How A Culture Curator Is Reviving Traditional Mehfils With A Gen Z Appeal

By putting together exhilarating, multi-sensorial experiences for audiences across ages, IBTIDA - Ek Mehfil is bringing back the languishing artform of bespoke baithaks and mehfils.

Published On May 06, 2024 | Updated On May 06, 2024


It is 8pm on a nippy night in the capital, and I’ve made my way to Amaara Farms in Chattarpur. The lush setting is playing host to IBTIDA - Ek Mehfil’s exclusive extravaganza, ‘Jhoom’—an immersive evening replete with Hindustani music, scrumptious food, handwoven textiles and enchanting storytelling. I catch the twinkling of stars as I enter the sprawling lawns that are lavishly adorned with fresh flowers, scented candles, crystal chandeliers and exquisite handwoven shawls by Ahujasons. 

Every breath I take is infused with the sweet and spicy smells of jasmine and freshly-brewed chai, which lingers on to the velvet upholstered seaters ahead of the bespoke mehfil. Soon, singer extraordinaire Rekha Bhardwaj makes her way to the stage and kicks off the event with a soulful rendition of ‘Aise Kyun’ from the Netflix series Mismatched, followed by a panoply of soothing ghazals

Rekha Bhardwaj

Over and above the soulful songs, she intersperses the performance with storytelling that narrates the tales of the history and heritage of mehfils. The audience was rapt by the time she crooned with blockbusters like ‘Phir Le Aya Dil’ from Barfi!, ‘Tere Ishq Mein’ from Tu Mane Ya Na Mane and ‘Laadki’ from Angrezi Medium. The National Award-winning singer exudes apricity in her voice, which feels like warmth of the sun on a crisp winter night. I couldn’t help but surrender to the mehfil, blurting, “I could get used to this!” 

What was it about the IBTIDA setting or the songs, but the mehfil’s centuries-old charm to give myself up to chords and culture invoked a curiosity I didn’t know I craved? The kind of enchantment that trivialised my fixation for sensory overload I am used to at concerts. “We have noticed a slight move away from festivals and gigs. Today, all art forms such as classical, ghazal, dance, theatre, jugalbandi and poetry are gaining momentum. IBTIDA - Ek Mehfil was thoughtfully crafted as an empathetic response to the obvious gap in this cultural landscape. It’s why our mehfils have gained popularity as they make you want to go back to the golden era, even for the much younger audience that doesn't resonate much with such artforms. And given how mehfil and baithaks are evolving, the beauty is that people from across ages are becoming receptive to it,” explains Tanvi Singh Bhatia, a New Delhi-based cultural revivalist who co-founded IBTIDA - Ek Mehfil with marketing expert Anubhav Jain.

Speaking of how their journey began, Singh Bhatia adds, “Ibtida means nayi shuruaat or new beginnings. And the core essence of starting IBTIDA - Ek Mehfil was to make India proud and all the diversities it entails, from the artists to the crafts. We wanted to bring back mehfils and baithaks in the new age India, with every element thought through. I've always been someone who gives attention to the minutest of details to ensure our ambience takes each person back to the era of nostalgia. It starts from the fragrance and florals to the colour palette and even ensuring the space allows close proximity between the artist and the audience. Not limited to a box-like auditorium, but we create a sensorial environment that feels as if it is designed just for the audience and the artist to do gufatagoo with each other, as they did during the days of yore.”  

Tanvi Singh Bhatia, a New Delhi-based cultural revivalist who co-founded IBTIDA - Ek Mehfil with marketing expert Anubhav Jain.

Conjuring up a visual of baithaks from the past, Singh Bhatia elaborates, “At North Indian baithaks that were often held in the drawing room or the residential courtyard, an intimate convergence of spontaneity, refinement and visceral experience occurred. The baithak, akin to the Urdu mehfil, showcased cultural expressions. In these settings, informed listeners actively participated, responding to the live and evolving performances with timely appreciation, demonstrating both generosity and knowledge. The performer's creative transformations in ragas and liberties with time signatures required a knowledgeable audience to fully appreciate. The exclamation ‘waah’ served as a nuanced expression of informed wonder, earned through years of training and exposure.” 

Kavita Seth

Bhardwaj also chimes in about her childhood memories of this tradition, revealing, “I am originally from Bareilly, and around 30-40 years ago, baithaks were commonplace. They weren’t large events, but community gatherings with loved ones, soulful music and good food. While growing up, my parents also organised a baithak in our home on a monthly basis. Over the years, I missed the baithak culture. So, I truly admire the work that Tanvi and Anubhav are doing through IBTIDA - Ek Mehfil. It’s not just a great platform, but an important one to revive our culture. Of course, the overwhelming response they get with every baithak suggests that even young audiences thoroughly enjoy such cultural experiences. What I love the most is that they are keeping it well-curated in terms of the number of people. This allows me, as an artist, to have an energy exchange with the audience and understand their response when I improvise or innovate.” 

And improvise she did at Jhoom. “For each show, I thoughtfully plan and put together a unique musical set. From the requirements and preferences to the destination and the nature of occasion, I keep every aspect in mind. My priority is to choose songs that have meaningful lyrics. Above all, I want my music to put a spotlight on our roots, on our rich Indian culture. As an artist, I take pride in upholding my culture as my responsibility. I also keep the age bracket of the audience in mind during this process. If the crowd will have mostly younger people, the list usually includes more upbeat numbers. A more mature audience prefers something entirely different. I know with IBTIDA - Ek Mehfil, the listeners come from various industries, ages and are aesthetes. And I always want my audience to experience emotions that they have never felt before and lose themselves to the music. They can be present physically, but mentally, I want to transport them to a different universe,” shares Bhardwaj. The audience swooning on the ghazal iteration of ‘Kabira’ from Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani and later grooving on foot-thumping ‘Mileya Mileya’ from Happy Ending that night was proof that they were teleported to a new dimension. 

Looking at their collaboration with maestros such as Rekha Bhardwaj, Kavita Seth and Shilpa Rao, it’s clear that the velocity of IBTIDA’s success also lies in its epic selection of talents who dictate the ethos of the platform. “We've curated 16 mehfils and baithaks so far. One of the most memorable ones was with Shilpa Rao. Although she’s a mainstream Bollywood playback singer, she did a traditional baithak setting for us with beautiful ghazals of Mehdi Hassan saab and unique renditions of her popular Hindi tracks,” recalls Singh Bhatia. 

I vividly remember Shilpa Rao concluding the said baithak with an unheard-of, an unpredictable Sufi iteration of the song, ‘Besharam Rang’ from the Shah Rukh Khan and Deepika Padukone-starrer Pathaan. Spontaneous and unbridled ‘aahs’ and ‘waahs’ emanated from the audience as Rao struck interesting notes before reaching the crescendo, leaving a very enriching effect on the artist as well. That is what great art does—it speaks timeless truths to every new generation. 

Photo: Featured Event