Mahindra Kabira Festival 2017: From Kailash Kher's finale to Maati Baani's gig, the highlights
Even at 3 am, there’s a part of Varanasi that’s alive and in full swing, by the ghats of Ganga no less. When it’s time to get some shut-eye — as early as 10 pm since there are 6.30 am performances — the night outside your room is almost always punctuated with rickshaws, bikes and cars honking at something or the other.
From 6.30 am to 10 pm, the Mahindra Kabira Festival kept its delegates and attendees immersed in the essence of the near-mythical saint-poet. It wasn’t as much about peddling some kind of modern-day relevance through literature, fashion, history and music, but more about acknowledging the presence of a mind whose life was much like a fable. Of course, it had to take place in the town of his birth – Kashi.
Whether it was walking tours through the gullies of Varanasi (which are actual roads and routes if you have a motorbike of any kind), visiting temples and monuments or hearing from weavers and designers, the festival aimed to always underline Kabir’s poetry and wisdom beyond just his life. Of course, the holy city of Kashi/Varanasi/Benaras exudes just as much spirituality and all-round introspection to increase the effectiveness of an experiential festival. The small lanes, the surreal sights such as the Ganga Aarti at night to the mist, fog (and definitely smog) lifting from the surface of the river — it all contributes to a contemplative state of mind.
While the first day’s morning session featured young Kumar Sarang (santoor) and Shrutisheel Uddhav (tabla) performing lilting tunes just as the sun became visible, celebrated vocalist Rashmi Agarwal was up next, with a cast of veteran stage support. The singer lifted spirits easily, with a sublime voice that effortlessly mingled the poetry of Kabir with contemporary-influenced classical music. With a brief break for food – the famous and local cream-based dish nimish was being served – the patrons were wide awake as possible for the entertaining stories and teachings from Ankit Chadha, who used everything from YouTube to vaudeville to Bollywood, to keep the audience hanging on every word. A somewhat informative talk from designer Aabha Dalmia filled the space, but only just as we headed out for a city walk that took us back on the Ganga to the Alamgir mosque and into the gullies of Varanasi from there.
It wasn’t just Kabir – Varanasi was homeground for India’s cultural architects for centuries, from Tulsidas to Bismillah Khan. To understand its diversity, these city walks and a specific Kabir-themed walk examined how the poet’s interest in weaving created a tangent to his life. There are people who follow every bit of his work even today, even when times get tough, apparently. Writer Vinayak Sapre, author of Dohanomics, took inspiration from poets Kabir and Rahim to talk about investments and smart living when it comes to finances, but in essence, the festival’s strongest point put forth was the music.
On day one, after the sun set, the small grassy ground of Chota Nagpur ki Bageecha hosted an exceptional performance by Bindumalini and Vedanth Bharadwaj (adding more contemporary hues), Benares gharana-rep Vishnu Mishra (who also performed at the opening ceremony) and a runaway Rajasthani folk performance by Mahesha Ram and his troupe, whose kirtan player took over the show by getting into the crowd for a full-blown celebration.
On day two, the evening became even more encompassing, flagged off by the Ganga aarti by the Assi Ghat, followed by solid performances by the likes of some of the strongest proponents of Kabir’s poetry. Harpreet brought gentle, but energetic folk, while drummer Nathulal Solanki played a short but incendiary set, showing off all his beat skills as the crowd cheered. You have to remember that by now, a lot of the crowd (delegates, people who registered for free and general townsfolk) weren’t in the mood for sitting patiently and being moved by the music. When Harpreet performed the delightful ode to Varanasi called 'Bubbly Benarasi', over a thousand people had a smile that just wouldn’t fade.
Mumbai fusion act Maati Baani capitalised on that, vocalist Nirali Karthik performing popular couplets such as 'Moko Kahan' but also their own, fairly rousing numbers such as 'Boondan Boondan'. They won over most fans for entertainment value even if they didn’t convince the purists. But then they were setting the stage for what came next — the indefatigable charm and entertainment of Meerut-bred Kailash Kher, who performed with his band Kailasa.
For someone who shares some allegiances with the people of Varanasi, Kher was a natural at winning the crowd over with little effort, joking about how they were onstage without a proper soundcheck and kicking into songs such as 'Dilruba', 'Allah ke Bandeh' and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s 'Tere Bin Nahi Lagda'. When you have music turned up that loud, the classical crowd may have just got a bit of a shock, or just reminded of the fact that they were now technically at a rock concert.
Whether or not it united everyone who relates to Kabir’s poetry, the Mahindra Kabira Festival did well to present a fairly holistic experience that’s not just trying to reel in foreigners or tourists. They know what they’re doing and hopefully, they won’t stop.