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Did you attend a mehfil? Congrats, you’re now cool

The gradual resurgence of mehfils across cities have made it the next cool thing to attend. Musicians and organisers break it down for us.

Around last year when a friend shared a link about a mehil-type gig, I was surprised. The first reason:  it was in Ghatkopar—a residential suburb of Mumbai, where one wouldn’t expect any live performances. The other reason why I questioned my friend was the venue. The show was a mehfil (of sorts) at a tattoo studio. From what I heard, it was almost sold out and that made me question: Are mehfils becoming the next cool thing to attend?

This question popped up again when I saw an Instagram reel earlier this year where people were clapping along enthusiastically during a mehfil and the audience included 20-and-30 somethings—an age bracket that is not traditionally known for attending mehfils and baithaks.

The folks backstage

Mumbai/Delhi-based singer-songwriter Aanchal Shrivastava has been a sufi and folk singer for roughly four years professionally and her style leans more towards a thumri or mehfil set-up. It was only in December that she started Mehfil-e-Ishq with her friend, songwriter and poet, Divya Batra-Das.

Shrivastava is the singer and musician in this partnership and Batra-Das is the sutradhar or narrator who explains the meaning and story to the audience. After two shows (one official and another unofficial), Shrivastava was shocked by what the team observed. “Our first [unofficial] edition was a smaller space and we expected that even 40-50 people would be a lot but we ended up accommodating around 80-85 and that gave us a message that what we are doing is more than an intimate gathering.” Thus, Mehfil-e-Ishq was born.

Moving north, Delhi-based Ibtida-Ek Mehfil started in 2019 by Tanvi Singh Bhatia and Anubhav Jain. The idea was to revive the old era and bring back mehfils and baithaks in the new age of India. Their most recent event in January, which had Rekha Bhardwaj as one of the artists tempted me to book a flight to Delhi just to attend.

Co-founders of mehfil-e-ishq

(left to right) Aanchal Shrivastava and Divya Batra-Das, co-founders of Mehfil-e-Ishq. Photos: Mehfil-e-Ishq

I’ll admit, I normally don’t listen to this genre of music a lot but this was also not the first time I was tempted to attend such an event. Hindustani Classical musician Avanti Patel’s project called O Gaanewali at the Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Centre (NMACC) in Mumbai was something I begrudgingly missed but sent my parents instead. They returned with praises for the artist and the art. O Gaanewali is a project celebrating the women of Thumri, Dadra, and Ghazal.

Have mehfils managed to lure 20 and 30-year-olds?

Shrivastava’s first Mehfil-e-Ishq was at Bengaluru, which had the capacity of 80-100, but they managed to acommodate almost 140 people. “There was a girl,” says Shrivastava, “who was in her mid-20s and told her masi who didn’t even know about it but tagged along because her niece wanted to go.”

However, Patel admits that she doesn’t think Gen-Z is coming for mehfils as much. “There is a graph where people start to realise that something is cool so I don’t think Gen-Z is there yet but a lot of millennials and people in their 30s are showing up because they have the purchasing power.” But she also feels that the hypothesis of the younger generation attending mehfils is restricted to bigger metro cities. “I saw a lot of this [younger audience] during my show in Bengaluru which was refreshing because Hindustani classical is not very predominant in a city like Bengaluru. In a clubbing and fusion kind of music culture, there is a small group of people who prefer going to a small, intimate space where they are actually listening and not just ‘vibing’ which makes a difference.”

Shrivastava shares that her mehfil saw around 53-57% of the audience to be young who refused to leave when after they were promised a refund and instead agreed to stand throughout the show just to listen to it. The folks at Ibtida feel that “our crowd and audience is slightly evolved or are people who wish to learn and crave to be associated with the old world life in modern times.” They admit that when it comes to Gen-Z, there is only a small audience who is actually interested in music. However, “we have recently witnessed a massive younger audience inclined towards poetry and this year we are introducing two new concepts catering to the Gen-Z which is more relatable.”

The duo also explains that their target audience is purely people who are in the age group of 30 to 60-years-of-age, who are “young entrepreneurs, the ones who represent craft and textile, culture, writers, advocates and represent Make in India initiatives or an older audience who craves for a space to listen to this music or forms of art which you don’t get to witness in the ambience we create today.”

The price for art

One of the main reasons why Shrivastava and Batra-Das’ Mehfil-e-Ishq is witnessing such a young audience is because their mehfils are affordable. Unlike Ibtida’s latest one with Rekha Bhardwaj which was priced at ₹5,999; Mehil-e-ishq aims to keep it anywhere between ₹399 to ₹599. “When it comes to bigger cities where mehfils are not that common and when you get bigger names like Rekha Bhardwaj, you need to ticket it at a higher price to make it look premium and people do come,” explains Shrivastava in a telephonic interview. “But this audience would not have regular and college people. We don’t make our mehfils expensive so that the 18-20-year-olds can also attend,” says the Mumbai and Delhi-based musician. “Our mehfil is solely about the people and for the people.”

However, Patel is of the belief that an affordable ticket only makes sense if the organisation such as NMACC where her show was ticketed at ₹250, is willing to take it upon themselves to pay the artists their basic fees. “It is a logistical and technical difficulty. I have to pay my artists,” says the 29-year-old musician. “If only 40-50 people can attend then I have to price the ticket at ₹500 otherwise I won’t have money to pay my artists and sound engineer.”

Avanti Patel and co-founders of Ibtida, Anubhav Jain and Tanvi Singh-Bhatia.

(from left to right) Avanti Patel also known as O Gaanewali, Anubhav Jain and Tanvi Singh-Bhatia of Ibtida. Photos: Avanti Patel, Ibitida

How do you make mehfils cooler?

Patel believes that music can exist anywhere and the décor is not necessary but it definitely adds to the overall ambience and vibe of the space. Whereas Shrivastava says that her baithaks have a “gajra-genda phool kind of feeling.” One thing that Ibtida is known for is their strict dress code—Indian attire for each of mehfil. “I have always sincerely loved dressing up in Indian attire,” says Singh-Bhatia. “It was a dream to see a mehfil with people loving our Indian story and even the ones who shy away from donning a saree. The whole idea is to be proud [of the Indian attire] which now is the new fashion but for me, it has always been so,” she adds.

While Shrivastava and Batra-Das anyway prefer wearing sarees on a daily basis, their initiative, Mehfil-e-Ishq, doesn’t have a dress code per se. “We are surprised that people read the word mehfil and show up dressed in Indian attire even without us asking them,” shares Shrivastava. “People get gajre, ghungroo, flowers and dress up in a way that they encourage us to dress up even more,” she laughs.

Are alt venues adding to the coolness?

After seeing Ibtida’s videos and stories, what caught our eye were the venues. Beautifully crafted, with a seamless blend of tradition, grandeur and luxury. “We pick venues where we can recreate stories,” the duo says. “We have taken a Banarasi saree store and made it into a baithak seating. We have also made artists dance under a banyan tree and converted modern, member-only clubs into a traditional setting and turned them into a mehfil darbar,” they add. “For us, auditoriums and closed box spaces lose the charm. The beauty is that unorthodox venues are now looking to recreate them which is a good thing and it makes it more accessible to the audience,” adds Jain.

Patel also agrees alt venues give the artist an opportunity to interact with people who wouldn’t attend or feel a certain kind of intimidation when it comes to certain venues where they feel there is some sort of gatekeeping. “Either the tickets could be expensive,” she explains, “or you are expected to dress in a certain way or maybe you have to sit in a particular way and these things tend to be gatekeepers for classical music because culturally it has always catered to a particular kind of crowd.”

The 29-year-old shares her experience in Bengaluru where she performed at a community space and how this was a “great way to break into a different kind of audience and interact with people who wouldn’t be comfortable coming to legacy venues such as an NCPA or even an Opera House.” A new alternate venue category that has arisen lately is galleries and smaller studios that host such shows.

Ibtida's show under a banyan tree.

Ibtida’s show under a banyan tree. Photo: Ibtida

What’s the verdict: Are mehfils cool enough to be the next big thing?

Shrivastava feels that these mehfils are the next big trend. “Club gigs happen regularly but mehfils happen once a month or not so frequently, making it a premium thing. So you either attend or skip it and wait till it is the next one in your city. It is the quality of content and the fact that it doesn’t have a repeat value that haunts people till they are able to watch it and that is why the demand is more now.”

Patel is grateful for this resurgence of baithaks because it makes artists like her more comfortable with their musical identity. “All my life, Hindustani classical was never cool and it has taken some years for people to realise that it can be more than just a boring performance. It is nice to see such acts performing at festivals such as Kala Ghoda [Arts Festival or KGAF] as well,” says Patel. She believes that this also adds to the “cool quotient.”

Singh-Bhatia and Jain of Ibtida feel that this form is evolving, not just in the format of music but also in theatre, poetry, jugalbandi and podcasts. “To be honest,” they add, “of late, we see baithaks have rather become the new cool thing and people attend to come off cooler than actually understanding the meaning and relevance of attending one. However, we hope the select few keep the originality and sanctity of it.”