Captured on Film

October 1, 2008
Evolving dance: Garba can be traditional and religious or modern and secular.

Evolving dance: Garba can be traditional and religious or modern and secular.
Najlah Feanny

In 2006, Purnima Shah went to Gujarat, in western India, to research a book on garaba or garba dancing, a ritual performance that dates back to at least the fifteenth century. As she worked, she discovered that the traditional aspects of the dance were quickly disappearing. She realized that the book project was important, but she also felt an urgent need to capture the dance on film.

"I can't stop the traditions from fading away, but I can document them," says Shah, an assistant professor of the practice of dance at Duke.

But Shah had never made a film before. So when she returned to Duke, she sought the counsel of Josh Gibson '95, assistant director of Duke's Film/Video/Digital program. Gibson specializes in documentary production and experimental film. He has also studied Indian cinema and traveled and worked there extensively. His wife is a filmmaker of Indian heritage, and her parents are both well-known Indian filmmakers.

Together, Shah and Gibson applied for, and received, a $50,000 grant from the provost's Council for the Arts, which supports visiting artists and campus groups engaged in collaborative art projects.

Garba is a circle dance preformed at weddings and other life-cycle events by the Gujarati community. It is also the centerpiece of the religious nine-night Navaratri festival honoring the goddess Devi. At the festival, hundreds of people often participate in one large dance.

Early in her research, Shah visited local archives and libraries in search of historical accounts of the dance, but found very little published information. "It occurred to me that some of these regional traditions are being performed in these remote areas only and nowhere else in the world. And nobody knows about it," she says. During her own travels, Shah discovered many regional variations of the garba, some limited to a single village.

In some of the rural areas, she says, the dance appears to have retained its religious character, but in the urban areas, it has changed significantly. The modern version of the dance has been "disco-ized"; the traditional music is overlaid with a disco beat and the costumes are modernized. Traditionally, singing dominated the music with invocations to and praise of the goddess. Now it's being replaced with this flashier, secular version influenced by Bollywood- and MTV-style compositions, she says.

Shooting on the film will begin this fall, and the filmmakers hope to have the film ready for festival showings in about a year.

Shah's documentary is just one of many projects that have received funding in recent months from the provost's Council for the Arts.

The council, a group of Duke administrators, faculty members, and students convened by Provost Peter Lange to promote the arts on campus through collaborative projects, has awarded $257,000 in grants since May 2007 for sixteen projects.

The projects range from a movie-making marathon involving undergraduate students from Duke and North Carolina Central University to a residency by Vincent Mantsoe, a South African dancer and choreographer.

This fall, Kevin "KAL" Kallaugher, cartoonist for The Economist, will create a politically themed sculpture at the Terry Sanford Institute for Public Policy. Other recipients are pursuing projects in theater and music—even a podcast—or seeking to establish long-term collaborations with outside institutions such as Le Fresnoy, France's National Studio of Contemporary Art. One grant was used to commission jazz pianist Jason Moran's In My Mind: Monk at Town Hall 1959 for last year's Thelonious Monk tribute series (see "Hummable Genius," November-December 2007).