By Jackie Thakkar Oct. 06, 2019
Falguni Pathak’s live performances in the ’90s catapulted her into the league of larger-than-life superstars. She will always remain one of the great unifiers of Gujaratis from Andheri to America. A little less than Modi ji. But just a smidge above dhoklas.
Growing up in the ’90s in Vile Parle, I wasn’t exposed to English music like the other “cool kids”. My dose of pop culture came from music videos on MTV and Channel V and I gushed over locally grown stars like Alisha Chinai or Bombay Vikings. They were our homegrown popstars. But none among them had the appeal of Falguni Pathak.
If you were glued to music channels like I was, the background score to your adolescent years was in all likelihood, Pathak’s “Maine Payal Hai Chankai” and “Meri Chunar Udd Udd Jaaye”. My cousin and I would stand in front of our boxy Onida TV and try to match the dance steps – she’d borrow my mumma’s dupatta; I’d just follow her lead. We were six. Our little performance became a ritual of sorts. My uncles and aunts would ask us to do a Falguni and two of us would just need a bit of coaxing to dish out some moves. Even today when I meet relatives at shaadis, all my childhood tales begin with, “We still remember your Falguni Pathak performances.”
It’s been more than 20 years, but even today the place Pathak holds in our lives has not faded. Definitely not for Gujju families the world over. Pathak after all transformed the way we garba. Before she exploded into public consciousness, Navratri celebrations were a relatively low-key affair for middle-class families in Mumbai – restricted to dancing in the building compound to songs that were played on a screechy loudspeaker.
But sometime in the early ’90s that changed as the folk singer from Vadodara arrived and in no time had the city dancing to her tunes. Pathak had the power to draw crowds in Mumbai that perhaps no one could back in the day, with the exception of Bal Thackeray for his Dussehra rally in Shivaji Park. Garba culture peaked in the city’s western suburbs as this “Gujju” tradition became a fashion. Holding a season pass to the “Falguni venue” for Navratri meant immediate bragging rights.
With the advent of colour TV in many homes in the ’90s, Pathak’s live performances were telecast on cable networks across Maharashtra and Gujarat. It was these broadcasts, with their widespread audience, that truly catapulted Pathak into the league of larger-than-life superstars. For Gujjus, it was like tuning into our version of Coachella.
Holding a season pass to the “Falguni venue” for Navratri meant immediate bragging rights.
Pathak became as synonymous with Navratri as the flamboyant dhotis, cholis, and decorated dandiya sticks. For suburban kids at the peak of their hormonal angst who viewed Navratri less as a celebration of song-and-dance and more as an excuse to meet their crush late at night, Pathak’s songs provided the soundtrack to their first brushes with romance. In this nine-day period of revelry, whether you were sharing iced lollies or riding pillion with bae on your papa’s Bajaj Chetak, it was Pathak playing cupid.
Her songs covered themes of teenage romance, forbidden love; her tunes always remained the epitome of desi femininity. Yet her androgynous style – mirrored shirts, jackets, trousers, and boots – was pathbreaking. Her greatest legacy as an artist remains in the fact that not only does her music empower countless teenage girls to embrace their femininity and backless cholis, but through her music videos and personal brand, Pathak has also empowered millions of conflicted teenagers to wear whatever the fuck they wanted without conforming to what society deems ok. At a time when heteronormativity defined the Indian pop music scene, it’s especially noteworthy that Pathak never chose to reinvent herself or her music.
By the late ’90s, Pathak had become a huge star, the undisputed Queen of Dandiya. I’d hear older cousins and neighbours speak about dancing the night away to her intoxicating singing. And I wanted in, but I knew no amount of pestering would make my parents buy me a ticket. I was too young.
And then it happened. In 2000, my school announced that the annual dandiya night would be graced by Pathak. (Her sister-in-law was one of our school’s senior staffers.) At eight, I was going to attend my first-ever “live” concert and the hype was real.
At a time when heteronormativity defined the Indian pop music scene, it’s especially noteworthy that Pathak never chose to reinvent herself or her music.
Dressed in her trademark shirt and trousers, Pathak was unabashedly herself. The head-banging between verses was Ozzy Ozbourne-like and she genuinely looked like she was having a blast up there. My friends and I had the time of our life, dancing, swirling, and twirling as Pathak sang one hit song after another. It was like being in an open-air disco. What a night that was; I remember it like it happened yesterday.
A classmate recently shared a Facebook memory of being handed a Best Solo Dancer award at our school’s garba night by Pathak. You’d think after so many years, with so much exposure to international music, the Pathak craze might have died down. But his comment section was rife with Gujjus tagging their relatives – “Falguni ne jo! (Look at Falguni!)”. That Polaroid is for keeps and my friend will probably make a killing if he decides to sell it on Amazon.
Today, organisers are rumoured to pay the veteran singer crores for one night. Yet, Pathak’s legacy transcends mere numbers. A show headlined by Falguni Pathak doesn’t just guarantee dancers moving with more furore or the dandiya sticks clashing with a crisper thud, it’s something more intangible. It’s got something to do with the audible buzz around the garba ground when she isn’t on stage or is pausing between songs to down some water. It’s the anticipation that builds just before the stadium realises the Queen is about to take the mic again. It’s the number of older spectators, our baas and dadas, who will choose to sit on the dusty red mats on the ground, just because it’s “aapdi Falguni”. Her legacy reverberates at every golawala’s stall in the catering shamiana, where enthusiastic Gujju teens exclaim just like I did when I saw her on stage years ago: “Teh Falguni ne joyu? Su mast lagey chhe na? (Did you see Falguni? Doesn’t she look great?!)”
Perhaps there is no way of gauging the overall impact Falguni Pathak has had on pop culture. But to me, she will always remain one of the great unifiers of Gujaratis from Andheri to America. A little less than Modi ji. But just a smidgen above dhoklas.