch, Yogesh has celebrated Navratri traditionally, with his fellow Samaj members.
“When I was younger, these celebrations would only have a few people, so everyone would play garba. There were hardly any spectators then. Now, it is the same system, but there are far more people and the live garba music — which once only featured a tabla and dhol — also has violins and other instruments,” he shares.
Finding faraway festivities
Like Yogesh, several Gujaratis who call Chennai home still carry traditions, rituals and stories of their experience. Some, in fact, have discovered the spirit of community revelry away from home. Shila, Yogesh’s wife, belongs to a small Gujarati town called Talaja, where garba was played in every street in small groups. It was only after she moved to Chennai, 35 years ago, that she was exposed to festivities among larger communities.
“I didn’t play much garba in Talaja, but I’ve played much more in Chennai. I also began singing garba songs, something I’ve always had an interest in,” says the 70-year-old. The couple has been celebrating at Nehru Park for over three decades, during which there have been a few changes, notes Shila. “Initially, in my in-laws’ presence, I would wear a ghunghat. Then, I started covering only my head with a sari. Now, there are many who wear chaniya cholis instead.
One day they come wearing desi, fancy clothing on another.” Every day, the community plays a different style of garba — ek taali, teen taali, sanedo, dandiya, bhetia and more. Shila and Yogesh pride their celebrations for the devotion and dedication to authenticity but mention the touch of Tamizh flavour they have added by incorporating sundal, along with the foods of their fast — sabudana khichdi, puri sabji, and kaju katli.
Traditionally, ras garba and dandiya are performed to live, devotional songs of the Goddess. But, with changing times, new music and choreography is taking over the scene, alongside the usual. Jagruti Patel, who came to the city 32 years ago, is disappointed that festivites have taken the commerical route, and losing their roots.
“When we were young, we would celebrate Navratri as it was mentioned in the Vedas. Every society had its own garba; it brought people together. But now, everything is professionally done. Homemade clothing has been replaced with machine- made chaniya cholis; live singers with orchestras and devotional songs with film numbers,” she informs.
There may be a change in appearance but not attitude. Jagruti sees hope in the youth who have consistently shown curiosity about the reasons for which Navratri is celebrated or the Goddess is worshipped. “The first three days, we focus on losing the durgun or bad qualities in ourselves; the next few days are for bringing in sadgun or good qualities and finally, we focus on gaining knowledge,” she explains. Furthermore, there are scientific reasons to many traditions, such as fasting, when people eat only fruits and milk (acceptable foods may differ).
“Milk helps calm the body and fruits give us strength to fight diseases that are common during this time of the year,” she notes. Ketan D Shah, joint secretary of the Gujarati Samaj, echoes Jagruti’s concerns, but points out that it is inevitable when you live elsewhere. “I am 60-70 per cent Tamilian,” says the Chennai born.
“My son is also born and raised here. If you ask him, he may not know even half of the traditions. While the aarti and puja still remain consistent, the way people go out and celebrate has changed a lot. Now, it’s not only Gujaratis, but other communities as well, that take part, mostly due to the commercial aspect. In that way, people are able to know more about different cultures.”
Going with the flow
While some worry about the change in culture, others have accepted and adapted with it. From the small village of Bagathra in Saurashtra to the city of Chennai, Meena Gandhi is no stranger to transitions. The 51-year-old describes her younger days in her hometown, where only girls would play garba on a mandap (stage), while others watched the performance. Clad in different-coloured saris every day, they would practise varied styles of garba.
There was little change until she arrived here after her marriage, 32 years ago. Here, Meena adapted to a new lifestyle where men and women shared the same celebratory space. “In my village, women were not allowed to leave their homes after 5-6 pm, but here, we go to our friends’ homes around 10 pm. Even dresses have changed. We used to wear shortened saris, but in the past decade, I have gotten dresses stitched for me. You have to change with the times.
Our nivedh (the feast on the ninth day) would have no garlic or onion back home, no one here can do without it,” she says. The food — particularly nine dishes — served during the nivedh varies from family to family. At Meena’s, the spread consists of puri, aata supari, vade, diyas made of atta, kheer, ghasera (sweet) and more. While Meena continues all the traditions of Navratri at her home — installing the Goddess, aarti, bhog (offering), garbi (simple dance around the garbo) — she also accompanies her children to celebrations at the mall, where they have competitions for the same.
A marriage of cultures
Satyan Bhatt, a PR professional, is a Chennai-born Gujarati, but his roots are intact. “I never thought I was missing out. There is no comparison between the Navratri celebrations here and Gujarat. Whatever was done here, was done well and people participated with full enthusiasm. The music and dance was the same, only with a smaller crowd and timing restrictions (and untimely rains). The flavour that was brought here was modified a bit,” he says, recounting auctions for the chance to perform the aarti, something that he mentions also happens in Gujarat.
The money from the auction would go towards hosting the programmes. His wife, Parul Bhatt, owner of a catering business, was introduced to the city in 1984. The initial years were spent missing the celebrations back home and it was a better part of a decade before they began visiting garba grounds. In 2004, Parul suggested a dandiya fundraiser event for the Rotary Club — Satyan was president then — and to her surprise, it was approved. So, the festivities were hosted in five-star hotels due to Chennai’s sultry weather, contrasting Gujarat’s winter.
“Now, even south Indians have begun adopting the culture. People want to do garba in their weddings. They are willing to learn,” she shares. The Bhatts’ older daughter in the US is married to a Tamilian, and thus her celebration of Navratri is a marriage of both cultures. Gujarati food and aartis are accompanied by her impressive golu collection. “We have to ship golu dolls to her. Golu is a fun experience; she invites people and makes a Gujarati spread.”
Paused by the pandemic
But the pandemic has restricted nearly everything enjoyable, including Navratri. So, the Gujarati community awaits their chance to meet on garba grounds again. Meena says that even though people could not meet each other, celebrations ensued in their homes.
“I miss it. My family — husband and two children — would do two rounds of garba after the aarti. Friends would send videos of celebrations. Those who were in joint families were lucky,” she says. Maybe 2022 will see the return of the Gujarati festival to this Tamizh land. Till then, we might have to do with memories like these.