SANTA CLARA, California — The last time I attended a Garba, also called Raas Garba, Dandiya or Dandiya Raas, was in college when visiting friends at Cal Berkeley. It was the era of pink, blue and green pagers that played TLC’s song “Scrubs” when someone left you a message. It was when families still had rotary phones and the cable channels were minimal. It was when boys didn’t dance much and the music was taped, possibly on a cassette or CD. It was before the era of Falguni Pathak.
Pathak, also known as the Dandiya Queen, has been shaping and changing the sound of garba music for over 20 years, incorporating Hindi songs in a traditionally Gujurati playlist, and creating edgier music.
The legendary performer did not disappoint Sept. 10 evening, at a sold-out fundraiser for the Uttar Pradesh Mandal of America. Singing a mix of Gujurati and Hindi songs to garba beats, Falguni Pathak did what she was known for, electrifying the crowd with her contemporary take on garba songs. She was indeed the Queen.
Garba is a community dance from Gujurat honoring Durga often incorporating dandiya or wooden sticks. My garba loving friend keeps several pairs of dandiya in the trunk of his car. “One never knew when one might have to perform emergency garba,” he says cheerily.
I had a chance to meet Pathak the night before the UPMA event, during a press conference at the Hyatt Santa Clara. I was expecting to see that glittery jacket and those cooling glasses. But when she walked in, it was in a loose black shirt and vest with casual pants. Instead of a performer with a high fidelity air about her, I found one who was humble, polite, cheery and spoke of how she was always learning in music.
I asked her how she handled the Covid pandemic and how she kept her voice limber. “Actually I enjoyed these two years sitting at home,” she said. Because of the amount of work she puts in, she did not have much time to listen to music, particularly the old classics, she continued. During the pandemic she was able to.
The Dandiya Queen
When Falguni Pathak came onstage later that night, the change in noise and intensity was electric. Gone was the sweet voiced casually dressed woman at the press conference. In her place was a vibrant performer, whose voice overpowered the packed auditorium, whose connection to the audience was seen in their outstretched hands hoping for skin to skin contact, and whose presence was magnified as with any superstar.
When she slipped on her cooling glasses and swept back her hair, the crowd went wild.
Garba is Life
There were surprises every where I went to photograph. Purses and phones lay in various mysterious bundles throughout the auditorium as people congregated around them. An empty space would be filled seconds later with dozens of people dancing. They appeared like crop circles, but instead of overnight it was in seconds. “Bombay style garba,” my friend said, shaking his head. “I was hoping for one large circle.”
Men danced together with women or on their own, leaping into the air and twirling dramatically. Weaving my way through the crowd with cameras strapped to my sides and a cumbersome backup on my shoulders was almost impossible.
Everywhere I looked it was a dizzying sea of bright cloth, blurred movement and hands and feet lifted off the ground. One had to join in the dance to escape. I was a terrible dancer. I moved around trying to capture the energy. Attempting to interview people was an utter failure. They would shake their heads and look at me with surprise before backing away. “You don’t interrupt garba,” said my friend.
We left the convention center at well past midnight, after I slowly detached my friend from the dancing, one twirl at a time. “Garba is life,” he told me. “I’d garba every day if I could.”
Getting into the car, we pulled into the local Taco Bell. I saw five to six other cars parked, with people dressed in lehengas, kurtas and sarees milling around, eating. “It’s drive through only,” my friend called out to one group of folks looking to order inside. Bemused, I realized I was at an Indian tailgate. If garba was life, the late night tradition of Taco Bell had a small piece of it, something to add to the mix of Indian culture in America.
This story was produced in partnership with CatchLight as part of the CatchLight Local Visual Storytelling Initiative. To learn more about this collaborative model for local visual journalism, sign up for CatchLight’s newsletter.