The return of the mehfil  

This winter, intimate musical gatherings made a comeback, as people gathered on terraces and in living rooms for bespoke baithaks

January 30, 2023 11:25 am | Updated 12:38 pm IST

An event by Ibtida–Ek Mehfil 

An event by Ibtida–Ek Mehfil  | Photo Credit: Lakshay Sachdeva

‘If music be the food of love, play on’, Shakespeare’s words reverberate in my mind as I sit crossed legged under a starlit sky. The quaint terrace is dimly lit by twinkling candles and fragrant with the heady scent of night jasmine hung along the walls. On a small stage in front are three musicians: one singing soulful renditions of evergreen ghazals, others playing tabla and sarangi; around me is a handful of fellow music lovers — some humming along, some teary eyed, some lost in the verse and voice.

A bespoke baithak of Hindustani music is not how Delhi generally spends its winter evenings, but this season is different. Intimate musical gatherings are making a comeback and social calendars are dotted with traditional Indian musical events. Not just Delhi, cities across the country are now hosting such performances — complete with old-world decor, traditional set up, and a discerning audience. Driving this culture is a small community of people who have taken the initiative to bring back musical baithaks of yore.

“Musical baithaks were common at our home in Delhi since my mother is a trained Hindustani singer; in the past few years though, whenever I wanted to attend one, I could find nothing like that anywhere,” says marketing professional Tanvi Bhatia who decided to co-found Ibtida–Ek Mehfilalong with partner Anubhav Jain in 2019with the sole aim of reviving the culture of musical gatherings.

Ibtida–Ek Mehfil’s musical evening 

Ibtida–Ek Mehfil’s musical evening 

Not so far away in Lucknow, Abhishek Sharma, a software engineer who returned to the city after a decade of working in Pune, had a similar thought. “There was a certain fatigue that had set in people post-lockdown and I felt music could help relive that,” informs Abhishek. “I had seen many baithaks in Pune and was surprised that the culture had died down in Lucknow.” And so, he and his friends started to organise musical evenings in their homes under the Trisaamaa Arts banner. “Initially there were few takers but gradually people opened up; now we see a great turn out,” adds Abhishek, who organised a recital in October 2022 by renowned rudra veena player Carsten Wicke, who performed in the city after 30-year gap. The event saw people from as far as Kanpur coming over to listen to him play.

A new platform for artistes

While there is a fair share of popular artists performing in the baithaks — artists like Kavita Seth and Harshdeep Kaur have recently performed with Ibtida–Ek Mehfil — most organisers are keen on supporting younger and upcoming talent who need encouragement. It helps that these formats are far more personal than a large public performance and allow artists and audience to communicate. “In a baithak format it is possible for the audience and performers to talk to each other,” explains Anubhav, who often witnesses moving conversations between the audience and artists during and after the event. “It is encouraging to see the guftgoo, real conversations, happening between our guests and performers — that’s the essence of a real baithak and we are glad we have been able to achieve that,” he adds.

Nisschal Zaveri

Nisschal Zaveri | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Other organisers feel the same way. “There are artistes who do not have any backing, and we want to give them a chance,” says Rajiv Sethi who is known in Mumbai for his musical baithaks. Over the years, Rajiv has not just facilitated performances of young artists but has also given them opportunity to interact with seasoned connoisseurs of music and hone their skills. “It gives us great pleasure that many of our artists are big names in the industry now,” quips Rajiv. In Lucknow meanwhile, Abhishek has started a culture of open mic that never existed for classical singers. “We want to give singers and listeners a chance to learn from each other; whether it is to watch the tanpura being strung, or to sing for a live audience, or even to watch the musician play,” he says.

Evolution of the audience

While Abhishek’s events are open to all, Anubhav and Tanvi curate the guest lists with much care to ensure the audience at their mehfils are interested in some kind of arts even if not Hindustani music. “We want our events to be intimate and our guests to communicate with each other; having the common love for arts helps build that connect.” It may sound like gatekeeping for some, but the duo believes that this is essential to keep the soul of the baithaks intact. For Rajiv, selecting the audience is easier. Having organised baithaks for some years, he now has a fair idea of who appreciates the art. “I have a database of music lovers and I invite my guests depending on the format they enjoy.” A larger baithak or mehfil, of course, has more room for a diverse audience and every organiser is open to having an open audience in their ticketed events.

An event by Ibtida–Ek Mehfil 

An event by Ibtida–Ek Mehfil 

What the future holds

It is pertinent to gauge if musical baithaks are a passing trend or a new cultural dimension that is here to stay. “There is a large community out there waiting to be tapped,” feels Tanvi who plans to take Ibtida–Ek Mehfil to cities like London and Dubai apart from Lucknow, Hyderabad and Kolkata to build the tradition of conversation around music. Along with Anubhav, she is also working to revive the traditional dance recitals and make them a part of their repertoire. “We need more young people to come and listen to all forms of Indian music. Even if the understanding is nil, it will help carry the legacy forward,” says Rajiv, who organised a performance in Mumbai in December 2022 based on pure classical ragas which was attended by over 150 people and is planning more such. “In Lucknow, people have now started looking forward to baithaks, and our latest one saw a great turn out,” informs Abhishek. “Even if some people continue to patronise us, the culture will not just sustain but also grow in the coming times, and that is good enough,” he says.

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