By Saesha Bhat (‘24)
Garba, an Indian traditional dance, originates from Gujarat, a state in northwestern India. Performed by communities of people in circles, this dance has religious ties to the Hindu festival Navratri, where Goddess Durga, is celebrated. Durga is considered the “protective mother of the universe” due to her power to fight all evils that threaten the harmony of the world. Navadurga is the nine forms that represent her different goddess titles. She is multi-limbed (eight to eighteen arms), carrying weapons or symbolic objects in each one. Her image and presence in Hindu mythology are there to teach people to be courageous and virtuous in their lives as she once was.
Given the background of this dance, it is without a doubt that this event has major importance for the Hindu community. On October 1, the Indo-American Cultural Foundation of Central New Jersey (IACFNJ) held its annual Garba Celebration at South Brunswick High School, ready to face the massive crowd of students and adults eager to dance after all the pushback due to COVID-19. However, the night took a disappointing turn when many students were not allowed to purchase tickets or enter the building due to the Fire Marshal’s orders, even when some had already paid for their wristbands.
Dr. Tushar Patel, the current president of IACFNJ, was there to witness the chaos of the celebration, trying to reason with the police who were blocking all entry. Although not all facts have been confirmed and most information spread around the community has been through rumors, Dr. Patel assured that the organization is trying to work with the Police Department regarding the events that occurred.
“Since we have good and open communication with South Brunswick School System and Police Department and after the incident of October 1, we all are trying to come up with a system in place to avoid future incidents like these so we all can continue to promote our culture and awareness in the Central Jersey area,” he said in an exclusive interview.
IACFNJ has contributed to the community for over a decade to spread cultural diversity and connect the community of South Asians in the state. Since its establishment in 2005, the organization has held Garba at either South Brunswick High School or Crossroads South Middle School. They host other activities such as a spring festival, a summer picnic, and an India Independence Day event, honoring the culture and legacy of India throughout the years. Not only do they hold celebrations, but they also honor students in the South Brunswick and North Brunswick High Schools through scholarships. Their most notable donation was $10,000 to the Education Foundation of South Brunswick in 2011.
The organization's ties with the community of South Brunswick run visibly deep; however, even with this long history and relationship with South Brunswick, what went wrong this year?
The South Brunswick Fire Safety Bureau enforces the safety rules put down by the State of New Jersey Uniform Fire Code. South Brunswick Fire Marshal John Funcheon was the one guarding the door along with several other police officers, ensuring that no individuals were able to enter or exit the building through the gymnasium doors. Although much criticism has been leveled at him by the public, Mr. Funcheon shared in an exclusive interview that his main concern was the safety of the individuals attending the event as occupancy was reaching its limit.
“The safety of everyone is always my primary concern. In issuing the permit to the organizers to celebrate Garba at the South Brunswick High School, there were instructions on what they needed to do to ensure the safety of everyone. The inability to control access to the event created a hazard that needed to be addressed immediately as they exceeded the occupancy load limit,” he said.
The occupancy limit of the SBHS main gymnasium is 2,300, and even though that number may look large, it is nothing compared to past years’ attendance, for instance, one in 2015 at the middle school of more than 3,000 people.
Even with this high limit, a much smaller number of people were allowed in, a number not mentioned publicly or officially.
Some allegedly claim tickets were oversold due to a new online ticket platform and others claim the limit had not been reached due to the lack of people inside. All this information is unverified, however, and until the organization officially puts out a statement, all the community can do is wait and formulate their own opinions.
Fire Marshall Funcheon suggests that if organizers had “communicated better with the young people outside the event that they had [reached] capacity,” the chaos that happened outside the door could have been controlled.
This included things like screaming, pushing, and crowding to the point where it reflected something of a “mosh pit.”
Junior Sanjana Puratchimani witnessed the whole thing, from the denying of ticket purchasing to the mass crowd by the doors. She remembers that it was not a pretty site to see as it resulted in many people getting hurt, emotionally and physically.
“People were pushing and shoving, it was crazy! I was so close to buying a ticket but they pushed us out before we even got the chance. I was so mad because I had waited in the line for 40 minutes and could not wait to go in and dance with my friends. One of my friends was inside and telling how the people inside, dancing and having fun, were pretty much clueless to the situation outside. It was a really sad turnout and I hope next year this problem gets solved so everyone can enjoy [the event],” she said.
It seems that no one singular group or person is to blame for the situation. Many factors produced this outcome: the high attendance of students from many different towns, the confusion that came with the online ticket selling, the crowd that compromised the safety of individuals attending the event, and the apparent lack of communication among all parties.
Due to Garba being a beloved event of South Brunswick residents, supporters are hopeful that these problems can be resolved for future events.