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India: Ahmedabad rising to the beats of the Garba

Feb 21, 2013

In the aftermath of the horrific gang rape of a girl in Delhi, which has spiraled into an uprising against gender violence across India, the young women of Ahmedabad have spoken: They are “ready to rise” to eliminate violence, writes Tanushree Gangopadhyay.

From the ‘baas’ (mothers) and ‘bapujis’ (fathers) to the ‘dhanis’ (husbands) and ‘bairis’ (wives), from the ‘bens’ (sisters) and ‘bhais’ (brothers)  to the various ‘phois’, ‘kakis’ and ‘masis’ (aunts) – Gujaratis of all ages and from different walks of life are ready to form the circle of life to fight violence against women. They will dance the ‘garba’ to bring home the message of gender equality and root for a violence free world for women.

Derived from the Sanskrit term ‘garbha’, or womb, this folk form is performed by forming concentric around a ‘diva’, an earthenware lamp. Explains danseuse-cum-activist Mallika Sarabhai, “It is like a sanctum sanctorum, the circle of ‘shrishti’ (creation). The circle represents the womb and the ‘diva’ or light is the ‘atma’ (soul).”

So, on Valentine’s Day, February 14, Sarabhai will lead around 20,000 women, men and children in the dance that celebrates life and Goddess Amba, the feminine divine. Gujarat Vidyapith, the historic spot of India’s national movement, is the venue of this unique mass performance. “In this community dance, women are not led by men. Dancing together on an equal platform will give both men and women the chance to take up a large space together and let the contagious, freeing spirit of dance, guide us towards a moment of solidarity where we rise up together to stop gender discrimination,” says Sarabhai, the coordinator of Ahmedabad Rising, a movement that is part of the larger One Billion Rising campaign.

Initiated by American feminist Eve Ensler, One Billion Rising (OBR) is a global campaign to end violence against women. On February 14, one billion people across 200 countries rise to end violence and celebrate equality and peace. On that day, Gujarat will resonate with people dancing the ‘garba’ in Ahmedabad, Vadodara, Surat, Valsad and Rajkot, among other places.

But why the ‘garba’, one may ask? Sarabhai can explain, “Bodies are a repository of beauty, not corridors for aggression. And what can be a more perfect way to liberate the body than to dance the ‘garba’, a celebration of the feminine form.”

According to one explanation, the ‘garba’ is performed in a circle as a symbol of the Hindu view of time. The dancers revolve in cycles, as time in Hinduism is cyclical. From birth, to life, to death and then rebirth, the only thing that remains constant is the Goddess, the feminine form.

Of the various songs that accompany the ‘garba’ – usually in the praise of Lord Krishna or the nine Hindu goddesses – Sanedo is the most popular with the crowds. And renowned dancer Bharat Baria will lead the Sanedo written especially for the event. Artistes Madhav Ramanuj, Tushar Shukla and Ghanshyam Gadhvi have written new garbas for the occasion, while famous feminist singer, Tritha Sinha, and her band will perform as will Shyamal and Saumil Munshi and their group.

Dance apart, at the garba event, Sarabhai, her band of activists and volunteers as well as the participants will take a pledge to “always raise my voice to stop violence against women. I will intervene whenever I see violence against women. I will encourage discussions on ill effects of violence against women. I will educate to stop verbal, physical and psychological abuse against women”.

Over the last fortnight, Sarabhai has been furiously drumming up support for the anti-violence campaign. She shares, “I have been interacting with youth in educational institutions like the National Institute of Design (NID), Mundra Institute of Communication and Advertising (MICA), the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) and Gujarat Vidyapith, besides various schools and colleges as well as the children in the riot-hit areas like Juhapura. We want to be inclusive, so we have a core committee of 22 eminent people from different walks of life. There’s SEWA’s Ela Bhatt, Tridip Suhrid, the Director of Gandhi Ashram, Phillipe Martin of the Alliance Francaise, Gujarati playwright, poet and social activist, Saroop Dhruv, among many others.”

In a city like Ahmedabad, which has faced horrific violence over the past few decades, the issues are very complex and require multi-pronged solutions. “Breaking the culture of silence is of prime import today. Beginning dialogues at all levels - within the family as well as among friends and in society - could ameliorate the situation and could be a wonderful path of bringing about change. I pull up boys for using sexist profanities, which virtually verbally rapes and brutalises women and girls. It is high time such desensitising speech and acts were stopped. Many fortunately agree and admit that they had never given it a thought,” says Sarabhai.

The problem also lies in the fact that where the young girls and women are now stepping out of homes, breaking stereotypes and excelling professionally, the society, read men and boys, are unable to accept this changing reality. “While women refuse to be bound by the stereotypes, there is a huge sense of insecurity amongst the men. This has brought on a backlash which is violent in nature. Even a violation, which goes by the archaic and senseless euphemism “eve teasing”, is an act of pure aggression that shrinks space for women. Failure of the police and justice system has only worsened the situation,” she elaborates.

But Sarabhai doesn’t propose that women wait for the police to defend them. Self defence is what she vociferously recommends, “Women, especially girls, need self defense skills to fend of hooligans. We have started karate classes for the girls of Juhapura, a densely-populated Muslim neighbourhood. We can’t wait for the society and the police to change.”

Gagan Sethi, founder of Jan Vikas, a group of NGOs that has fought many legal cases for the communal violence in Gujarat, agrees with Sarabhai’s analyses of the situation. He says, “The gap between the rule of law and the society, I fear, has grown larger and almost collapsed. But with such kind of activism and the youth coming on board I foresee a positive change for our city.”

It’s the power of women that Tridip Suhrid of the Gandhi Ashram, active participant of the Ahmedabad Rising, feels will be the game changer in this struggle to eliminate gender violence. “Over the decades, women have assumed leadership roles to create a non violent society and affected every sphere of life. They will do it now as well,” he says emphatically.

In the aftermath of the horrific gang rape of a girl in Delhi, which has spiraled into an uprising against gender violence across India, the young women of Ahmedabad have spoken: They are “ready to rise” to eliminate violence. “I will rise because I am tired of being scared,” screams Farheen Firoz Raj’s poster, which she has made especially for the campaign. This student of St Xaviers college, like many other youngsters in the bustling city, has lived with the scars of the horrific violence that had engulfed the region a decade ago, but she had decided that “enough is enough”. Like Farheen, through her artwork, classical dancer Amruta Sharma, who is ready to groove to the beats of the ‘garba’ during Ahmedabad Rising, also expresses, “I rise because to rise and fall is better than never having risen at all.”

Finally, it’s young Hafeez Quireshi, a financial advisor, who has a valuable advice for the men of her city. She says, “A woman brought you into this world and you have no right to disrespect her. A real man always treats a woman with honour. So prove yourself to be a real man and sign the OBR pledge.”

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