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From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Gujaratis/Rasesh Thakkar

There is some ambivalence in the use and development of the Gujarati language in Canada. On the one hand, its use in daily life seems to be declining as an increasing number of parents communicate with their children in English. On the other, a high level of literary activity as well as a vibrant Gujarati theatre scene in North America contribute to its rich development.

Although there is a strong awareness of the linguistic distinctiveness of Gujarati and past literary achievements, the preservation and transfer of the language to the second generation seem to be losing ground in Canada. Language classes are regularly offered by community organizations as well as school boards in cities like Toronto, but the enrolments have been small and are declining. First-generation Gujarati immigrants use the language for active communication among themselves, but they intersperse it with a large number of English words, thus creating a somewhat strange hybrid. Gujaratis from East Africa brought with them a tradition of preserving their language in a foreign land, but their use of it is generally for daily living, business, and religion, and not for creative self-expression. When Gujarati is used for basic communication, the speech differences typically associated with different regional and religious groups remain alive and contribute to a continuing awareness of multi-level subgroup identities.

In sharp contrast to the linguistic apathy of most Gujarati Canadians, there is, paradoxically, a vibrant development of highly sophisticated Gujarati creative literature and popular theatre. The literary activity is confined to a very small, select group of poets and writers, who find their readers mostly in Toronto and Montreal. More active is the Gujarati literary community in the United States. The founding of the Gujarati Academy in New York City, coupled with the publication of a literary quarterly called Gujari Digest (Eagleville, Penn.), created ideal conditions for an outburst of high-level literary work in many North American cities, including Toronto and Ottawa.

The Gujari Digest, which is a joint enterprise of Gujarat and the United States, has, among its editors and contributors, famous writers from Gujarat and from North America, and readers from everywhere. The Toronto group that contributes to it fairly regularly has organized itself into a literary society, called Shabda Setu (Verbal Bridge), that meets monthly and occasionally produces an evening of public readings of the works of its members or of invited poets.

In the area of popular theatre the initiative and leadership have, again, come from Gujaratis in a number of American cities. Gujarati musicals have played on Broadway to packed houses. Today Gujarati theatre seems to be the most visible Indian theatre in North America. It has profited from the participation of several professional actors from Gujarat who have settled in the United States, and it has created an audience base that now also supports visiting troupes from India. These activities have begun to take root in Toronto.

The Gujaratis in Canada have made fundamental contributions in a variety of performance, visual, and cinematic arts. In some areas they have remained on the cutting edge of their respective fields. The foremost Indian classical dance artist of Canada is a Gujarati, Menaka Thakkar, who has lived in Toronto since the early 1970s. Her school, Nrityakala/Canadian Academy of Indian Dance, has trained a large number of young dancers across Canada, many of them Gujaratis, in classical systems of Bharatanatyam and Odissi. The choreography and performances are presented nationally and internationally through the Menaka Thakkar Dance Company, which is the first professional Indian dance company recognized by the Canada Council as on a par with mainstream Canadian companies and supported by an annual operating grant. Menaka’s older sister from Bombay, Sudha Thakkar, now settled in Toronto, has been making innovative contributions to traditional and contemporary Indian dance forms at international dance festivals and through conferences for Kala Nidhi Fine Arts of Canada.

A classical Bharatanatyam dance school called Manu Kala Mandir, founded in Calgary by another Gujarati dancer from Bombay, has been training a large number of young dancers, many of them Gujarati children. Other more community-oriented art institutions which cater to the Gujarati taste for traditional dance dramas are the Disha Art Academy, Navaranga, and Bindu Shah Dance School, all in Toronto. Similar community-oriented dance and music activities in other cities are generally conducted through their Gujarati Associations.

Despite the contributions of individual Gujarati artists to classical dance, cinema, and the visual arts, the main artistic strength of the Gujarati community as a whole is, as it has always been, in the folk arts. There is a rich variety of folk dance and folk music associated with religious occasions and festivities, gods and goddesses, weddings, the birth of babies, the changing seasons, the harvest, full-moon night, and other joyous occasions.

The most popular of these folk dances are Garba, associated with the mother goddess and performed by women, particularly during the Nine Night Celebrations; and Rass, associated with Lord Krishna and performed by men and women, often using two colourful sticks which they strike to keep the beat while whirling in variegated rhythmic patterns. There is a specialized literature of Garba and Raas songs, some surviving over centuries in folk memory, while others are composed and preserved. Because of their popularity they have grown beyond the traditional framework, and sometimes choreographic innovation now replaces folk spontaneity. Annual competitions of Garba and Raas performances are held in major cities in India and abroad.

Toronto has been hosting North American competitions for the last seventeen years, and teams from a large number of cities in Canada and the United States, as well as Toronto’s own several teams, come to compete. The competitions attract audiences of more than 3,000, who come for two to three days to witness the skills and artistry of second- and third-generation Gujarati youth. This competition has become the foremost symbol of Gujarati culture and identity at the popular level. A similar Western Canada Raas Garba Competition, in which teams from Edmonton, Regina, Calgary, Vancouver, and Winnipeg competed, was held in Calgary in 1994 and in Vancouver in 1996.

Community organizations also present a variety of public performances of light and semiclassical music, and folk and devotional singing, by local as well as visiting artists. Among the local groups, the most popular in the Toronto area are Geetanjali, Radha Krishna, Payal, Jalaram, Sur Sangam, and the Kitchener Group.