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Dancing with the Goddess: Ras-Garba Traditions of GujaratDirected by Purnima Shah. 2011. 72 minutes.
In Gujarati and English w/ English subtitles.

Study areas: Dance, Gujarat, India, mother-goddess worship

Dancing with the Goddess

Mother goddess worship pervades the cultures of Gujarati-speaking Western India and the global Gujarati diaspora, reflecting a deep-seated respect for power of fertility and the fundamental importance of the feminine creative force in the South Asian subconscious. No matter how technologically modern or foreign the context, Gujaratis celebrate goddesses with song and dance at weddings and other important lifecycle events, but these performances are particularly elaborate during the nine-night autumnal goddess festival Navaratri. The numerous and diverse communities of Gujarat have articulated unique amalgams of music, choreography, and costume, some of which Purnima Shah documents in this film. In the words of the narrator, the film provides “a survey of Navaratri performances in different regions of Gujarat.”

Garbā and rās present the two most important choreomusical forms encountered during Gujarat’s Navaratri celebrations. Garbā (a combination of dance and song) offers the most common form of public mother goddess worship, the word deriving from “garbhā” (“womb”) and most often represented in performances by a perforated ceramic pot (garbo) with a lamp inside (“garbhā dīpā”), a symbol for the miracle of life. The song texts praise the mother goddesses prevalent in Gujarat, sometimes naming them specifically (or by epithets) and, at other times, broadly referring to them as though a single entity.

Where women predominate in garbā performances, men figure prominently in rās with its stylized martial gestures. Rās possibly evolved from the epic historical poems, rāsos (e.g., the Prithviraj Raso, which tells the story of a famous Rajput king) and in modern practice often celebrates the multifaceted male deity, Krsnā. Instead of swords, dancers wield brightly painted dandīā (“sticks”) and, with each spin, they face another dancer, crossing dandīā with them before both spin away.

Devotees perform garbā and rās in circles that in domestic and communal contexts expand or contract as people join and depart. For garbā, the dancers often don special costumes festooned with pieces of mirror and glittering metallic fragments that reflect the light of the lamps. As the women sing and spin, the exhaustion and effects of fasting can overtake them and, in some occasions, individuals perceive a goddess dancing among them. Indeed, some goddesses are indeed local and even familial.

Garbā and rās have become incredibly popular in modern Gujarat with celebrations in every Hindu neighborhood and massive displays in parts of major cities. The performance of garbā and rās occupies such an important place in the communal consciousness that many major towns and cities in Western India feature judged competitions. Troupes of performers rehearse intricate choreographies and sew eye-catching costumes, searching for the most authentic expressions of an idealized preindustrial Gujarat in a bid to win the favor of judges. Ironically, however, as they seek to invoke ancient ideals of traditional garbā and rās, they move further from anything that resembles the modulated chaos of a communal ceremony. In competitions, dancers don identical costumes and work out sophisticated variations on the simple grave-vine steps of village performances. The results are urban recreations of imagined rural ideals. Indeed, garbā and rās have become a way for city dwellers in an economically successful state to reimagine a bucolic past.

Dance serves as the focus of Purnima Shah’s cameras and she has compiled with Josh Gibson some spectacular examples. The most dramatic difference between this film and similar documentaries comes in the use of a camera boom that they put to great use to show the intricate internal steps, beginning at the ground-level and rising over the dancers as they circumambulate and create complex patterns. The quality of the photography—the color and the detail—makes for a rewarding viewing experience.

Shah has captured some remarkable examples, such as men in a Jamnagar neighborhood reciting, singing, and dancing a male version of the dance (garbī) and a group of Ahīr women in Ratnal, Kacch performing a remarkable variation of garbā. She has also included an example of one of the most elaborate displays accompanying the dance, the towers of lamps carried by women in Balisoma, Mehsana District. But the film also includes carefully staged performances, filmed in daylight (communities dance garbā and rās during the cooler hours of the night) on the platform in front of the picturesque Sudama Puri temple outside of Porbandar. Another segment features bullock carts as a backdrop in a Bhavnagar village, rather than the tractors or trucks that one might normally find. Shah presents all of this with deep respect.

In contrast, when the film includes footage of modern urban performances, along with an interview with a renowned performer, the producer chooses to denigrate these practices as an abasement of “ancient regional cultural practices.” Rather than recognizing that much of her film is modern in some way or the other, she presumes that the costumed performances she presents are somehow more authentic, simply because the musicians do not use synthesizers. The familiar theme of an idealized past giving way to a degenerate present pervades the film.

Apart from these distractions and a narrator who never quite grasps how to pronounce the word “garbā” (and a number of other Gujarati words), the video provides remarkable examples of these traditions. She has interlaced the film with musical performances and talks (again, staged) in an attempt to explain these traditions to generations both in India and abroad. The video would be well-served by an annotated booklet either in paper or digital form to tell us more about these performances, such as when they were recorded, who the performers are, and other features that an ethnographic film might include.

Gordon R. Thompson is Professor of Music, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, New York where he teaches courses in ethnomusicology on the musics of South Asia, British popular music, and the media. His doctoral research in Gujarat, Western India considered the relationship between values and music patronage in the context of the former ruling castes and the merchant middle class. He has published on the role of music in the identity of the traditional bards of the region (Cāran's and Bārots) as well as on the performance of garbā and rās in the Gujarati diaspora. His most recent research has been on the British popular music industry of the 1960s.

Dancing with the Goddess is available directly from the filmmaker.

For inquiries contact Purnima Shah, 





Last Updated: October 16, 2012

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