In a small community room on the ground floor of a Vile Parle (East) building, Hindustani classical singer Arvind Wakankar sits cross-legged on a rug, tuning his electronic tanpura and tabla sets. His audience is a group of around 45 men and women who, had they not been members of a senior citizens’ club, would have been sitting down on rugs or mattresses. As the chairs fill up, Wakankar clears his throat, gestures to his harmonium accompanist and begins the soft opening notes of ‘Jaago mohan pyare’, a popular light classical hymn in raga Bhairav.
The morning raga is unusual for a mid-week February afternoon, just as the homely room with its plastic chairs is an unlikely setting for an hour-long classical music concert. But Wakankar's audience is enthralled by his little mehfil, with everyone tapping their feet, letting out an occasional ‘waah!’ and praising him between songs.
For Wakankar, this is a conscious attempt to promote the age-old tradition of mehfils — small-scale, private concerts at the homes of musicians or patrons — which were once a tradition in Indian classical music. In the 1980s and 1990s, as stage performances with professional sound amplification grew more popular, the mehfil culture took a backseat in Mumbai.
In the past few years, however, intimate home concerts have seen a revival of sorts in the city, in Indian music and also in Western classical music and Urdu mushairas. It is no longer just wealthy industrialists who are inviting artistes to perform at their homes, as various musicians, poets and arts-enthusiasts have taken to the concept in diverse ways.
Wakankar, the most recent example of this trend, has made mehfils the focus of his 75th birthday celebrations this year. Before October 23, he intends to perform a series of 75 home concerts in Mumbai, of which the senior citizens’ mehfil was the fifteenth.
On January 23, Mumbai’s Western classical scene saw perhaps its first home chamber music concert at pianist Fareed Curmally’s Peddar Road apartment. Kimball Gallagher, the young American pianist who performed there, is also on a mission: to promote the classical tradition of chamber concerts through an 88-concert tour around the world. The Mumbai concert was his 47th, an evening that included wine, cheese, a formal introduction and plenty of informal banter with the 25 eager listeners.
Earlier, in 2001, a group of five city-based Hindustani musicians formalised the mehfil tradition by founding Kshitij, a forum through which interested patrons and musicians can organise baithaks at their homes.
Three years ago, Kshitij co-founder Sanjeev Chimmalgi moved to Vashi and decided to launch Manthan, another mehfil forum with more than 35 member-families from Navi Mumbai. Chimmalgi organises a concert every two months at one of their homes, and has featured singers such as Satyasheel Deshpande and Ashwini Bhide and santoor artiste Ulhas Bapat.
“People today do not have the time to attend large formal concerts, and prefer inviting musicians home as per their convenience,” says Wakankar, who has been invited to perform largely in middle-class homes and charges up to Rs 2,000 to cover his basic expenses. “Also, unlike in big auditoriums, small mehfils allow audiences to interact intimately with the artiste.”
Gallagher, who since 2008 has held chamber concerts for the Tunisian government and even at American actor Uma Thurman’s home, agrees. “Home concerts make the audience feel they are a part of the music being played.” To make each concert special, Gallagher always composes a short piece of music dedicated to his host, who pays for his performance and travel.
Although Indian musicians also charge a fee for giving home concerts, promotion of the form, and not money, is their chief concern.
“Private mehfils are usually performed in their original form without microphones, and allow the audiences to emotionally relate to the performer,” says painter and curator Dilip Ranade, 61, who has had Hindustani singers such as Narayan Bodas, Raja Miyan and Kshitij co-founder Anand Thakore perform at his Colaba home in the past eight years. Most of the lead performers are his friends and do not accept a fee, but he pays the accompanying musicians around Rs 1,500 for the mehfil. Ranade, who has planned another concert this month, invites artistes from various disciplines as the audience, along with art students who have not been exposed to classical music before. “My intention is to nurture inter-disciplinary discussions between music and other forms of art through such intimate mehfils,” he says.
The culture that comes closest to the musical mehfil is that of Urdu mushairas (poetry readings), and these, too, have grown more popular over the years.
“I have hosted monthly mushairas at my house for more two decades, but in the past few years the number of people who turn up has increased,” says Sadiq Rizvi, 65, an Urdu poet from Vile Parle (W), whose mushairas are open to all. At the end of every event, a theme and a rhyme scheme is decided for the next mushaira, and poets — both amateur and professional — who wish to participate have to come prepared. “In auditoriums, the public listens to shers for humour and entertainment. At home, mushairas are more literary, and people come for the love of poetry.”
‘A classical concert requires give and take’
Among the first to spearhead the revival of small baithaks was Kshitij, a classical music collective founded in 2001 by five city-based Hindustani musicians who wanted to recreate the experience of live classical music in ambiences that would be conducive to musical interaction and spontaneity.
The musicians — vocalists Sanjeev Chimmalgi, Krishna Bhat, Anand Thakore and Kedar Bodas, and tabla player Rupak Kharvandikar — have held at least three mehfils annually either at their own homes or the homes of modern-day patrons, such as poet Jane Bhandari, painter Dilip Ranade and others.
“Indian classical music was traditionally performed in jamghats or small spaces where musicians would gather,” says Thakore, who believes this culture started dying out in industrial, urban spaces such as Mumbai.
After the 70s, he says, the mehfil culture survived in a few rare pockets of the city, kept alive mainly by passionate musicians and some wealthy patrons. With Kshitij, the founders aim to make organising mehfils easy for anybody who has the space, can gather a small audience of eager listeners and can pay a fee to the artiste and accompanists.
“A classical concert requires give and take between the artistes and the audience, and it is in the home mehfil that this need is fulfilled,” says Thakore.
To host a Kshitij mehfil at your home, you can mail the forum at firstname.lastname@example.org. Kshitij takes care of all organisational procedures.
To invite singer Arvind Wakankar for a home performance, contact him at 9833407822.