22 Oct 2015

Navratri - The best kept cultural secret in the UK?

What is Navratri?
Navratri is a popular nine-night Hindu festival honouring the mother Goddess as Durga and other forms. British Hindus celebrate this festival in their homes, community halls and temples throughout the country every year in autumn. Gujaratis, the 3rd biggest ethnic group in the UK flog to rented sports halls for nine nights in glittering garments and celebrate with prayers and dancing.

Hidden communities
I first witnessed this four years ago in 2011 when I was taken by a Mauritian friend of mine, himself also being a guest to the community event in Leyton. I use the word community because these celebrations are organised by cast or village origin and can be quite close-knit, i.e. everyone will somehow be related, share the same surname of come from the same village in Gujarat, a north-eastern state of now 62 million people (i.e. roughly the size of Britain). This insight would surprise any native Brit as other than small families, there isn't often much community with people from the place you live or are from, certainly not once having moved away.

This year I went all nine nights and last year, in 2014, I managed to go for eight nights. I went to different communities in Harrow, Kingsbury, Stanmore, Northolt, Leyton and Croydon. Often was I the only non-Asian there. This often perplexed me as many of attendees were British-born Asians, fully integrated into the British society with jobs, neighbours and friends. Yet here was a festival so stunning that British tourists would otherwise have to pay high airfares and expensive tour guides to see in India. Yet this is right here all over London and the UK. Are outsiders not welcome? And if they are, is this the best kept cultural experience that nobody knows about?

The Caste System in Britain
The Indian caste system lives on till this day in Britain. While the West may have focus on its negative implications such as discrimination, I saw that it's being used to hold people together, like in by party association, church groups, alumni of a university or followers of long-gone pop legends. Ask any Hindu friend of yours and they will probably be able to tell you the name of their community or sub-caste.

So if communities can be this close-knit, are outsiders welcome?

Outsider welcome?
As I was often the only non-Indian attending, people started recognising me. This year I attended the Navratri celebration of the Brahmin Society of North London held in the Jewish Free School (JFS) in Kingsbury. I went with a friend of mine who himself was part of the community. Recognising me  for attending the previous year and eagerly following the cultural and religious programme, I was offered a one-year membership with which I would pay a reduced daily attendance fee, just like other community members. This felt very validating as I had been very serious about learning about Hindusim since I started following teachings around 5 years ago but had never associated myself to any particular temple, community or family. Many Asians that perhaps are part of other communities or even religions (mostly Jain or Sikh) dropped in to some evenings but paid full price.

In 2015, more than half of the events I attended during Navratri had non-Indians attending, albeit usually just 2-3. These would be neighbours or partners (see the video below).

YouTube-ing my visits
Feeling that outsiders seem indeed welcome yet being rare, I started to document each night with a short video clip posted to my personal Facebook and to my public YouTube channel. I quickly gathered a following with people recognising me and greeting me at the actual events.
Also, I encouraged any of my friends to join me, many of whom enjoyed it a lot albeit not having heard of it before (for example Andrew in the video below)

I had numerous community members, young or old come up to me and congratulate me for my videos or dancing. I felt extremly welcome and also felt that these people felt very proud of their culture and that it was appreciated by outsiders.

By publishing my experiences on YouTube I hope to encourage others to join in with their neighbours with the celebration. Religious, cultural or even as a sport, it can be enjoyed on so many levels. Overall, I always believe that exploring other cultures, particular these that co-exist within a country is so important for peace and elimination of prejudices. I will continue to show people that overcoming initial hesitation and shyness can be so rewarding when it comes to part-taking in other people's cultural events that are just waiting to be discovered all throughout the capital and Britain.