What makes ‘dandiya’s reigning queen’ Falguni Pathak a cultural icon even three decades later? How did she become a sensation beyond Navratri to define Indipop and a whole generation?
For us 90s kids, it wasn’t just Falguni Pathak’s songs — from the sweet melody of Maine Payal Hai Chhankai to Meri Chunar Udd Udd Jaye, which gave our generation that peculiar signature step — that were enthralling. Her videos, with their nostalgic backstories that championed love and friendship, were captivating in their own right.
The undisputed ‘dandiya queen’ has maintained a loyal and steady fanbase for three decades now, and every Navratri is a reminder that, in her own words, it is her season.
Pathak is the youngest of five daughters, and grew up in a family that loved music, where the radio was always on. The self-taught singer’s first public singing would happen on her terrace.
“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. My neighbours would start to call out, ‘Falu, yeh gaana gaa (Sing that song)’,” Pathak told The Indian Express.
Her first performance was at the age of nine at an Independence Day show, where she was paid Rs 25 for her work. She recalls that her father did not approve of her singing, and beat her. Undeterred, she continued pursuing her love for singing.
“But I didn’t stop. 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 said.
Her father would slowly come around, and Pathak began performing with a dandiya group in 1989. In ‘94, she formed her band Ta Thaiya, and hasn’t looked back since.
“I never expected that people would love my performances so much. When I started out first in 1994 with my group called Ta Thaiya, it was our endeavour to make sure that our audience gets their money’s worth. We wanted them to go back home feeling fully satisfied. So we worked with that mantra. And with every passing year, we looked at where we went wrong, what improvements could be made, and how we could better ourselves next time,” Pathak told Cinebuster.
Her debut Indipop album Yaad Piya ki Aane Lagi was released four years later, and set the precedent for her popularity among the masses. And with this soaring popularity, Bollywood offers naturally followed. Yet, the singer refused to sign.
“I never took Bollywood seriously. I did get offers, but when you enter Bollywood, you need to work doubly hard. I was happy doing my shows and albums,” she told Hindustan Times.
A queer icon
Despite never intending to, Pathak has gained the reputation of a ‘queer icon’ with her songs and persona alike. As activist Sonal Giani wrote for Agents of Ishq, “Falguni’s songs embodied same-sex attractions, bonds, and relationships without explicitly stating them, alongside heterosexual ones, and the echoes resonated in my consciousness. Through their shape, these stories helped my feelings find a place. The videos made tomboyishness normal without disempowering feminine women. Femme, tomboy, butch — anyone could be queer in whatever combo — there was no need to define, no need, even, to ‘choose a side’.”
In fact, at the same time as India’s introduction to western ideals of femininity and beauty began, Falguni emerged as a singer with a difference — with her boy-cut hair and loose fitting clothes that many today say was their first brush with androgyny.
For Pathak, her dressing sense comes from her family. “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,” she told The Indian Express.
It’s not as though Pathak’s legacy is revived only every Navratri — nostalgic fans still send her an outpour of love for giving them music that defined their growing years, and the swelling crowds at her shows her telling that even beyond the clothes and the music, it is she who shines and resonates.
Edited by Divya Sethu