The Student Union’s Flag Room is alive with movement. Swaths of richly dyed fabric sweep through the air as the crowd moves in circles, spinning their bodies in time with the thrumming music. Bare feet patter against the floor. Hands are in constant motion, clapping and weaving rhythmically. Laughter and cries of glee flood the area.
This is Garba.
Garba, a traditional dance from the western Indian state of Gujarat, is performed during Navratri, the nine-day Hindu festival celebrating the divine feminine. In celebration of the festival, UB’s Bollywood Dance and Drama Club hosted Garba Night on Oct. 17, two days after the end of Navratri. With a crowd of around 200 participants, the club danced the night away in high spirits alongside UB students and members of the general public.
In an interview with The Spectrum, Bollywood Dance and Drama Club’s vice president, Jash Vachhani, a junior business administration and management major, explained that Navratri is an immensely sacred and holy nine days. During this time, those celebrating the “energetic week,” will make significant life decisions, such as buying a car or house.
“When we introduce this festival to those who don’t know it well, we call it the festival of joy and happiness,” Vachhani said.
This emphasis on producing a feeling of elation was one of the club’s central goals when organizing Garba Night.
“Our ultimate goal is for people to have fun,” Karneeka Golash, a senior biological sciences major and the club’s president, said.
Fostering a lively and delightful environment, the club’s e-board members highlighted the enormous role that connection with others plays during Navratri.
“Today, I’m going to meet so many of my friends, so many of my affiliates, just the people I know,” Vachhani said during Garba Night. “I’m going to meet every one of them on the same stage, and we use this Navratri, or Garba, as a bridge to socialize more to get to know everyone.”
This sense of connection not only served those already familiar with one another, but newcomers as well.
“Everyone’s very nice, very accepting,” Domenic Mazziotti, a UB alumni and first-time attendee to Garba Night, said. “They want to teach you. I’ve picked up a couple of the dances.”
Even those who feel less confident in their dancing abilities say they found a sense of belonging and joy.
“She and I kept laughing because we don’t know how to dance,” Sabrina Araujo, a senior aerospace engineering major, said, regarding her friend Achsah Shaji, a graduate psychiatric mental health nursing student. “We were laughing out of embarrassment and we’re just so impressed [by the other dancers].”
While some forged connections in a new cultural space, others used Garba Night as an opportunity to reconnect with their own Indian heritage.
“Another goal for us when we are hosting this event is there are a lot of American born Indians who are born here but their roots go back to India,” Vachhani said. “They didn’t get a chance to explore the other side of their culture, which are the roots, so they really get a chance to dive into that culture, like what goes back in India.”
This creation of a space that harkens back to India, specifically to Gujarat, is especially important for UB’s international students.
“Because of COVID-19, [many of us] can’t go back to our country,” Carol Thomas, a sophomore international student and architecture major, said. “Because of what we’re doing here, it takes us back to our home.”
Thomas is not alone in expressing a sense of homeliness during Garba Night. Multiple attendees, including Vachhani, cited the celebration as a way to regain the community they enjoyed before coming to UB.
“Whenever we are far from home, we try to find our culture somewhere or the other,” Vachhani said.
One hardship that remains, even in this formation of a home away from home, is the difficulty of celebrating all nine days of Navratri.
“In India they have nine Garba nights,” Golash said. “We can at least have one Garba night here.”
Bollywood Dance and Drama Club members cite a lack of diversity in the Buffalo area as necessitating the condensing of Navratri celebrations.
With limited opportunities to celebrate Navratri as a community, Garba Night has become a particularly popular event, with the presale of 130 tickets, priced at $8 for undergraduates, $10 for graduates and $13 for the general public. The event eventually sold out of non-student tickets by the time the dancing began.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also increased the demand for Garba Night, after celebrations for Navratri, along with other communal events, were restricted in the past year.
Planning for Garba Night, which usually takes four to five weeks, was postponed due to changes in the Bollywood Dance and Drama Club e-board’s in September. As a result, the fate of the night was largely uncertain, but the lack of an event last year created a demand for Garba that couldn’t be ignored.
“I wasn’t sure if we would pull Garba Night in three weeks,” Golash said. “But everyone was like, ‘We’ve waited 1 ½ years!’”
Garba Night was not announced until the first week of October, when Navratri had already begun. Golash says that during this time, she received multiple Instagram DMs from people asking about the event.
Health and physical safety were still at the forefront of the e-board members’ minds, even as COVID-19 restrictions were relaxed nationwide.
“I want to make sure that everyone is safe and having a great time,” Golash said. “We do not want any restrictions to not be followed. We understand that COVID-19 is still happening.”
In order to encourage the following of COVID-19 safety measures, multiple announcements were made throughout the night to keep masks on, with food served in a separate room from the dance.
In the stress and hard work of planning Garba Night in a pandemic, it remains important to remember that the event was established to celebrate happiness and joy as a community.
“When I’m having a bad day or I’m just feeling low, I listen to the Garba songs, and I feel uplifted,” Vachhani said. “I believe that’s the power of the goddess in there and that’s the power of the festival.”
Kara Anderson is the assistant arts editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org