The nine-day Hindu festival of Navratri features traditional folk dancing, vibrant Indian attire and a special procession around various statues and images of Hindu goddesses. And the largest Navratri celebration in Southern California is set to take place at the Anaheim Convention Center, one of the largest convention centers on the West Coast, this weekend.
Over the years, the festival has attracted thousands of people from different backgrounds at venues of various sizes throughout the region. Recently, the event and its dances have drawn inspiration — and attendance — from other traditions.
The evolution of Garba in Southern California
During the festival, statues of nine Hindu goddesses are often placed in the center of a shrine illuminated by diyas. Participants sway to the rhythm of traditional music in a circular, spiral-like motion through energizing folk dances popularly known as garba and raas. Each dance involves intricate foot and hand movements along with dandiyas — a pair of wooden or bamboo sticks used to create dramatic sounds. The dance serves as a celebration of the battle between good and evil, as well as a time to celebrate the various forms of Goddess Maa Durga.
Natoo Patel, a prominent leader in the South Asian community, has organized annual Navratri events for the past 30 years at Cal Poly Pomona, the UC Irvine Bren Events Center, and most recently, the Anaheim Convention Center.
Over the past two weekends, a total of 5,400 people attended the celebration in Anaheim. Patel says his organization — ISSO Swaminarayan Temple — is expecting an even larger turnout during the last celebration of the year this weekend.
Patel tells KPCC that the celebration often fuses modern dance moves into its high-energy folk dances. At the arena, people can expect to see a mix of Western-influenced dance moves, salsa and Macarena steps. Last year, participants even included Korean star Psy's popular song "Gangnam Style" in the celebration.
Patel has noticed members of other cultures attending the celebration recently. While Hindus have embraced and adopted new styles into its traditional dances, he says it's important that festival's values remain the same.
"We need to help youngsters and parents cherish and preserve the ethnic and cultural diversity that nourishes and strengthens our community and this world," Patel said.
Patel believes that diversity strengthens the community and creates a space for people to share different cultural celebrations.
"What we have to do is continue to find a way to celebrate and share our culture with the diverse community in the U.S.," he said.
The events' diversity is what makes Southern California's Navratri celebrations special, creating a space where anyone — young or old — can join.
Honoring tradition, embracing change
Preeya Patel says she has been volunteering at her uncle's Navratri events for as long as she can remember. She says the celebrations were initially hosted at a basketball court at Cal Poly Pomona. But to accommodate the increasing number of attendees, the annual festival relocated to the Anaheim Convention Center. She said Navratri is not just limited to South Asians; It's an evolving tradition that has gained a mainstream presence in Southern California.
"Over the years, even Navratri garbas have drawn in more non-South Asian crowds that want to wear Indian dresses and learn the 'stick dance.' In today's generation, no culture is too unorthodox. People embrace these new celebrations with open arms," Preeya says.
The Anaheim Convention Center's garba is a great example of the balance between preserving tradition and embracing generational differences, she says. The dance is open to anyone of all ages, and people are allowed to join in on the fun without feeling burdened by religious obligations, she explained. The festival is not held at a temple or religious institution for this reason. Certain rules and traditions are still honored, including the custom of removing one's shoes before entering the arena in order to pay respect to the deities. But attendees are not obligated to participate in the religious aarti ceremony to worship the deities.
"Though Navratri is a religious festival, the Anaheim garbas and many other local garbas have become a social and cultural event that take place each year, leaving the religious component only to those who practice the religion and letting everyone else simply enjoy the dance and music," Preeya told KPCC.
Jane Fernandez, a 23-year-old first-generation Cuban American from Alhambra, is one of those who comes for the dance and openness of the event. This year marks her second year performing garba at the Anaheim Convention Center, and she says she plans on attending the next one this weekend.
"This is my second year attending garba. I love cultural events and garba makes me feel really welcomed, especially because people are always willing to teach me the dances. To me, Navratri means the coming together of people from different backgrounds to celebrate life and interact with one another," says Fernandez.
Student-led Navratri events
Along with the larger events organized around SoCal, local temples and smaller student-led associations at UCLA, Cal State Long Beach, and Cal Poly Pomona are hosting their own festivals. Although Navratri was officially observed for nine nights — from October 5 through the 13th — plenty of celebrations are scheduled throughout the month.
Siddharth Chauhan, president of the Indian Student Association at Cal Poly Pomona, says his organization has been hosting annual Navratri celebrations for the past six years. This year, they're donating some of the proceeds from ticket sales to a local Hindu temple, the Irvine Mandir, while keeping ticket costs as low as possible.
"We’re just trying to approach it in a way we can help the community and keep it easy on everyone’s pockets because we’re only charging five bucks for the entrance fee, and the mandir is providing food," said Chauhan.
Chauhan says garba is a community folk dance that is easy to pick up, but requires some practice. The routine involves the clapping of the hands, and the swaying of one's body from left to right, forward and back. Freestyle dancing is also the norm, and people are always willing to teach, he says.
Sonya Mehta, a junior at UC Irvine, tells KPCC that she's performed garba since she was a little girl. She has never missed a single Navratri event, and doesn't plan on missing out this weekend at the Anaheim Convention Center, either. She took her dancing to another level after serving as captain of UC Irvine's garba group, MitRaas.
Mehta says Navratri is one of her favorite Indian festivals because she is able to connect and share her roots with others.
“All the bright colors, the cheerful songs, and the beautiful statues of Shakti (Indian Goddess) make it a fun and enjoyable environment,” she told KPCC. “Garba is my escape from reality. It is a stress reliever and it provides me with mental peace.”
UCI MitRaas is one of many cultural dance groups that compete nationally with other universities and colleges.
Interested in learning how to play raas and garba? The following is a list of a few Navratri celebrations throughout the month of October:
Friday, October 18 | CSULB Indian Student Association | Cal State Long Beach
Saturday, October 19 | ISSO Swaminarayan Temple | Anaheim Convention Center
Friday, October 25 | Cal Poly ISA | Irvine Temple
Friday, October 25 | Indian Student Union | UCLA
Saturday, October 26 | Charotar Patidar Samaj | Olinda High School
Are you planning to attend a garba or raas event in celebration of Navratri this weekend? Tweet us photos @KPCC