Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Garba for Girmitiya Descendants: The Changing face of Navratri Festival for Fijian Diaspora

Thakur Ranjit Singh

As a child growing up in rural Rarawai, Ba, Fiji on a cane farm, we celebrated Ram Naumi, Holi, Diwali and other religious festivals originating and associated with North India- Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. They were Ayodhya and Ram-oriented, but Krishna pooja also featured in our lives, with a mixture of South Indians as well.

Navratri (or Navratam, as some Indo-Fijians called it) for us in rural Fiji was time for Devi pooja –and that was it –just Durga pooja. We never knew about celebrating Navratri through Garba dance. This was confined to Gujarati business community of Fiji, largely settled in urban centres only. The only Garba we knew was what we saw in the movies.

The dance teacher, Sonar Chand Ngangom, with ladies elegantly dressed for Garba.
Even Girmitiya descendants residing in urban areas did not show much interest and enthusiasm in Garba/Dandia as it was considered a “Bombaiya” or Gujarati event. In fact Fiji is a tale of two Indian communities. One was descendants of Indentured labourers, mostly cane-farmers, living in rural areas, generally on the lower end of economic scale. 

The other was relatively richer free-settler Gujarati business community who came to Fiji to establish businesses from Gujarat, India. There was very limited social interactions, with Gujarati families being very highly stratified, with strong caste system, while girmitiya descendants had discarded this trait through suffering and sacrifices of their Girmitiya forebears in the cane fields. (That is story by FIJI PUNDIT for another day.)

Hence as a child or adult, I never got exposed to Garba. When my family migrated to Auckland in 2004, we were in more liberal and somewhat “westernised” Indian community where there was greater interaction with all classes and types of Indians, because of our limited population in a “foreign land”. Our festivals started being celebrated on community basis when Waitakere Indian Association (WIA) formed by Girmitiya descendants from Fiji initiated Diwali in 2000 and then Holi five years later. Today this has been emulated by others and we have huge multiple religious and social festivals. WIA also tried to expose us to Garba some years ago. However, due to lack of interest, this was discontinued.

MOTHER-DAUGHTER: Ragni Singh Chand, with mother Shashi Kala Singh.
Sunita Sharma, with her mother

Kashmin Kumar with daughter, Pooja Kumar
Then a miracle happened in West Auckland when Shri Ram Mandir, managed by Shri Ram Mandir Charitable Trust completed its very ambitious temple and community centre in Henderson in 2015. Its Managing Trustee Pravin Kumar was passionate about introducing and exposing Indo-Fijians to other Indian religious, cultural and social observations. His objective was that a Mandir should be more than just a place of worship-it should develop into a social and cultural hub where communities also socially interacted for networking and community wellbeing.

Celebrating Navratri in Gujarati style was one of such initiative. Here, the Girmitiya descendants were exposed to this beautiful, and graceful dance.

Three years since its inception, Ram Mandir has been holding Navratri and associated Garba dance, and progressively escalated its celebration, and encouraged us to embrace something different. They took a very commendable step of teaching the steps of Garba to those for whom it was foreign. I, with my wife, were such people, who leant the steps of this very graceful way of worshipping Devi in this entertaining form of dances. It also was a good excuse for exercising. 

We are thankful to maestro of cultural dances and dance teacher, Sonar Chand Ngangom, who has been present over the years on hand to teach us steps, and now I am quite comfortable with what was taught. Combining those steps with Bollywood Garba-oriented songs make very enjoyable Navratri celebrations. This teaching continues till today, every day of the festival. Increasingly the descendants of Girmitiyas from Fiji have learnt the art of celebrating Navratri in Gujarati style, with Garba dance.\

The Mumbai Raas Garbha group: From left: Sandeep More (Dhol), Managing Trustee of Shri Ram Mandir, Pravin Kumar, Lead Singer, Bhavesh Mehta, female vocalist, Rini Dadheech and Milind More - (extreme right, on organ)
This year, thanks to Shri Ram Mandir in general and its Managing Trustee, Pravin Kumar who arranged artiste from India to come here and provide live music for the whole Navratri festival. We were blessed with Mumbai Raas Garbha (also called Garba) Group from India. This was led by lead vocalist Bhavesh Mehta, supported by female vocal artist, Rini Dadheech. Of course the life-blood of any Garba is the enthralling and rhythmic drum or dhol. Sandeep More, as the rhythm artist kept us right-footing with the booming dhol. And of course, no Garba is complete without the soothing religious, as well as enthralling Bollywood numbers. And for this you need an accomplished melody artist. We were lucky to have Milind Dhotre performing very skilfully. They all combined to create a religious and devotional musical atmosphere for those dance steps that many were still trying to perfect.

The Audience 

Our people are slowly coming forward to celebrate what had been foreign for us. At times yours truly, Thakur becomes the only Krishan Kanhaiya, (male) with all female Gopis dancing, as there are few men dancing. Hope in time to come, more menfolk will join us to grace the floors of the Mandir to happily and gracefully celebrate Navratri-Gujarati-style. We are thankful to Shri Ram Mandir for initiating this rich cultural and religious enlightenment to the descendants of Girmitiyas from Fiji.

[Thakur Ranjit Singh is a political observer, a media commentator and journalist. He runs his blog, FIJI PUNDIT, and lives in Auckland]

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