This will be for the first time in the recent history of Gujarat that there will be no garba during the Navratri, which is its essential element and which the state government has branded as the ‘Longest Dance Festival of the World’.
Gujarat government, on Friday, announced the Standard Operating Procedure for the upcoming festivities which include Navratri that begins October 17. The SOP has ruled out commercial or traditional street garbas in the state for the current year owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. This will be for the first time in the recent history of Gujarat that there will be no garba during the Navratri, which is its essential element and which the state government has branded as the ‘Longest Dance Festival of the World’.
What is the SOPs announced by the state government?
The Gujarat government has banned garba completely but has allowed a no-contact worship of the idol or image of Goddess Durga, called Ma Amba in Gujarat, during the nine days of Navratri. As per the protocol, touching of the idol/photograph or distribution of prasad is banned.
A maximum of 200 people are allowed at such a worship event which can be held up to an hour with permission of the local administration. Usually, garba events organised by local Resident Welfare Associations would not require permissions but they would have to stick to the deadlines for use of microphones which are usually extended up to midnight on nights of the garba. Large-scale commercial garba events required permission of the local police, district collector, fire department, Food and Drugs control department if there were food stalls at the venue.
What is the religious significance of the Garba?
‘Navratri’, or “nine nights” in Gujarati, is celebrated nationwide, though the festivities stand out in Gujarat due to its sheer scale and grandeur, where dancers circumambulating around the shrine to the Goddess at the centre, can run into thousands at a time, each of the nine nights. The festival involves worshipping a lamp placed in painted and perforated earthen pots, which is symbolic of the power of the Mother Goddess and denotes her ‘garbha’ or ‘womb’ that brings in a new life.
Traditionally, the Garbas began with women celebrating the feminity, divinity and fertility of the Goddess dancing in circles that involved foot tapping and claps, and the celebration of good over evil, as legend goes, the destruction of Mahisasur by the Goddess.
In Bengal, the last four days of Navratri are celebrated as Durga puja. The garba on the penultimate night of Dussehra traditionally would go on all night but has been restrained lately. This year October 25 marks Dussehra while Vijaya Dashami will be celebrated on October 26.
“The significance is that the woman (Goddess) is at the center of the circle of life as new life originates from her. A circle has no ends, and so the garba is always performed in a circle to denote that life begins, ends and sees rebirth as well. The lamp in the garbha signifies that the Goddess drives away darkness and replenishes the world in those nine nights,” says Dhruti Mankodi, who has been singing for over 30 years at MS University’s famous Fine Arts Faculty Garbas which continue to be played without microphones or loudspeakers, on traditional instruments and vocals.
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Slowly, it turned into a festival of merriment for anyone who joined in the dance — right from children to senior citizens. Saurashtra also has traditional male-only garbas in some districts.
Garba being a Gujarati folk form is a must at weddings and almost any celebration, and therefore Navratri without garba cannot be imagined.
What is unique about Navratri in Gujarat?
The Sheri Garba, celebrated after sundown and unique to the Navratri festival in Gujarat, is marked by rhythmic circular dancing to the backdrop of the dhol. In the 1980s, the festival began to be commercially organised in hired party plots becoming ticketed events, and the dance multiplied into concentric circles of young men and women.
Gradually, it started attracting corporate houses for its branding, and tourists, even NRIs from across the world. The scale of the garba has only grown roping in sponsors, event managers, DJs and professional musicians, and the garba grounds today open with food courts as large as the dance floor to ensure nine nights of sheer entertainment and business. Preparation for the festival starts six months in advance sometimes, with the opening of garba training classes, booking of the grounds, caterers, and other logistics. The Gujarat government too started hosting a garba titled ”Vibrant Navratri” since 2004.
Hiren Bhatt, secretary of Gandhinagar Cultural Forum, a noted Garba organising group in Gandhinagar, said there is a huge population of NRIs or NRGs who plan their holidays for Navratri. “In Gandhinagar alone, there will be minimum 100 families who stay abroad and come to the state capital for Navratri every year,” Bhatt said.
The garba has also become a metric for the state to brand itself as “safe for women”.
The United Way of Baroda in Vadodara, which sees 30,000 participants at any given time of the nine nights and an additional 15,000 ticket-holding audience, is considered among the larger garbas of Gujarat.
Participants too prepare well in advance matching the ghaghra-cholis with jewellery, one for each night, some vying for the prizes at the end of the festival for the best performances.
Why can’t Garba be played in times of Covid19?
The medical fraternity had been against organization of Garba in Gujarat during COVID-19 pandemic since the beginning. The Ahmedabad Chapter of Indian Medical Association (AMA) had written to Chief Minister Vijay Rupani: “…We doctors have been working day and night without rest to fight this Pandemic and to treat the patients as front line warriors. It would be catastrophic if such social gatherings are allowed. Though, rules and regulations are put up, people hardly follow them. There will be no social distancing and may be no proper mask adornment. This would in turn increase the rate of infection and we would be putting so many lives in danger.”
The representation also cited the government action curbing social gatherings during festivals such as Lord Jagannath Rathyatra, Eid, Muharram, Ganesh Utsav, Janmashtami etc. and added that ‘it helped controlling the pandemic to a great extent.’
Health experts say that the risks posed in holding a garba are too high in times of Covid 19. Medical Officer of Health from Vadodara Municipal Corporation Dr Devesh Patel said, “Playing Garba will involve a lot of energy and respiratory air exchange. Mask will not allow exchange of air easily and there is a chance of suffocation due to exertion.”
However, on the same day it banned Garbas, the Gujarat government issued SOPs for conducting political rallies and campaigning for the bypolls to eight assembly seats scheduled on November 3. Congress leaders in Surat like corporators Dinesh Kachhadiya and Jyoti Sojitra, while calling ban on garbas “appropriate”, questioned how have political rallies and campaigns been allowed.
How much is at stake commercially for the nine days of the Garba festivities?
According to organisers, garba festivities run into a commercial business of over Rs 7,000 crore annually. This includes the profit of large commercial garbas and allied businesses like decorators, caterers or individual food stalls, lighting, sound systems, LED screens, singers and orchestra, security personnel, housekeeping staff hired for grounds, parking agencies providing manpower and valet services.
Hemant Shah of United Way of Baroda, which has been organising Garbas for 33 years, says, “United Way NGO is looking at a loss of the Rs 5 crore income we have every year from the Garbas”. He estimates at least 1000 commercial garbas across Gujarat of which at least 500 are large organisers. “Most of us spend at least Rs 2-3 crore for organising the garba, which goes directly to the businesses providing logistics or manpower. For most, it is their annual income that will be washed away. We are not even calculating the loss of the garment industry and traders as well as beauty parlours when we speak of a Rs 7000 crore loss”, Shah says.
The ancillaries that will suffer will be the beauty salons, the craftspersons designing the traditional clothes, the traditional food vendors and musicians. A Vadodara trader says, “Every year, Gujarat exports Navratri outfits worth lakhs of rupees for NRIs . We have our fixed clients who come down ahead of Navratris from US, UK, Middle East, European countries, Africa and so on, where community celebrations are held. The orders run into lakhs because everyone wants new outfits for nine nights. Not a single order has come in this year and there is no way to even dispatch.” The trader estimates the loss of the garments and accessories industry of Gujarat to be at Rs 500 crore with the festivity cancelled.
What could happen regardless of SOPs?
While the government has warned legal action under the Disaster Management Act and Indian Penal Code, against those violating the SOP, locals say it is tough to skip the swirl. An organiser of a local Sheri Garba in Vadodara, who is a member of a political party, says, “Women will gather to perform Aartis as permitted. In their spirit of devotion, they may do symbolic dances in their private spaces like residential colonies or Pols (local neighborhood clusters). That cannot be called a violation. It is part of the prayer ritual and cannot be separated.”
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