Back to Baithaks: Music and poetry are returning to their original home

Several brands, companies and individuals are actively promoting baithaks, mushairas and mehfils, bringing patrons of the arts back to a setting where gayaki and shayari can be genuinely appreciated.

Indian classical singer Sveta Hattangdi Kilpady at a baithak in Gurugram. (Photo: Getty Images)
Indian classical singer Sveta Hattangdi Kilpady at a baithak in Gurugram. (Photo: Getty Images)

Abhilasha Ojha

When Ibtida–Ek Mehfil, a musical symposium promoting baithaks and mehfils, welcomes 500 patrons and aficionados of Hindustani classical and semi-classical music for its first ticketed show on December 11, it will have pulled off something special.

Pegged as a truly immersive experience in 1AQ—a creative venue that promotes cultural activities and events— with Sufi singer Harshdeep Kaur performing against the backdrop of a magnificent banyan tree, ‘Jhoom’ takes us back to the baithaks, the way they were meant to be.

Though the Intellectual Property (IP) has been around since 2019, and there have already been close to a dozen, strictly-by-invitation baithaks, Tanvi Bhatia, co-founder of Ibtida along with Anubhav Jain, is excited with good reason. ‘Jhoom’ is the first to be envisaged as a replay of a bygone era on such a large scale.

According to Bhatia, the idea behind stepping away from the usual auditorium/stadium venue is to “recreate the magic of mehfils, where the artiste becomes the hero of the evening, and there is guftagoo or conversation between the listeners and the performer”. Even more interesting, though, is the audience profile one sees in Ibtida. It’s not unusual, for instance, to see three generations—grandmother, mother, and daughter—enjoying a ghazal performance together.

An increasing number of such events and symposiums, are, in fact, packed with youngsters in their 20s. One such was the recently concluded Jashn-e-Rekhta, which promotes all facets of Urdu through various art forms. Spread over three days, the festival came back bigger and better after the 3-year pandemic-imposed gap—with over 150 artists, a curated food festival (Aiwan-e-Zaiqa), and open mics, attracting thousands of visitors.

What’s causing this welcome disruption in the cultural landscape that’s suddenly seeing a revival of mausiqui (music), musical baithaks, mushairas, full-fledged festivals, and events? Reasons abound—the increasing number of venues ready to host shayari and mausiqui; the trend of open mics; people thirsty for music in the cacophonies of their daily grind…

Experts reckon, however, that social media (read, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Pinterest), has a big role to play, pulling more youngsters than one might expect into the world of Urdu poetry and Hindustani semi-classical music.

Go on any of these social media channels and you’ll find that hashtags such as #urdupoetry #mehfils #shayari #openmicshayri #baithaks #ghazals are exploding the internet. While a lot of people are exploring the themes of relationships, angst, the existentialism of life, and politics (wrapped subtly in satire), the youth are pushing this revival. Nostalgia is also spurring it on.

For instance, Tanvi Bhatia’s own childhood memory of observing baithaks in her home in Lucknow (her mother is a Hindustani classical singer) urged her to create a similar space that she felt was sorely lacking. Azhar Iqbal, one of the finest names in the world of contemporary Urdu poetry and literature, decodes this with respect to Urdu poetry symposiums.

Not only does he hark back to his own memory of attending mushairas as a youngster being an impetus to preparing newer intellectual properties that celebrate the lives of both classic and contemporary Urdu poets, he also acknowledges what social media enables.

“The Instagram ‘reels’ feature has allowed youngsters to easily access some of the finest shayars of the past while also giving them access to the contemporary voices in the genre. Then there is the ‘café culture’, which continues to give a platform for youngsters to perform.

If there was a monopoly earlier of just giving a chance to a handful—it’s finally broken,” he says. Having performed in prominent Urdu- and Hindi-language festivals and mushairas, he would know.

A veteran poet, Iqbal is also the founder of Harfkaar Foundation, which works towards promoting theatre, dastangoi, poetry, and other art forms, with a primary focus on Urdu and Hindi literature. He has been getting invites not only from colleges to perform at their festivals and events, but is also being approached by corporates, companies, and organisations from fields as diverse as hospitality, finance and government.

He reveals that his calendar is booked for all of December, as he gets set for double the usual number of shows! Though he admits it’s early days, Iqbal is confident that corporates will start investing even more heavily in curating events and festivals that celebrate the culture and heritage of such intimately-styled concerts.

A case in point is Kahi Unkahi, the performance arts unit of Ferns N Petals, a 25-year-old company in the business of floral solutions that ultimately diversified into weddings, event designs, and gifting solutions. Kahi Unkahi recently celebrated Jashn-E-Dastaan, with some of the most renowned contemporary poets in Urdu performing an evening of nazms and ghazals. (Editor’s note: Ferns N Petals declined to participate in the story.)

In Mumbai, Harsh Shah, who has worked for the last five years at The Habitat, a venue promoting new and upcoming artistes through open mics, agrees that there is a rising interest among the youth to not just deliver shayari but also listen to their peers and seniors.

Shah, along with his colleagues, Adnan Shaikh and Faisal, runs Creative Bloc Party at The Habitat. The mushairas conjure up the relaxed and participatory atmosphere of old times—with the poet seated cross-legged on stage, and audiences appreciating the kalaam with ‘wah, wah’ and snapping their fingers in approval.

“We are building a community of like-minded people,” explains Shah, adding that the number of events has doubled as has the number of attendees. While these are currently free, Shah is confident that soon people will be happy to pay for such evenings.

Delhi-based Social House, a performance venue that opens its doors to communities of writers, poets, singers, and other creative people, not only conducts ticketed events already, but has managed to increase their ticket prices given the surge in demand! And the audience is getting more bang for their buck—with even more immersive and interactive experiences, appealing to listener and performer alike.

Started in 2017, Social House was Ravie Solanky’s answer to the “missing link between the audience and the performer”. A graphic designer, photographer, and filmmaker, Solanky remembers seeing a lot of talent in Delhi with no outlet or platform to perform.

In a bid to provide both a stage and a nurturing space for upcoming talent, and with an ardent wish to promote Hindustani semi-classical genres such as ghazals, Solanky took a bigger performance space in 2019. Then came the cruel pause of the pandemic.

This year, not only has Social House pressed play, it’s on fast forward! Youngsters are attending events as well as signing up for Solanky’s special Urdu masterclasses. In the coming months, Social House plans to pump up the volume of events, add to its range of merchandise, and jump start ‘Project Urdu’, a pet passion promoting the language.

It’s worth noting that most of these spaces and initiatives, if not all, are also looking at being disabled-friendly, thereby encouraging inclusivity.

While there’s no denying that the experience of listening to old songs in an intimate old-world setting where the fragrance of mogra and rose water fills the air is a balm for the nerves in these jangled times, the ultimate win for such events is the fact that they remind us of the power of art—to heal, to connect. As avenues that go beyond divides both political and religious, here’s a trend that’s music to our ears.

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