I have become interested in dancing recently, perhaps because I have been doing it. This November 17th is Pournami or full moon day. Planning a folk dance in my building similar to what is described below.

Add a new ingredient to festivities: dance
Group dances involve community; they involve meeting and dancing face to face

Shoba Narayan

It was at Devi Garh resort in Delwara, Rajasthan, that I got my first inkling of how Indian festivals should be celebrated. I was there in October, during Navratri. My room was on the highest floor. Every night, I could see groups of women dance on the terraces of the village nearby. They were dressed in red and gold and although I could barely hear the music, I could see them dance.

Growing up in Chennai, I had a rather poor view of Hindu festivals, save Deepavali (as Diwali is called in south India). Whether it was Ganesh Chaturthi, Ram Navami, or Karthigai Deepam, the focus was on eating the same old sweets, and visiting the same old neighbours, who you saw everyday anyway. There were long rituals and pujas which, for a child, offered little joy. Now, I realize the key difference between festivals in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere: dance.

In Chennai, we didn’t dance. Not at weddings; and certainly not during festivals. Tamil Nadu has a rich tradition of folk dances but somehow they didn’t happen in an urban setting: not in Chennai where I grew up; not in Coimbatore where my grandparents lived; and not in Salem or Madurai. When we gathered in groups, we mostly gossiped and eyed each other’s jewellery. Dance, we didn’t. I learned Tamil folk dances at school, when we performed them for “Annual Day” celebrations. Kolattam (literally meaning stick-dance) is similar to the dandiya; and kummi or gummi is like the garba. One lovely version is called pinnal kolattam, and it involves intricate steps. Pinnal means braid in Tamil. The women stood in a circle. Long pieces of rope hung from the ceiling. The women held a piece of the rope and danced in a way that the hanging coloured ropes were braided and then unbraided by the end of the dance. But these were dances that I saw on stage, not on the street.

How do Indians celebrate festivals like Dussehra, Deepavali and—just ahead—Christmas? If I had to pick one factor that makes our celebrations distinct from other cultures, it would be dance. I don’t mean the Bollywood remixes that we dance to in nightclubs. I don’t even mean Kathak, Bharatanatyam and other classical dances that energize and elevate our performing arts. I mean local folk dances that are native, unique and regional—whether it is the Assamese bihu; Rajasthan’s ghoomar; Madhya Pradesh’s matki dance with an earthen pot balanced on the head; Maharashtra’s very sexy lavani dance; Manipur’s dhol cholom in which the drum plays a key role; Odisha’s baagh naach which takes its cues from the tiger; Punjab’s kikkli which requires more skill and looks more interesting than the bhangra; and West Bengal’s gambhira, which is performed by Hindus and Muslims, all clad in lungis.

Have these dances disappeared, or are they merely absent in the urban environment? Will they disappear as India rushes towards urbanization and is that a bad thing? I have a theory for why these dances aren’t common in our cities. Group dances involve community; they involve meeting and dancing face to face. That is hard to do for us city-dwellers. This festive season, my building in urban Bangalore decided to do Indian folk dances rather than the usual Western music and beats. Although we chose common and popular ones such as a diya dance for Deepavali and the garba for Navratri, what a challenge it was to pull off. South Indians like me didn’t know the steps intuitively so it involved rehearsals before the big day. Coordinating schedules was a pain. No wonder people send out texts and emails in lieu of greetings. Hugging a friend in person and wishing them is incredibly satisfying but also logistically hard.

Dipping my feet—quite literally—into the folk dances of India taught me many things. Cultures use their bodies differently with music. Discovering why it is a fascinating exercise. Why do the Chinese and Japanese move their bodies slowly to sonorous music and why do the Scots jump, hop and skip? How do circular body movements mutate through countries and cultures. Indians, Africans and Arabs all are masters at whirling round and round, but we each use this movement quite differently. Africans squat slightly and use only the pelvic area. I once watched a dance group perform at MalaMala Game Reserve in South Africa. They were hired from the local village for entertaining tourists. Their pelvic area seemed to have a life of its own, moving faster and faster with the beat. The rest of us tried it but even the trained ballet dancer among us couldn’t do it with any grace. Yet, the African whirl is quite different from the sensual belly-dancing whirl of the Arabs. They both use their hips but differently. Indians whirl too—in Kathak and in folk dances—but our whirls are more like the Sufi dancers and the whirling dervishes of Turkey and through the Silk Route.

This Deepavali season, along with the festivity, there was a bit of soul searching about how to celebrate our Indian festivals. This could well apply to the coming Christmas holiday. Are we going to be more eco-friendly? Are we going to splurge on ourselves or give to charity instead? Are we going to follow our over-the-top instincts that seek to keep up with the Joneses (or Agarwals and Chaddhas) or are we going to introspect a bit? For all those who are doing this, I have one more suggestion and request: dance a little. Not just at nightclubs which is fine and wonderful, but also at home, within your community and your building complexes. It takes a bit of work, but the effects are magical. To dance in a group is to learn how to express and communicate without words. It is joyous and soul-satisfying.

Shoba Narayan is looking to Goa and Kerala to see if there are any folk dances that are suitable for the coming Christmas holiday season.

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