Raas Traditions of Gujarat

in Overview
Published on: 21 September 2017

Dr Utpala Desai

Dr Desai is a scholar of the folk traditions of Gujarat.


Raas, popularly known as dandiya raas is one of the most popular folk dances of Gujarat. Associated with agricultural activities, it can be termed as occupational dancing of farmers.  Dandiya raas takes its name from dandiya, a pair of wooden sticks, used to mark time. It is performed during Navratri, Satam-atham (Janm Ashtami) fairs, and weddings in Kathiawar and Saurashtra region of Gujarat. Originally a dance tradition common for all communities of Saurashtra, it became popular in Gujarat after merger of Saurashtra with the state of Gujarat in 1960. Over time, it has gained a global appeal because of Gujaratis who have migrated across the globe. And, they celebrate these events with all fanfare wherever they are. Although origin of raas is traced back to legends connected with the life of Lord Krishna, as recorded in Puranas, it is essentially associated with sowing and harvesting of agricultural crops.

The Harivamsa Purana refers to raas (group dance) as Hallisaka and mentions specific styles of dancing like Tal Raaska and Dand Raaska. Many forms of raas throughout India can trace their origin to Hallisaka. This has been mentioned in scriptures viz. Vishnu Purana, Bhagvad Purana and Harivamasha Purana. Beginning as a form of Sanskrit drama, eventually it became a popular sport and dance. Rajshekhar’s Karpur Manjari refers to a dance in which dancers, standing in two rows dance with wooden sticks to different rhythmic patterns. From Puranas, we learn that the Yadavas arrived in Gujarat somewhere around 1500 BC and left their imprint in mythologies and also in several traditions of performance.


Traditionally raas is performed only by males. A typical raas mandali (troupe) comprises of 16-20 dancers and musicians. Men, holding dandiya (wooden sticks), weave complex choreographic formations in a circle, and dance to songs that are accompanied by several musical instruments viz. harmonium, dhol (a kind of drum), naragha (tabla), zanz, pavo, shernai. Songs are characteristic of Saurashtra region and those which are sung in praise of Lord Krishna follow a proper protocol. Of late, the performing troupes have also picked up ballad songs and songs with social themes. Raas begins on a slow pace and gradually develops into a fast rhythm with dancers weaving complex choreographic patterns in a manner such that when a dancer performs solo he dances simultaneously with both his partners on either side. There is a great deal of freedom in the way movements are organized.


Raas is performed by diverse communities across Saurashtra from various walks of life. It is interesting to observe the way activities related to a particular profession and geographical conditions of the habitat play a decisive role in influencing folk dance traditions. Though the common nomenclature is raas, body movements, postures, choreography, music and costumes of each community are noticeably different. Based on occupational backgrounds of the communities, it can be broadly classified as:

  • Raas of the Agrarian Community - Kanabi raas
  • Raas of the Warrior Community -  Maher raas
  • Raas of the Seafaring Communities or Fishermen - Padhar raas
  • Raas of the Pastoral Community (specially the Shepherds) -  Hudo raas
  • Raas of the Muslim Maldhari community (cattle herding nomadic tribe) of Kutch - Jat raas
  • Performed by men and women (not based on criteria of caste or profession) -  Mishra or Gop raas


Structure of Performance

Despite variations in techniques and patterns of various performances, all raas follow a common order or general pattern of performance. Raas begins with a ‘metre-less’ doha, followed by chhand sung in chalati (double speed rhythm). Dancers enter the arena of performance with the chhand striking their dandiya. This is followed by raas geet (song) during which dancers weave different choreographic patterns. Song is followed by a chhand again in chalati, leading to the finale, with swift movements. At times some variations are introduced as a part of experimentation or innovations. However, by and large, the pattern of the performance remains similar.



The dancers wear kediyu, a frilled frock-like garment that covers the torso; choyani, the lower garment that is loose up to the knees and tight from the calf allowing free movement of the legs; a paghadi (turban) or embroidered cap covers the head. Besides these, the dancers tie bhet, a two-meter piece of cloth tied around waist which flows up to the knees.


Musical instruments like harmonium, dhol, tabla or naragha, pavo, zanz, shehnai, etc., accompany raas geet. Some troupes expand the orchestra with manjira, ravan-hattha, ghughara (metal bells) etc. Each community chooses their musical instruments according to its availability and their aesthetic preferences. 


Present Situation

Though it is one of the most popular dance forms of rural and urban Gujarat one rarely comes across the pure form of raas. It is performed during Navaratri by hundreds of men and women for pure entertainment which follows no choreographic patterns. However, the organized raas mandalis of Saurashtra distinctly continue to follow the traditional choreography and wear costumes representing their caste, profession or region. But with changing times, barriers of caste and region are also getting blurred. Intermingling of traditions with modernity, which we call hybridization of raas, is a result of globalization. We will examine four traditions of raas from the above mentioned six traditions of performance.



Kanabi Raas


Kanabi raas takes its name from the community that performs it, the farming community. Performed by farmers of Jamnagar and Rajkot district. This form is a mimetic representation of various significant actions of agriculture- related activities. Farmers toiling in harsh weather for long hours around the year are sturdy and tough with high levels of endurance and this energy level gets amply reflected in their dance, demonstrating the untiring spirit and strength of Kanabi dancers. Kanabi raas is distinct from other raas forms with its characteristic choreography that carries the imprint of farming activities.


Loud, full-throated singing in Kanabi raas is a reminder of a famer’s regular habit of using his lung power to scare away birds and to drive bullocks. Their inherent high energy levels are amply exhibited in their quick movements with consistently energetic performance throughout the dance. Kneeling, hopping from one place to another and lifting the feet when wading through fields are prerequisites of farming and comes naturally to a farmer. One obviously witnesses the same kind of movements with quick foot-work, body postures and unrestricted flow of dancers. Most Kanabis are Vaishnavites, and their raas geet are in praise of Lord Krishna. Kanabi raas is performed by men, using dandiya (wooden sticks) during fairs and festivals like Satam-atham (Janm-Ashtami), social and religious functions and weddings.



It is believed that the princely states of Saurashtra invited Kanabis from Gujarat and gave them land for farming. After imbibing the local culture and ethos, Kanabis adopted the raas tradition of Saurashtra and created their unique style of dancing with a clear imprint of farming life. Various Kanabi groups who settled in different parts of Saurashtra have developed their own distinct choreographic patterns and music tradition. For example, the Kanabis of Latipur village, Jamnagar district (former Navanagar State) have developed two different types of raas and have been performing these for four generations: Kanabi raas and Talwar (sword) raas. Talwar raas was created to commemorate Rajput war heroes who died in the historic war of Bhuchar Mori (July 18, 1591).


Performance Structure

Kanabi raas portrays various body movements and postures of farmers. Raising feet, sitting on toes, jumping and lifting knees is very typical to this form. Most raas forms have variations of speed designed to give rest to dancers but Kanabi raas maintains a fast pace. The movements are named as dodhi (one and half times speed), chirav (zigzag), bhensa dadiyo (buffalo jump), ānti (crisscross), besani (sitting on toes, bending the knees), chabakhi (whip), double chalati etc. The Kanabi dancers create diverse choreographic patterns like circle, zigzag, clock-anti-clock, swastika, square, trishul, naman etc. with these movements. Continuously, one after the other, the choreographic pattern unfolds in hinch and chalati tal pattern.



The orchestra comprises of dhol, harmonium, dokad (tabla), zanj, and pavo (a variety of flute) that accompanies a male singer. The lead singer is joined by the dancers in chorus, creating an atmosphere of perfect harmony between dancers and musicians. Raas geet narrating the early childhood of Krishna is sung during Kanabi raas. The dhal-talwar raas has Shivaji nu halaradu (lullaby of Shivaji) to ignite heroic emotions.


The costume consists of embroidered kediya, choyani, a colourful bhet on waist and a matching paghadi. Dancers wear ghaghara to enhance their tempo. In the dhal-talwar raas, they wear black turbans and cover half the face with black cloth. Artificial moustache, a sword and shield in hand remind the audience of the armed warriors of Bhuchar Mori.


Maniāro Raas


Maniaro raas, performed by Maher community of Saurashtra takes its name from the unique tal of 11 matras (metres) known as maniaro. An all-male performing tradition, it can be classified as Shaurya raas or martial dance of Rajputs of Ghed and Barda region (Porbandar and Junagadh districts), with viraasn postures and masculine movements to celebrate victory over enemies or to express joy during festivals of Holi or weddings. Maniaro raas is a stylized Hallisaka raas evoking the characteristic Kshatriya link of the Maher Rajput. The dance of tall and handsome Maher men dressed in pure white kediya and choyani, white paghadi (turban) and a red belt across the shoulder, dancing to the unique maniaro beats with the accompaniment of sharp shehnai and high notes present a very arresting picture.


Maher Community 

Anthropological sources trace the origin of Mahers in Medes or Meds from Medea in south-eastern Europe and link their ancestors to the later Median Empire in ancient Persia. According to historians, Mahers came from the north-west passes (Khyber) into Punjab, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. Others maintain that they came from Sind, fleeing the invasion of Mohamed-Bin-Kasim in the early eighth century AD. Scholars link them with the Mihirs, that is, the Maitrakas of northern Saurashtra who lived in the first millennium AD and formed a relationship with the Jethawa Rajputs. They moved with Jethawas to Ghumali in the foothills of Barda near Porbandar, sometime after 800 AD.


Maher Raas

Mahers are an agricultural community living in Porbandar and Junagadh, both for Maher princely states, in the western end of the Saurashtra peninsula. Traditionally a warrior community that turned settled agriculturist, Maher, in the past danced to celebrate holi, to celebrate victory over cattle raiders or opponents in war. Warrior like movement and display of masculine prowess, therefore is a distinctive feature of Maher raas.


Historical Account

Maher raas preserved as an oral tradition for many generations has no written accounts to support its antiquity. Though festive dancing was a common practice among Mahers, the first organized troupe, Chhaya Maher Raas Mandali was formed in 1967.This forty-eight year old troupe has third generation of professional dancers.  Ranabhai Shida, the troupe leader, gives credit to Natwarsinhji, the King of Porbandar state (1901-1977) who during his visits to villages encouraged and rewarded good dancers when Maher community as ryot, presented raas to entertain royalty. A remarkable feature of Maher Raas Mandali is the continuity of choreography for over five generations.


Structure of Performance

Maniaro raas opens with a metre-less doha. The moment doha ends, the percussionist strikes his dhol and the shehnai joins in. Dancers with speed and gusto enter the performance area, holding parona and forms a circle to hinch tal. Once circle is formed, maniaro tal is played on dhol and raas geet begins. Mahers use parona, a pair of thick and long sticks of solid bamboo whereas all other communities of Saurashtra use dandiya, a pair of wooden sticks. After raas geet is complete, chhand in chalati (double speed) follows when dancers move doubling their speed as if in a frenzy and then exit creating climax.


The choreography in Maher is simple but the difficult postures of viraasn are repeatedly performed very gracefully and with great ease. The Maher raas is a smooth yet rare synchronization of graceful movements in vilambit tal with fast movements in chalati that builds up a climax.


Distinct Features

The most unique feature of this raas is the tal of eleven matra - maniaro tal. No other community of Gujarat uses this tal in raas. If the speed of maniaro is increased it becomes hinch tal according to Ranabhai Shida, a noted exponent and troupe leader of the oldest Maher Raas Mandali. Dancers perform fast as well as slow movements, stylized gestures resembling sword fight in both fast hinch and slow maniaro rhythm. Maher raas is a unique example of smooth integration of lasya with masculine movements.  Striking parona with pair resembles attacking the opponent with a sword.


A very peculiar movement of this raas is chabakhi - a swift whirl, jump bending knees and landing on toes, to stand up again with in a fraction of second and jump again to a height of three to four feet bending knees. Entire group of dancers for few second stays suspended in air creating a mesmerizing scene. The forceful swift swirl chabakhi translates as whip verbally expressing speed and impact of forceful swift swirl movement.

Mahers’ costumes are stark white with a red belt worn across shoulders. Angani, without any embroidery is a frock like garment that covers the torso. The lower body is covered by choyano, tight on calf and loose above knees, a garment similar to horse riding breeches. This design allows free movement of legs. The head is covered in a white turban. Maher style of tying turban is very different from other communities of Sauraashtra. Bhet, a white cloth with a knot on one side covers lower abdomen. A red cloth belt bhalpato from right shoulder to waist adds to the elegance of a Maher dress. The Rajput dancers look gorgeous with gold earrings and a necklace of golden beads.


Padhar Raas


Padhar raas is performed by Padhars, a category of scheduled tribe who are one of the five adivasis inhabiting Gujarat. They are spread in twelve villages around the natural lake, Nal Sarovar in Surendranagar district (formerly princely state of Limdi) and Ahmedabad district. Padhars claim to have migrated from Sindh and are followers of Hinglaj Mata (Baluchistan). The earlier topography of Nal Sarovar region, the lifestyle, culture and raas tradition of Padhars suggest they must have been a seafaring group living in the coastal area. Nal Sarovar is an extension of Gulf of Cambay and it is believed that river Sindhu merged with the sea here. Padhars, at present are not land owners but work as agricultural labourers. They earn a meager living as boat men during winter, entertaining tourists in Nal Sarovar.

Padhar raas is performed only by men, who use manjira to mark time. In the entire Saurashtra region, Padhar are the only one who do not use dandiya. The characteristic features that distinguish this raas are:

  1. The entire raas is performed in speed and gusto but they do not lift leg or slide like other raas dancers. While in motion, they continuously play manjira and maintain the rhythm.
  2. They sit in a circle playing manjira, bending their upper torso forward and swiftly pulling back creating the visual image of boatmen rowing their boats in water. It is like coming of waves, falling apart and once again rising to subside. This visual depiction of sea is so real that one can see a boat swinging in waves and a bunch of boatmen rowing vigorously when they dance.
  3. Dancers lie down on the floor in a circle, playing manjira swiftly they move their hands in unison from one side to the other. They sit and sway their bodies from left to right, bend torso from waist, touch knees with head and once again return to the original sitting position. Gradually rising, they run in a circle like the rushing ebb.
  4. Dancers create a striking visual image of waves gradually rising, falling apart and once again rising.



Manjirazanz and tabla are three instruments used in this raas.  Padhars have a peculiar vocal quality that is very different from masculine, full throated voice of Kathiawadi singers. This unique singing, coupled with a distinct choreography of sea farers is the most outstanding feature of this raas. Both doha and raas geet express the devotion for Krishna.


Costume consists of choyani (bhati or surval), shining full sleeve shirt with jacket (kalacho or pehran) and a colourful cloth (fento or mel) to cover head. Padhars do not use fine embroideries or embellishments and their costume reflects total lack of fineries.


Emergence of Padhar Raas Mandali

The story of Padhar Raas Mandali of Ranagadh is narrated by Rambhai Padhar (present troupe leader) and Fuljibhai Padhar (singer). It narrates the journey of unorganized Padhar dancers who have attained the status of a nationality through this raas mandali. Rambhai belongs to the third generation of Padhar dancers, implying seventy years of mandali’s existence.


Before independence the Limdi durbar that of a feudal lord, often camped in Nal Sarovar area for hunting boars. In the evenings, Padhars were called to entertain the Durbar where they sang bhajania (devotional song) in their dialect and danced to it. Ragha Māstar, a teacher in Limdi primary school and a favourite of the durbar, always accompanied Mahatma Gandhi (Bapu) on these trips. A cultural enthusiast, he encouraged the Padhar to form a group, choreographed their movements and selected a Padhar folk song narrating the hunting expeditions of Limdi durbar and this pleased the royalty. In nineteen forties when the freedom movement gained momentum and songs celebrating Gandhi were sung in every nook and corner of Gujarat, Ragha Māstar inspired Padhars to write a song narrating Gandhi’s activities. Which became very popular and with the establishment of Gujarat in 1960, Padhar Raas Mandali got several opportunities to perform in government functions. It was during one of these programmes someone suggested them to include in their repertoire poetry of medieval saint Narsinh Mehta: “vā vāyā né vādal umatyā, gokul man tahukya mor,ramavā āvo sunder var shāmaliyā”, and the unassuming Padhar complied with the suggestion. This song still continues to be raas geet of Padhar Raas Mandali as origin of many cultural traditions is the result of continued dialogue between various levels of society. It is highly influenced and shaped by local environment, profession of performers and the patrons of the art.


The Padhar Raas Mandali travels to state festivals and presents their performance but unfortunately the next generation of Padhars with different aspirations are not keen to continue this tradition. It is likely that in next few decades this may become another dying art form of Gujarat.


Mishra Raas/Gop Raas


Mishra raas also known as Gop raas


[1], as the name suggests, is performed by both men and women though this form has remained an ‘all-male’ performance, in Saurashtra. It has its roots in folklores and legends associated with raas of Krishna and his consorts. Anecdotes suggest that this form emerged in response to the newly formed Government of Gujarat’s desire to promote Gujarati culture on the occasion of Republic Day, in 1961.[2] Bhavnagar University was requested by the Government to form a cultural dance troupe of students (boys and girls) to perform in Delhi. The Mishra raas performance was highly appreciated in Delhi and eventually became popular especially among urban youths in Gujarat. Gradually as stage performances gained prominence, rural troupes took to a mixed ensemble so that they could perform for longer span of time. It is interesting to note that what we recognize as ‘tradition’ today was a recent creation under government patronage and sponsorship. It indicates that once created and systematically nurtured, such experiments could mature as new forms of cultural identity. Possibly the youngest traditional dance form of Gujarat, Mishra raas is a landmark in the cultural history of the state.


Performance Structure

As a newly evolved form it is barely two generations old. While there is continuity in the basic structure of this dandiya raas, it has far more flexibility in performance technique and presentation. It opens with doha; and followed by raas geet and ends with a chhand. The Mishra raas troupes of Gujarat, both rural and urban are not bound by any rigid tradition, have created their own exclusive choreography. Since Mishra raas is not a dance tradition of any specific community, there is a lot of flexibility in costumes and music. Women wear chaniyo, kapadu (backless blouse) or blouse and odhani or jimy (long skirt). Men wear choyani, embroidered kediyubhet and paghadi, depending upon their choice.


Musical Instruments

Musical instruments to provide background music and accompaniments for songs are dhol, zanz, pav, flute and harmonium. Sometimes violin and ravanhathho are also used as accompaniments. The songs could be devotional praising Mother Goddess or Krishna and also newly written songs (more often based on film songs).



Raas is a popular folk form of Gujarat performed to celebrate the birth of Lord Krishna, good harvest and victory over an enemy. In spite of variations in techniques of performance among sub-regional groups, one observes an underlying similarity in all forms. The variations in raas are directly conditioned by occupations, the occasions of performance, the nature of human relationships and the levels of social and economic organization among different groups.


Performance of dandiya raas is linked with agricultural activities and is performed to rejoice but now it has lost its associations with farming and has spread across the globe as a performative form. Needless to mention that several elements have undergone changes in the process and has reformulated the form. What once was an impromptu dance of village men is now the all-time favourite of men and women in rural and urban environs. The journey from dance of Yadavas to Mishra raas of 20th century has witnessed many additions and subtractions: from village square it has entered auditoriums and performance arenas during the Navratri. Changes in costumes, music, footwork, choreography, songs are directly linked to the societal transformations in each century. Today it has merged with garaba, another folk dance form of Gujarat performed by women during Navratri. Now Raas-Garaba is a unified cultural identity of Gujarat, though both possess individual character of their own.





[1] The word Gop is derived from ‘Gau Palak’ those who graze cows. Lord Krishna was considered to be their leader.


[2] It may be mentioned that the State of Gujarat was formed on May 1, 1960.