Queen Of The Night - What makes Mumbai sway to Falguni Pathak?
In 2010, when singer Falguni Pathak and her band Ta Thaiya performed at Ankleshwar, Gujarat, 65,000 people attended the event every day of Navratri. In a city of 1,40,000, almost half of the people were dancing to Pathak’s tunes.
This Navratri, in congested Mumbai, Borivli is where the action is. Not just because the neighbourhood is predominantly Gujarati, but it’s also where Pathak is performing and will release a new song. Fans have poured in from other neighborhoods, other cities, other countries. There are about 20,000 fans every night.
Pathak, 45, is India’s undisputed Dandaiya Queen. She’s been performing since 1986, forming Ta Thaiya in 1994. Her youthful but powerful voice may seem at odds with her signature jacket, sunglasses, short hair, trousers and ever-so-gentle headbang. But her look doesn’t matter.
Pathak’s specialty is in mixing unheard, unusual numbers with popular hits. “I like to give something new and different every year,” she says. Fans happily pay higher prices for it.
Pathak is also a constant in the fast-changing world of the dandiya raas. Builders and construction companies, the chief sponsors of the events, are battling a slump in the real-estate market. Bollywood is turning villain, with copyright issues putting an end to contemporary film music performed for dandiya. And the community celebration is itself becoming more stylised and competitive.
Pathak was born in Mumbai, to a Khar family that already had four daughters, and might explain why they chose to dress her in trousers and short hair even when she was little. What’s harder to explain are her musical skills. She started singing on stage at age 9, growing up to perform at neighhourhood events before she hit the big league in the 1990s.
By the end of 2000s, her fame had eclipsed that of Nilesh Thakkar, her singing partner for 15 years, and had made Goregaon’s Sankalp dandiya Mumbai’s hottest ticket for Navratri. The nine-night event made her so popular, it’s given her a parallel career. For the rest of the year, Pathak and Ta Thaiya tour the world, playing to the Indian diaspora in the US, UK, the Middle East and several other regions.
At Borivli’s Pushpanjali grounds, Kalpesh Patel, a 29-year-old hotel manager from the UK has spent Rs 1 lakh on flight tickets just to see his idol live. He has been reaching the venue at 5.30 pm every evening, two hours before the performance, to grab a spot closest to the stage. “When it comes to Falguni money doesn’t matter,” Patel says. “I love her attitude, energy and the way she engages with the crowd.”
To give Patel and the rest a memorable season, Pathak and her 40-member band start early. Three months before Navratri, they travel to different parts of Gujarat to source CDs featuring local songs, pick the ones they find interesting and adjust the melody to dandiya’s 4x4 beat. Today, they also scour the internet. Rehearsals start a month before the festival, and Pathak says she’s “always trying to ensure that the beats are peppy and one song merges into another while being different”.
Dwayne Das, Ta Thaiya’s sound engineer for 23 years, says Pathak is unusually meticulous. “She knows exactly what she wants and how sound should be projected,” he says. “If her requirements aren’t met, she won’t work with that organiser.”
Still, Pathak admits to being a nervous wreck before every show. “I can’t help but worry about how things will go,” she says. “I am so anxious, I don’t feel like talking to anyone before getting out there to sing.”
A NEW SPIN
Pathak’s big draw this year is a traditional garba song called Mavtar. The event itself has changed over the years. Like other folk dances, dandiya and garba were meant to bring people together. Today only purists bother with dandiya sticks for the whole festival. The big crowds increasingly comprise dance-class groups who cordon off large spaces with nylon ropes or human chains to do choreographed moves within. Big venues seem more like battlefields as people fight for space, and dancers compete with new moves and props.
“People have started using balls and umbrellas when they dance,” says Priya Mehta, 35, a garba-dandiya enthusiast from Ghatkopar. “Innovation is fine, but some of that frankly restricts the idea of dandiya and garba, which is to keep moving in circles.”