What we can appreciate from 19-year-old Gujarati folk singer Kinjal Dave’s viral success

Videos of Kinjal Dave’s Gujarati pop-folk songs have gone viral on YouTube. What does the young rising star’s success tell us about the power that folk music holds over the people of Gujarat? What does it signal for folk music today?

How many of us have listened to non-stop jukebox videos of Arijit Singh, in which his quiet crooning voice sings about love that’s been lost? Tens of millions of us, according to view counts on YouTube. Many of Singh’s videos have garnered up to and exceeded 15 million views. What if I were to tell you that there’s another singer on the block whose videos have been consistently racking up 7 million views, but most of which are of viewers hailing from a single state alone? Kinjal Dave has racked up 47 million views on her video Ghate to Zindagi Ghate in just under a year! For reference, the hit song Enna Sona, sung by Arijit Singh 2 years ago, has garnered 46 million views on YouTube. What’s more: the 19-year-old Gujarati folk singer’s popularity extends mostly in and around Gujarat alone, and the diaspora Gujarati communities.

Dave, a professional singer who has sung for Gujarati audiences all over the world, including in the United States and Australia, is a veritable pop star in every sense of the word. Her 30+ releases include titles like DJ Jonadiyo and DJ Maiyaran and are played at weddings and garba celebrations everywhere. Dave’s demeanor is mature for her age. She comes across as confident, but not arrogant – talented but down to earth. These qualities shine through in her interviews and on stage, further cementing her place as Gujarat’s sweetheart. Dave has experienced everything that comes with being in the public eye as well, the good and the bad, both. Most recently, a lawsuit was filed against her hit song Char Char Bangdi Gaadi Vali Varraja. The trials of dealing with copyright law and the many accusations that are flying back and forth, are being handled gracefully by the teenager, however.

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Kinjal Dave at a stage show. Image source: Deshgujarat.com

So who listens to Dave’s music?

How does Dave manage to consistently rack up thousands and even millions of views on her videos? And many of these videos do not even take months to produce. For example, the hit song Char Char Bangdi Vali Audi was made only in a day! To find out, I went on a lok-geet, or folk music, binge in the online world of videos. And voila, in a moment, I was awash in a completely different culture.

Though every weekend plan of mine in Ahmedabad has been replete with open mic nights, the first time I saw the sheer strength in numbers of the folk culture in town was through these videos. In this city, that’s reportedly becoming more and more “cosmopolitan”, I’ve only seen budding musicians sing Bollywood and English songs or recite Gujarati, Urdu and English poetry. But have I been deluding myself this whole time? I wondered. Is the English music scene of the city so insular as to not be aware at all of the immense popularity of folk music? I found millions of views online on the colourful and unabashedly loud, yet relatable, videos of Kinjal Dave, Kirtidhan Gadhvi, Geeta Rabari, Jignesh Kaviraj and Rajal Barot, many of whom can be seen performing in front of thousands of people in huge concert setups. Lok geet directly translates to ‘songs for the people’. These songs are sung with a certain vocal projection characteristic of village folk singers or nomadic Maldhari singers, and the tradition goes back many generations. I shouldn’t have been surprised at the amount of views these videos were garnering. These were the original storytellers.

Having been born and raised in New York, I was not exposed to commercial Gujarati folk music except during the yearly Navratri celebrations we had. I guess that is part of the problem with the diaspora: we cling so hard to our traditions that we forget that change is a necessary and unavoidable part of our culture. While we were still listening to “tari baki re paghaldi nu fumtu re, mane gamtu re,” a traditional song describing admittedly outdated fashions and practices, it didn’t strike us that if lok-geet was originally for the people, for the general public – why shouldn’t it be relevant and relatable? At the time the above-mentioned song was written, it was relatable. But no, we were not dancing in open fields wearing elaborate costumes and shuttling around in horse carriages. We were taking selfies, and riding to the venue in cars. If we are now experiencing the “chaar bangdi wali gaadi” (a widely used Gujarati metaphor for an Audi), and “selfie photo varraja saathe” (a selfie with the groom), then why not sing about those experiences?

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Kinjal Dave in the video for the hit song, “Char Char Bangdi Vali Audi”. Image source: Dailymotion

The cringe-pop argument

Being a musician myself, I’ve often traveled in cabs with my instruments and encountered curious drivers. As I talked to one such cab driver about music, he shared, “Aa badhha Kinjal Dave ni chaar bangdi wali gadi gaye ena karta avu kem nathi gaatha (Instead of all these Kinjal Dave type songs, why don’t people sing these types of songs?),” pointing towards the radio which was spewing out a melodious romantic Bollywood tune from the 60s. It’s a simple question. But if you think about it, it’s completely unwarranted criticism, especially without proper contextualisation. To call music like Dave’s not worthy of being celebrated, or to put it in the “cringe-pop” category, would be decidedly regressive. Yes, the production and lyrics are different from the packaged, perfect melodies that we we are used to listening to, but that does not mean there is no room for music like this in the industry. The original purpose of folk music was very likely to be to record information about the present In order to pass it on to a future that’s coping with a lack of written historical records. Since the present is constantly changing, of course these songs will be changing as well.

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Kinjal Dave in the video for the hit song, “Char Char Bangdi Vali Audi”. Image source: APKPure.com

Music is a family affair

However strong a personality she is, Kinjal Dave’s success story is not a single-handed one and neither does she claim it to be. The songs that launched her to the top carry many credits. The hit and highly singable lyrics in her songs are all penned by Manu Rabari, a veteran lagnageet (wedding song) lyricist, who writes lyrics for many other singers, including Geeta Rabari, the powerful female singer from Kutch. Dave’s father is her manager and acts as mediator between his daughter and her performance venues.

In fact, Dave often talks about her father’s story, about how he used to polish diamonds for a living and play the dhol in his free time. Her upbringing was incredibly simple. She lived with her family in a small home that had several paying guests, She would often accompany her father to his programmes and plead to sing with him. At first, he forbade this, but the more her interest grew, she managed to convince him of her abilities. Dave is never slow to attribute a great part of the credit for her success to her father, to his teachings and hard work. In fact, he often features in her videos as well! Dave constantly cites the support of her family as the main reason behind her success. It’s difficult to not be impressed by the young singer’s ability to hold her own like this, amidst the fame.

Dave has often been outspoken about how families should support their daughters’ dreams as much as they support their sons’ dreams. She shares these views with Geeta Rabari, who often tours with Dave. When both these women began singing in their early years, it was much to the chagrin of their fathers who did not approve of their inclination to perform. But with their mounting success and passion, they soon won over their families’ approval.

So next time you sit in a rickshaw or pass by a baarat or wedding procession, and hear the familiar tunes of “Char Bangdi Vali Audi” or “Khava Mate Pizza”, just stop for a second and take it all in. From the clever, relatable lyrics in these songs to the characteristic powerful voice – maybe we can all learn to appreciate the young Dave’s interesting take on today’s culture and way of life.

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