Falguni Pathak unwittingly compares herself to a mango. “When do you have mangoes? In the summer, when they are in season. Toh Navratri is my season, this is when I perform,” she says. The 45-year-old “Dandiya queen” has just taken a tour of this year’s venue, Pushpanjali Gardens in Borivali (west), Mumbai. The name is a misnomer — there is not a blade of grass in sight. The soil is being covered with wood to create a dance floor spread across approximately one lakh square feet, a bit short of the size of two football fields. But this is Navratri and this is Falguni Pathak — go big or go home.
“It is going to be the biggest dandiya event in whole Maharashtra,” says Shiva Shetty, with the air of a man who can order a hit and a masala sandwich in the same breath. The Congress municipal corporator is part of a squad of event managers and contractors who have brought Pathak to Borivali for the first time since she began her solo dandiya career, nearly 23 years ago.
Shetty and his partners have been organising dandiya nights for the past 16 years. This year, their company, Shreeya Events, seem to be near the pot of gold at the end of a sequinned chunnari. “The season tickets for Falguni’s shows are Rs 4,000 and we’re expecting 25,000-30,000 people every night,” says Shekhar Rao, owner, Pushpanjali Gardens. That adds up to a lot of zeroes but everybody is reluctant to talk about the cost of the event, including Pathak.
Every year, reports emerge in the local papers about how much Pathak earns for nine nights of the festival. She sings with her band, Ta Thaiya, from 8 am to10 pm; that’s 22 hours of serenading lakhs of people who come from all over India, and even the US and the UK, to watch her perform. “The media reported that I’ve charged Rs 1.8 crore in 2010, or Rs 2 crore in 2013. It’s not true. But itna milna chahiye. I charge for myself and my troupe of 40 musicians who are the best in the field; for the lights and the best sound system in the country,” says Pathak.
Navratri in Borivali, also known as mini-Gujarat, has, for long, played second fiddle to events in Goregaon and Ghatkopar, two areas in the western suburbs densely populated by the Gujarati community. Not this time. “I’m telling you, 50 per cent (of the) crowd will come only to see her, not dance,” says Santosh Singh, an event manager.
Pathak’s Navratri programme is the biggest event in the Gujarati social calendar, and it’s more than an extravaganza. Men and women sign up for dance classes a few months in advance; the best costumes cost the earth, but it all makes sense when you’re waiting to meet your soulmate. “It’s her voice that draws so many people in. It is so sweet and she creates a truly romantic atmosphere,” says Rao. A Falguni Pathak show is a ticket to a magical place where love is still innocent and hasn’t been tainted by reality — this is her greatest appeal. In 2010, when Pathak moved her annual Navratri show to Ankleshwar, Gujarat, scores of Mumbai’s Gujaratis returned to their home state, albeit temporarily.
For an artiste who began as a local performer in Mumbai’s suburbs, who became a sudden Indipop star in the late Nineties and early Noughties, who has shied away from Bollywood and still commands devotion that transcends faith and religion, Pathak has no parallel. How did she do it? “Mataji ke kripa se, bas ho gaya,” she says.
The youngest of five daughters, Pathak was born in 1971 in a middle-class Gujarati family in Khar (west). They loved music: her parents always had the radio on and one of her sisters was taught classical music at home. “For as long as I can recall, I’ve been passionate about singing. I used to sit with my sister when she was learning, but I’ve never had any training,” says Pathak, who taught herself Hindi songs from the ‘50s and ‘60s and would sing loudly on the terrace. “My neighbours would start to call out, ‘Falu, yeh gaana gaa (Sing that song),’” she says.
Her first performance was at the age of nine. “I was asked to sing at an Independence Day show, and I sang Laila main Laila from Qurbani. I was paid Rs 25 and I gave it to my mother,” says Pathak. Her father didn’t approve and gave her a sound thrashing. “But I didn’t stop, I kept singing. I didn’t hide it from him, though. Ghar pe aane ka, maar khane ka, aur kya (I would come home, get beaten up, that’s all),” she says and laughs. In time, her father came around and in 1989, she got her first big break with a dandiya group called The Beaterzz. “I learnt all the dandiya songs. In 1994, I set out on my own with Ta Thaiya,” says Pathak.
By the mid-’90s, Pathak had established herself as a popular dandiya singer. It seemed predestined, she says. But Pathak is being modest. While she has a very feminine sweet voice, a la early Lata Mangeshkar, she also has a talent for identifying folk, pop and Bollywood songs to adapt to the genre. “One of her oldest hits is her version of Suneeta Rao’s Pari hoon main, which she turned into a dandiya mainstay,” says Shetty.
It was her CA, Paras Seth, who introduced her to Polygram, the record label which would release her debut Indipop album, Yaad Piya Ki Aane Lagi, in 1998. “Vijay Lazarus of Universal Music, the company which owned Polygram, was one of his clients as well,” says Pathak. Lazarus signed her on to work on a dandiya album but then asked her to record a folk-based pop album. “I didn’t know much about Indipop. But Universal put together a great team to bring out a complete package: Lalit Sen for the music, Radhika Rao for the music video and Saroj Khan to choreograph the song for the single,” says Pathak. Yaad Piya Ki Aane Lagi went on to become a smash hit and overnight, thanks to MTV and Channel [V], Pathak became a household name. Bollywood came calling, and the song was featured in Pyaar Koi Khel Nahin (1999).
“But I wasn’t attracted to Bollywood. I was still performing at dandiya shows. That was my main audience,” says Pathak, who released four Indipop albums in quick succession. It was a time when labels in India were waking up to the phenomenon of the music video, and when it came to Pathak, Universal cracked a formula.
Her songs were set to a script which explored first love, friendship and romance, sometimes in puzzling scenarios with questionable dance moves. Take Meri Chunar Udd Udd Jaye (2000): a young Ayesha Takia misses her best friend Pathak after she is sent to live with her sour-faced aunt and her dishy son. In a flashback, Takia and Pathak slip their hands into their shoes and make their footwear dance. Surely Khan did not choreograph that song? “Kya guess maraa! The director, Radhika Rao, thought we should do something different. That shoe dance became very popular, everybody started doing it at the shows!” says Pathak.
What she is seemingly unaware of is that the video was embraced by the LGBT community. Filmmaker and academic Shohini Ghosh mentions it in her essay, “Queer Pleasures for Queer People: Film, Television, and Queer Sexuality in India”, in Queering India: Same-Sex Love and Eroticism in Indian Culture and Society (2002).
If her choice to always be dressed in what is perceived to be men’s clothing — shirt, trousers and waistcoat — has raised eyebrows, it hasn’t affected her popularity at all. Pathak is the only female performer in India to carve an identity and a career for herself without being subject to conventional standards of femininity, in a way which has never compromised her ability to fill up stadiums with thousands of adoring fans.
“I am not aware of being an inspiration to people on this front. Here’s what happened: after four girls, my parents were expecting a boy. My sisters were much older than me and they dressed me up in a shirt and trousers and it’s all I’ve ever worn, apart from my school uniform,” says Pathak.
She has just released her first dandiya single in three years. “It’s called Sanwara Salona and it’s the first time I’ve had an animated video,” Pathak says.The story is about young love: a stag and a doe meet in the forest, while Pathak conjures rainbows as she croons about a blossoming romance. It’s a sure-fire hit, anybody in the organising committee will tell you that. “The dandiya nights are when people meet each other and fall in love. It’s where families in the community meet and marriages are arranged,” says Rao.
By the time Pathak took the stage last night, Pushpanjali Gardens had been converted into a glitzy bubble of joy, hope and revelry. With Mataji and Pathak in charge, perhaps, some dreams will come true.