From Girmitya to Garba, a generational change

Thakur Ranjit Singh

As a child growing up in rural Rarawai, Ba, Fiji on a cane farm, we celebrated Ram Navami, 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.

Navaratri for us in rural Fiji was time for Devi Pooja, nothing more.

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 and songs.

Sparing Interest

Even Girmitya descendants residing in urban areas did not show much interest and enthusiasm in Garba/Dandiya as it was considered a ‘Bombaiya’ or Gujarati event.

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 interaction, with Gujarati families being very highly stratified, with strong caste system, while Girmitya descendants had discarded this trait through suffering and sacrifices of their Girmitiya forebears in the cane fields.

Liberal outlook

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 on community basis when Waitakere Indian Association (WIA) formed by Girmitya descendants from Fiji and 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.

Sri Ram’s Miracle

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.

Teaching and learning Garba

Celebrating Navaratri in Gujarati style was one such initiative.

Here, the Girmitya 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 for whom it was foreign. I, with my wife, were such people. We learnt the steps of this very graceful way of worshipping Devi in the 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 Navaratri celebrations. This teaching continues till today, every day of the festival. Increasingly the descendants of Girmityas from Fiji have learnt the art of celebrating Navratri in Gujaratis style, with Garba dance.

Artistes from India

Shri Ram Mandir had arranged artistes from India to provide live music for whole Navratri Festival this year. We were blessed with Mumbai Raas Garbha (also called Garba) Group led by vocalist Bhavesh Mehta and supported by female vocal artiste, Rini Dadheech.

Of course, the lifeblood 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.

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.

Our people are slowly coming forward to celebrate what had been foreign for us.

At times, I become the only Krishna Kanhaiya, (male) with all female Gopis dancing.

Hope in times to come, more menfolk will join us to grace the floors of the Mandir to happily and gracefully celebrate Navratri-Gujarati-style.

Once again, Shri Ram Mandir deserves our gratitude for initiating this rich cultural and religious enlightenment to the descendants of Girmityas from Fiji.

Thakur Ranjit Singh is an Auckland based political observer, media commentator and journalist. He runs his blog, ‘Fiji Pundit.’

Photo Caption

  1. Dance Teacher Sonar Chand Ngangom teaching dance steps to women at Shri Ram Mandir on September 27, 2017
  2. Mumbai Raas Garbha Group from India (from left) Sandeep More (Rhythm, Dhol), Ram Mandir Pravin Managing Trustee Pravin Kumar (Percussion), Bhavesh Mehta (Lead Vocalist) Rini Dadheech (Vocalist) and Milind Dhotre (Melody artiste on Organ).

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