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Raas-Garba Rocks the Bren Events Center

Standing at the ticket window at the Bren Events Center, the gentle jingle of bangles accompanied the sounds of Indian dialect. The voices belonged to a cluster of women dressed in multi-colored saris. Inside the Bren, a table was selling drum stick-looking items called dandiya.

In the gymnasium portion, a stage was set at the back expanse of the gym floor. In the middle of the basketball court was an umbrella shading a deity. A hush came over the crowd as the live band began to play a respectful hymn and people stood, giving their full attention to the goddess that was being honored in the middle.

This is the Hindu celebration of Navratri that takes place at the end of the Indian lunar calendar. Traditionally, Navratri is celebrated for nine days. The celebration falls on different dates each year but this year, the festival was held on Sept. 25 through Oct. 3.

International Swaminarayan Satsang Organisation (ISSO) Shree Swaminarayan, an Indian Temple in Norwalk, hosted three different Saturday events and one of these celebrations took place at UCI’s Bren Events Center on Oct. 4 from 8 p.m.-1:30 a.m.

“The actual dates don’t matter,” said Aakash Master, an ISSO volunteer. “It is the fact that we are here celebrating near the actual nine days of Navratri.”

As the hymn had finished, the atmosphere of the Bren suddenly lightened. The music shifted into lively beats of deep drums, accented by loud cymbals, that followed the quick tempo of the Indian songs. The gym began to quickly fill with people, who began to perform a repetitive eight-count dance.

According to a participant, Sejal Petal, the goddess Durga represents power and strength. The dancers honor her with vigorous dances to receive this strength and power.

Hindu beliefs are deeply rooted in the ideas of cycles and rebirth. To symbolize this, the traditional dances create a circular formation around the statue of Durga. Petal said that it is required to have no shoes on to show respect.

I remove my shoes and jumped right in to one of the many dancing circles that had formed around the multi-colored umbrella.

“It is like entering a temple. The deity is present in the space, so you have to show respect to that sacred ground. Plus, it makes it so much easier to dance!” Petal exclaims with a smile.

The high energy dances known as garba and raas are actually specifically choreographed to dramatize an Indian epic, a battle that lasted nine days between Durga and a powerful demon named Mahisha.

Garba focuses on arm movements and clapping. Raas on the other hand, deals with dandiya sticks. Dancers tap their dandiya with another dancer in a different circle to create the rhythm of the dance. In India, this is a way to for unmarried men and women to create a connection in a very conservative day-to-day life.

Different movements were happening in each circle. I saw differing degrees of difficulty of the movement throughout the rings. Men had a very crisp style of the steps, while the women had a more soft, fluid interpretation. I even saw some of my Indian friends teaching people the steps.

Neena Master is the daughter of Natoo Patel, the organizer of the event and former president of the ISSO. She states, “This is not Bollywood, this is traditional folk dancing.

We receive about 2,500 participants during these events and in the last five to ten years we have seen a growth in non-Indians attending the event. Anyone is welcome to come enjoy our culture. Garba and raas are still a serious religious event, but there is definitely now a trendier social aspect to it.”