Today marks the first day of Navratri, a yearly celebration worshipping strong female Hindu goddesses each representing their own divine strength. The 9 nights are celebrated by performing folk and traditional dances called Garba and Raas. You can find out more about this on the link below.
When I was younger, this used to be something I planned my assignments and homework around, looking forward to dressing up each night and taking part in the traditional dancing as the beat of the Dhol (drum), tabla, keyboard, manjeera, and the rhythm of the other Indian musical instruments played by talented musicians simultaneously, with the harmonious singers as they sang in tune. Getting lost in this atmosphere as everyone sang and danced and moved around the circles to take part in different styles of Garba, moving elegantly and gracefully, slowly picking up speed as the music got faster and faster and everyone’s energy was in high spirit.
As I slowly started losing my sight year by year, it took away my ability to take part and I made every effort to see how long I could go on for. Soon I started bumping into people, getting confused with which circle I was in and I wouldn’t be able to keep up to the speed. As more and more people joined in, the crowd would get too much for me to handle and soon I would start to feel dizzy, losing my sense of bearings and beginning to feel disorientated. I even got my Mother in Law to wear a darker shade of saree to help me see the contrast for me to then follow her. Even this solution slipped away. I haven’t played Raas for around 15 years.
Getting dressed up in traditional Indian outfits, was a challenging process in itself. Finding matching jewellery and other accessories that complete an outfit, not just for myself but for my 2 daughters is something that used to cause lots of stress and anxiety and was only made possible due to the support of my lovely Husband.
Now that my daughters are much older, it is now beginning to feel fun again.
I’ve created a spreadsheet of all my sarees and divided them by colour per one saree bag. So, when I want to wear a particular saree I would tell my husband the colour it is for example my white saree, with bronze and goldwork, and he would find my saree bag for me that contained all my bronze work sarees in them. In my spreadsheet, it will have additional information such as the saree bag number and the additional information, such as matching underskirt, bangles, what jewellery I normally wear with that particular saree and describe them briefly. Then all that is left, is finding a matching Bindi, Shawl, handbag and sandals.
Where my vision has deteriorated over time, the thought of going through this process for me and my daughters and the fact I am not even able to take part in Garba and Raas filled my mind with sadness and anxiety. I mean, going through the whole putting an outfit together, and then just having to sit and not being able to take part myself, or see others play with passion, I can’t even get involved in conversations properly as being in a loud busy environment makes me feel even more lost in my surroundings. For the sake of my daughters to go and getting involved and enjoying the tradition is what kept me motivated.
I love to meet people I haven’t spoken to in a while. In the last few years, due to people reading my blogs and Facebook posts, it has encouraged people to come and introduce themselves to me which has been very helpful and some even ask if they can assist me,
Reminiscing about Navratri 3 years ago, sounds of the Indian musical instruments started and traditional songs soon graced everyone and invited us all to start playing Garba. I did play at the beginning, whilst the pace was slow enough and the floor only had a few circles going around. Soon, the speed picked up, more circles with different styles dancing faster and faster, spinning around, the music beating faster and the singing in correlation. Having no choice but to come out, I sat lost in my own thoughts absorbing the environment I was in. Almost reminiscing about the days I would play right till the end.
Our first Navratri as a duo in 2018 went really well. Colin, my guide dog, attended with me and my family for the Navratri celebrations. People came to say hello and introduced themselves and ask if they could stroke Colin. This was great and they didn’t just start playing with him without getting permission first. It is really important not to pet, stroke or play with Guide Dogs when they have their harness on and at all times to ask the owner first. The evening went really well, better than expected. Colin even got a mention by the President of the Committee as a special guest, participated in Garba with me and we even got to do the Aarti (prayer).
Since I have become more confident living with my sight loss, accepting and sharing my experiences and not afraid to inform others how best to support me in different situations, I am now able to enjoy and actually play and take part in these dance rituals.
I now am happy to play Garba by holding on to someone’s arm and I don’t feel embarrassed about other people’s reactions. Of course, this makes it slightly difficult to do the hand actions and clapping in rhythm, however, with one hand, I can hold onto the person’s arm in front of/next to me and with the other hand I can click my fingers in rhythm. My feet allow me to play, as slow or as fast as the rhythm increases.
Sadly, this year’s Navratri cannot take place in its usual form, but I will be certainly enjoying playing Garba at home and enjoying all the online events. Hopefully next year, we will all be able to enjoy playing Raas Garba in its traditional form and I can continue playing, having found an accessible way for me to take part.
Happy Navratri to all that are celebrating.
Written by Bhavini Makwana
Chair – BAME Vision