No one can understand Hindu rituals and festivals unless one understands Ishvara/ Bhagavan/ God. In Hinduism, Ishvara is the material and the intelligence behind the whole creation. The material aspect is ignored in most religions. Unless you take Ishvara to be the material as well, one can never have a God that is omnipresent, present everywhere.
So, the whole multiverse is nothing but a manifestation of Ishvara. When one looks at it in that manner, Ishvara can be invoked in any form that is available in the universe because all of them are non-different from Ishvara. So, Ishvara is looked at as both masculine and as an androgynous or feminine form. By androgynous, we don’t mean neither male nor female. In Hindu thinking, it is integrating both male and female in one also called Ardhanarishvara.
So, the nine days of Navaratri are spent in worshipping Ishvara in the feminine form which is often called the sacred feminine. Since it is the complementary worship to the male form and since most worship of the male form happens during the day, this worship of Ishvara as Devi is performed in the night. Sadhus, Siddhas, and yogis spend the night in contemplation of Ishvara as Devi.
The common person finds that a bit difficult to follow. So, it was suggested that rather than contemplation one can do prayers and worship to keep awake. Along with that were added devotional songs or bhajans. How long can one sing? So, clapping of hands, beating of sticks, and simple movements with Devi in the centre, was added. Nothing complicated or fancy. Just enough for the men and women involved in the worship to be awake.
This much was a part of the sacred worship. Many people also performed yajnas and pujas at the same time. When the whole festival got commercialised the religious aspect was lost and it became garba/dandiya and the fun part. There is nothing wrong in having fun but we can integrate fun into the worship. Or else problems crop up in the romantic arena post the festival. Let us celebrate it fully.
(The writer is the founder of Aarsha Vidya Foundation. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org)