Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Woman in traditional attire performing garba (Photo by Prahlad Gopakumar)

Garba, a Circle Dance of India

While the circle is a quantifiable and concrete geometrical shape, the abstract idea of the circle has many different meanings, interpretations, and symbolic significance in Indian philosophical systems. These ideas have also culminated in varied manifestations of the concept into intangible cultural heritage. Garba is a ritual dance form where the knowledge and belief systems regarding the circle find choreographic expression. It is a social-community dance performed primarily by women in the Gujarat region in India. Performed during the nine-day Hindu festival of Navrātrī, the dance is primarily a celebration of feminine energy and an offering to the feminine divinity. It is also performed during the celebration of Sivaratri and weddings and in certain pregnancy rites.

Historical Significance

The name garba is derived from the Sanskrit term garbha meaning ‘womb’. The history of the garba can be traced back to an old Hindu legend that tells of Lord Krishna’s granddaughter-in-law, Usha. The way she danced popularized a precursor to the garba, known as lasya nritya. Traditionally, the dance is performed in circles around a decorated lamp known as the garbi. The lamp represents embryonic life and quite often a coconut would be placed atop the pot to give it the appearance of the sacred Kumbh. Often, the dancers carry the garbi on the head while performing. At the center, a representation of the Mother Goddess is also placed in the form of an idol or image. Its origin is believed to be in the worship of goddess Jagdamba. While on one hand, the circle symbolizes the divine feminine energy and fertility, it also signifies the cyclical aspect of time. The circle of life, consisting of birth, death, rebirth, and so on, is symbolized by the rhythmic movements of the dancers. Amid this time cycle is the constant, unchanging and absolute energy of the goddess. Another important aspect of this community dance is that it is participatory and inclusive by nature. There is no differentiation between dancers and spectators, and people who are watching the dance soon join in, and the circles continuously expand.

Thematic Content

Garba songs are mostly devotional and invoke the blessings of the Goddess. The thematic content for garba songs also expresses the hopes and desires of women, and it is rich in metaphors connected with nature and seasons. These song texts are an invaluable aspect of living traditions since they are an oral archive of value systems, and they define women’s social roles and behavioral codes that have been handed down through the ages. As a living tradition, the form also continually evolves, and new songs are being written with relevance to the changes in status of women today. The dance usually starts with one dancer leading the group and others follow into the circle formation and start revolving around the deity with synchronized clapping movements. The stamping movement of the feet is coordinated with the claps, and then the circle moves forward in a counterclockwise direction. The tempo of the song and the frequency of the claps increase gradually. The musical instruments used for garba are mainly the drum, harmoniums and the nal, a kind of hand drum. A dholi, or drummer, who sits in the center keeps the rhythm.

As a living and breathing cultural practice that is now prevalent worldwide, garba consistently adapts and evolves into contemporary idioms and themes. The free-flowing and flexible nature of the form also enables the community to come together, improvise and interact.