Sunday, 23 September 2007

Festival of Navratri

Navratri, as I tenuously understand it, is a Hindu festival celebrating the Goddess Amba (Durga)'s victory over the demon king, Mahishasura. The festival lasts for nine days, symbolising the nine days of their battle, and on every night people gather to sing, dance, and be merry. Apparently it's comparable to Christmas, in duration and significance and in that its origins are religious but it is now more a cultural than a religious festival.

Navratri begins in October, but whereas in India the whole festival would be a holiday, here in Australia it can only really be celebrated on weekends, so the first celebration of this festival in Sydney took place this last Friday and Saturday. Rinku invited me to come along, and, always keen to try new things and needing to unwind after a stressful week of milestone-delivery and Sarah (just teasing; having Sarah here made the milestone week much more enjoyable, but taking time off early on certainly made the end of last week more hectic!), I agreed to come on the main night, Saturday.
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I arrived at the venue, a leisure centre in Liverpool (which has a large Indian community), early, which means on time but not fashionably late. I hadn't been sure what to wear - not knowing whether the event would be traditional, formal, or contemporary. I decided upon simple but colourful, and as the mostly young adult crowd arrived I realised I fit in about as well as I could hope without wearing the traditional Gujarati dress: the men wore long brightly coloured and patterned cotton tunics, cut to fit closely but reaching down past the knees (and slit partway up the sides for freedom of movement), often with complementing trousers if not jeans; and the women wore elaborate and varied traditional dresses. Rinku was beautiful in embroidered lace of dark, russet colours, and her husband Mayoud cut a fine figure in an understated, subtly embroidered pale gold tunic.
I only saw a handful of other foreigners there (in Sydney, you get used to being a foreigner in your own country!) in a sea of Indians. Unless someone was speaking specifically to me or another English-only-speaker, the language of choice was (presumably) Gujarati. Everyone was exceedingly friendly and more than happy to talk about the celebration, or to explain what sort of food I'd just ordered from the stalls!

Everyone took their shoes off before entering the great big dance hall, a sports hall with stadium style seating from which Rinku suggested I sit to watch the first dance. So after we ate and the sound of music began drifting to us outside, we went in.
At one end of the hall, opposite the stadium seating and on a stage, were half a dozen musicians and singers and seats for special guests. In the centre of the dance floor was a large painting of Amba on a sort of shrine, around which the dances would take place. I took my place in the seats, which was where mostly the older people and parents with young children were. Slowly, in trickles that turned into streams, people came in to the hall and started to dance.
Rinku had told me that they would start slowly and deliberately, dancing in concentric rings around the central shrine, and pick up speed as more and more people joined the dance, until it became a chaotic dervish. I had suggested, naively, that I might join them after the orderly dance had broken up, when a newcomer wouldn't disrupt the dance's earlier precision. Mayoud relayed this to Rinku with quiet but somewhat disconcerting amusement, though Rinku sounded like she thought that was a good idea.

And they did start off slowly and gracefully, with hundreds of people and the sea of dancers swelling with every passing minute. It was amazing to watch from the grandstand. It was incorrect to imagine that there was one choreographed dance that everyone would perform in neat lines, but it was far from chaotic. Rather than concentric rings, streams of people swirled in eddies around the shrine, currents forming and breaking as they spiralled in and out. You would pick out an identifiable current of people dancing together in step, only to watch it seamlessly merge with another, or witness a new stream break away. Each stream would seem independent, and yet somehow the sea as a whole surged together, understanding collectively how the music ebbed and flowed. People knew when to clap, when to sing, when to pump their arms up into the air, and when to swirl backwards in the opposite direction before rolling on again, all in a riotous sea of brightly flashing colour.
It was very apparent that even as the pace quickened and eddies formed and broke with increasing rapidity, that there was no way I could join in now; as chaotic as it became, everyone still moved together. So I contentedly sat and watched. The first dance would have lasted for the better part of an hour, the musicians playing and singing the entire time.

When it stopped, groups of friends sat down in circles across the dance floor, or went outside for the cooling breeze and refreshments. The other guests I'd been sitting with, also Rinku's acquaintances, took their leave and bid us goodbye. I wondered if it was over, but it had only just begun. The singers and dancers soon had their breath back and were ready to go it again.
This time I let myself be convinced to join in, with equal parts enthusiasm and reluctance! The time to join in was definitely at the beginning, when things moved slowly, but I wanted to practice the steps outside the main swirling circle first, so that I wouldn't crash into everyone. Rinku and Mayoud would have none of that, however. The only way to learn, they insisted, was to jump right in. I have to admit, I wasn't getting very far trying to mimic the steps from the sidelines, but I still wish I didn't bump into quite so many people and I still wish that Rinku didn't push me right into the middle of it all! Surely the outer currents would have been easier to stay abreast in, but once you're drawn into the swirling whirlpool, you can't do anything but be swept spiralling inwards.

This dance was the Garba, and thankfully the first stream of dancers I joined were performing a simple series of steps that carried them consistently onwards - so while I was struggling to match the steps, at least I only had to keep moving forwards to avoid disrupting the flow. And the steps were fairly simple, though I certainly couldn't match the flair and grace with which everyone else performed them. The steps were all alternating chasses - one-and-two, three-and-four - some spinning, some taking a half turn and going backwards, but at least always moving in the same direction around the floor. After a while I was congratulating myself on getting the hang of it, when the stream I was in broke up and dispersed and I found myself standing alone like a rock around which the currents swirled, and against which occasionally crashed! I made my way with as much aplomb as I could manage - which is to say, not very much at all - to the edge of the dance hall, where I sought refuge with a couple of other guests. Their Indian host had been teaching them as I wished Rinku and Mayoud had done for me :p - in the safe shallows around the edge of the floor - and they were about to join in a more complicated dance. I'd been watching those steps and I thought, what the heck, I can do that, so I joined them. And again, I thought I was doing alright, and other people were joining our flow, and I was having a lot of fun, until finally the pace increased so much that we were broken up again and again I was washed gratefully ashore!

The third dance was the Dandiya. This was performed with two short thin sticks, about half a metre long, metal and wood, one for each hand, called dandiya. Dandiya symbolise the swords that Amba fought with, and dancers spin them and clack them together in time with the music and the steps. This dance was much more flexible and individualistic than the Garba, danced in smaller, independant groups and as such was simpler for a novice to join in without disrupting the dance as a whole. It had an interesting quirk of its own though - the music was common time, 4/4, but there were five steps in sequence to each cycle, each step one beat, so that the start of each cycle was offset by one beat from the last. That took some getting used to. The version we danced, we danced in two facing lines, each person facing their partner (or symbolically, opponent) and rotating the lines after each cycle like one of our folk dances. You would clack dandiya once, twice, back off, and finally clack once more before spinning on to the next person to do it again. It actually reminded me a lot of kendo exercises!

The last dance - I don't know if it had a name - was casual and impromptu and easy to join in, it didn't really matter what you did. There were elements reminiscent of conga lines, and cossack dancing, and jigs, and, I think, just whatever people could think up at the time. A good way to wind down the night, after close to 5 hours of dancing!
I thoroughly enjoyed the night, it was a fantastic experience. It's the sort of festival I know Melanie would love - delicious food and a good deal of melanie-dancing (and I think she would like being able to whack Brett with dandiya!).
And to think, they're all going to do it again every few weekends, until Amba finally defeats Mahishasura!


melanie said...

tuesday, 25 september, 2007 16:40 MAT

*gasp* melanie dancing ?!?!? does that really exist (outside our loungeroom) ??

that sounded like fun, yum, and very beautiful.

,` )

Brett said...

Any word on when you may be posting another blog entry? :P