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IN SEARCH OF GEETA RABARI

Object pursues the popular nomadic singer from Kutch across Instagram and international time zones.

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February 19, 2024

What does it take to nab a Kutch ni Koyal and sit her down for a 17-minute chat? Almost two months of relentless pursuit, an attitude of grim perseverance, and skin as thick as tyre rubber. Which is a lot more time and trouble than I had imagined when I set out to interview Geeta Rabari, the 26-year-old singer from the tiny village of Tappar in Kutch.

Geeta Rabari may not pop up on Page 3 or sell out concerts in SoBo. But then, she doesn’t need to. In Gujarat and amongst the Gujarati diaspora, she is a star who is hailed with rose petals and showered with dollar bills while she sings on stage. A celebrity who fills vast venues around the world, she releases a hit Gujarati single a year and performs almost every night. All of this while holding firmly on to her village roots, her mirrorwork ghagra cholis, her modest odhna and her serene smile.

Rabari has millions of followers on social media. She performs in over-the-top dandiya events, razzle-dazzle weddings and sedate nights of devotional music. Her first song ‘Rona sherma re’, which was released in 2018, has garnered an eye-popping 500 million views on YouTube. And she spends most of her waking hours travelling between Anjar and Ahmedabad, Borivali and Bangalore, before getting into her trademark Kutchi-girl gear, climbing on to the stage and delivering reliable magic.

All this is well-known about the Kutchi role model famous for her swirling skirts and melodious voice. What was unexpected, however, was my fifty-seven-day-long hunt which didn’t end as hoped, but still turned out to be an extraordinary journey.

My quest began, as all quests these days do, with Google. I sat at my computer with misplaced optimism, convinced that Rabari would have a website with precise contact information. Given her hectic career and continent-hopping lifestyle, that seemed a professional prerequisite.

It soon became clear that Kutchi Koyals function by different rules.

No matter how hard I hunted online, there was no website or phone number in sight. There were, however, a slew of individuals whose names popped up when Googling ‘Geeta Rabari Agent’. I assiduously saved their names and soon my phone was cluttered with various Geeta-Divyeshes, Geeta-Pratiks, Geeta-Anujs and Geeta-Birens. Sad to say, not one of them responded to messages or answered my calls, leaving me with a host of useless contacts and a bad case of what-now.

No items found.

I made my way to Rabari’s Instagram and Facebook pages and bombarded her with emails and DMs, knowing that these missives were bound to get buried under the outpourings of the 2.5 million fans who follow Rabari on Instagram and the two million fans who follow her on Facebook. (These followers are the love- rose petal- and comment-bestowing sorts. The types who will supply 89,414 likes and 456 comments for a simple Mother’s Day post. And who will shower Rabari with wah-wahs and strings of hearts after every photograph or Reel that she posts.)

About a week later, an obliging journalist passed on Rabari’s phone number. I happily told my editor that the interview should be done in the next few days.

Wrong. The Kutchi Koyal proved elusive once again.

Armed with the phone number, I called and called. Often Rabari’s phone just rang. At other times an exasperated male voice answered and told me to call back after five minutes. Then, when I called back after five minutes, the phone would ring and ring till the all-too-familiar recorded message informed me—sometimes in Gujarati, sometimes in Hindi, sometimes in Kannada and sometimes in Marathi—that “Aapne jis vyakti ko call kiya hai, woh abhi vyast hai.” (If nothing else, the recorded message gave me a clue to where Rabari was performing that evening.)

After three or four conversations with the increasingly exasperated male voice, I established that it belonged to Rabari’s husband of seven years—Pruthvi Rabari, who is an engineer by training and now plays the part of agent, manager and organiser. Or, in the words of a fan website called thecelebclub.com, “He always advises and guides Geeta in need.”

After seven or eight more conversations, Pruthvi Rabari finally relented and told me to call a few days later, on Sunday at 5pm. “Finally,” I thought, “the interview will happen.”

On Sunday evening, sitting at my desk with my phone and my computer, fingers crossed and questions neatly written, I called.

Pruthvi Rabari picked up the phone and imparted the bad news. A sudden show had cropped up. “Call tomorrow at 5pm,” he said.

The next day, Pruthvi Rabari had forgotten about the appointment and decided to hang out with his friends, taking the mobile phone with him. “Call on Thursday,” he said.

On Thursday, the phone rang and rang, after which it was back to ‘Aapne jis vyakti ko…’

By this point, a bad attack of dejection and déjà vu had taken over. Over two decades ago, I had undertaken a similar quest for another Gujarati singer, the famous Falguni Pathak. My editor had decided that it would be a perfect Navratri story and so, overlooking the fact that Navratri is not the best time to sit a dandiya queen down for a leisurely chat, set me chasing Pathak, who predictably proved as elusive as a unicorn. After countless unanswered calls, two trips to her home and a long morning spent with her apologetic father, she met me for eight distracted minutes.

A lesson was learnt. Never again would I try to meet a dandiya queen during ‘Maine payal hain chhankayi’ season.

Can’t stop, won’t stop—Geeta Rabari performs back to back for her loyal fans, everywhere.

But as I followed Geeta Rabari’s life via social media and phone messages, it became apparent that for this particular dandiya queen, it is always dandiya season. And Lok Daayro (folk performance) season. And wedding season. No matter the time of year. 

When I started to follow Geeta Rabari on Instagram in October, she had wrapped up a brief tour of the US, during which she performed at a series of pre-Navratri dance nights in Atlanta, Tampa and Raleigh. After which she hurried back to Surat to lead an elaborate nine-day Navratri event involving firework-emitting peacock thrones, smoke-creating guns, fire-producing cars, confetti storms, lethal-looking laser lights and wildly dancing crowds. And then  instead of taking a well-deserved break, she again flew halfway around the world so that crowds in Kentucky, New Jersey, Chicago, Columbus and Los Angeles could air their traditional togs, flock to community halls and dance the night away. 

Days later, Geeta Rabari is back in Gujarat and singing bhajans at a Lok Dayro in Banaskatha. “How do you sustain this bruising pace?” I want to ask her. “How do you teleport yourself from one place to another? And how did you feel when fate catapulted you from tiny Tappar (population between 841 and 961 according to official estimates) to a life that involves three tours in the US and one tour in the UK in a single year?” 

Unable to reach the singer, I seek answers from a bunch of dubious fan websites. They claim that Geeta Rabari’s favourite food is biryani; that she weighs 51 kgs; that she loves animals and playing cricket; that her husband is an engineer and that “they live happily together as companions”. There is also an ongoing discussion about her net worth, the amount she charges per show and the cars that she has bought. 

Rabari, herself, remains elusive till she finally agrees to a brief chat with an Ahmedabad-based journalist who works with a Gujarati news channel. Natasha Baxi poses my questions in a 17-minute interview with Geeta Rabari over Google Meet. A couple of days later, she sends me a video recording which allows me to plug the holes in the extraordinary fairytale of this Kutchi singer.

Rabari’s parents were nomadic cattle-herders who roamed the stark scrublands of Kutch, seeking grazing grounds for their cows and goats. “I grew up in the jungle,” she recalls about those early years. “When I was around 3.5 years old, my father felt that I must get an education, so he sold his cattle, started a small business, and we started living in our village.” 

Life in Tappar brought with it school, stability, neighbours and “alag khushi”. It also brought musical opportunities. Rabari was occasionally asked to sing during the morning prayers in school; during the Navratri celebrations in the village while the established artistes were taking a break; and at various functions in the village. Among those who noticed the little girl with the sweet voice was Narendra Modi, then chief minister of Gujarat, 

who heard her sing during a school picnic and gave her Rs 250 and urged her to focus on her music. “People would see me at programmes and tell my father that I sang well,” says Rabari about those early days. “And then, when they were having a programme, they sometimes requested me to sing.”

Soon the appreciative remarks of ‘Dikri, you sing well’ gave way to payments of a few hundred rupees. “There are many special memories,” says Rabari, who diligently passed on her earnings to her parents. “The time when neighbouring villages started calling me to perform. The first show for which I got paid Rs 1,000. The Namaste Trump show at Motera Stadium, during which I performed for Narendra Modi, Trump and laakhon ni public on a big stage. And then, of course, the release of my first song, ‘Rona sherma re’, which was the turning point of my career.”

Soon the invitations began to come from much further afield than the villages near Anjar. Her first foreign tour was in Africa, then London, then Oman, Australia, and America, she says. “Before my first trip I was excited at the thought of performing Gujarati songs on foreign soil, but I was also worried. I kept wondering, will they listen and enjoy? During the trip, I was amazed to see that the people still had so much attachment to Gujarat.” 

Rabari describes her days as a round of travelling, preparing for the next show, performing, and again hitting the road. Given this gruelling schedule, hasn’t the charm of the stage started to pall? Doesn’t she worry about her voice? “I love to stay busy. I love to perform for audiences and sing kirtans for God,” says Rabari with a shrug.

“I hear other singers talking about all the things they cannot eat and do, but the only thing that I avoid is gulab jamuns. And while I do feel exhausted, the minute I stand on the stage and hear the welcome from the audience, thaak uthri jai che. The fatigue vanishes.”

 There are more questions to ask, and more details to seek. But 17 minutes is as much as a Kutchi Koyal can spare. From the sidelines, someone is urging her to wrap up and get ready for the evening ahead. Rabari must return to her ‘If it is Monday it must be Rajasthan, if it’s Tuesday it must be Madhya Pradesh’ life. But what of the future?

 “Sangeet ek daryo chhe,” says Rabari. Music is as vast as an ocean. “However much you learn, it is too little. And I still have so much to learn.”

 (With reporting by Natasha Baxi)

From top: Geeta Rabari performing in Gandhinagar, Gujarat; Rabari in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles.

Shabnam Minwalla

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