The concept of a mehfil, an unorganised gathering discussing the arts or even politics, is not something new. Every generation has seen these assemblies, whether it’s at someone’s house, with close friends in attendance, or even at a roadside chai tapri, with free-flowing banter. Literary mehfils have seen an upsurge at every level, thanks to the reintroduction of poetry and literature to the younger generation by YouTube poetry videos.
I lived a good part of my life in Pune, before moving to NCR in 2017. For my farewell, we organised an open mehfil. It was made public on Facebook and anyone who loved music and Hindustani literature was invited. The event began in my drawing-room at 7 pm and before we knew it, literature enthusiasts packed the house, some sitting on mattresses laid out on the floor, some standing shoulder to shoulder, all the way to the balcony. Some hidden talent was on display with enthusiastic budding poets opening their journals and pouring their hearts out.
Evenings like these were not uncommon in Pune for I surrounded myself with other Hindustani literature lovers. On moving to NCR, I felt a big void that no amount of books and YouTube poetry videos were able to fill. The camaraderie of people coming together for the love of something as primal as poetry was what I was looking for.
In June this year, I got a text from Sarover Zaidi, a social anthropologist and Hindustani literature aficionado, inviting me to the second edition of the Saiyidain Manzil Sessions, titled Inqalabi Aawazein. The event was hosted by writer and social activist Syeda Hameed at her family home Saiyidain Manzil, in collaboration with Zaidi and Shiraz Hussain (who runs Khwaab Tanha Collective).
I went there little expecting the fond memories of my Pune poetry sessions to come rushing back. Pristine white sheets covered every inch of a large drawing room, with light filtering in from the curtain draped windows. Hussain, Zaidi and Hameed took turns reading pieces from stalwarts like K A Abbas, Harishankar Parsai and Manto, among others.
The informal mehfil, remarks Zaidi, “breaks the formality of space and the mental hierarchy around literature”. Hindustani literature, she believes, has lately been seen as belonging to the elite.
The phenomenon of informal literary gatherings is not limited to North India. Hussain Rashid, a dastango based out of Nagpur, is trying to achieve something similar with his initiative titled Dark Room Poets (DRP). “We organise poetry house parties in spaces we can find through friends and acquaintances. Open mics at cafes tend to be too formal and are not conducive to lengthy conversations,” Rashid tells indianexpress.com.
So far, DRP has organised these poetry house parties in seven cities — Mumbai, Pune, Nashik, Nagpur, Aurangabad, Indore and Bhopal. Rashid says these have been very successful with poets of all ages attending and sharing their pieces, with topics ranging from relationships, feminism and mental health to politics.
Pune-based Vishal and Neha Pipraiya, who co-run Pagdandi Cafe in the Baner area echo these beliefs. “Ours is the oldest open mic for poetry in Pune. We started six years ago and host poets every third Friday at 9 pm,” informs Vishal. These gatherings attract between 35-40 people, who come together to read and discuss literary pieces as well as original work. Neha chimes in, “The idea is to have a free-flowing casual forum where people can talk about anything under the sun without any restrictions.”
Hussain Haidry, a Mumbai-based chartered accountant-turned-poet, Bollywood lyricist and screenwriter recalls becoming a viral sensation with his poem Hindustani Musalman in early 2017, which was seen as a first. He remarks, “This was proof that Hindustani poetry could get one instant online fame, which really helped it gather speed. Since Hindustani Musalmaan, a lot of people visit open mics simply to get video shots of their performance, which they can upload on social media.”
Open mics, extremely popular between 2009 and 2016, are now more about making money, believes Haidry, and agrees on the need for informal forums. “Mumbai, being the city of dreams, has a way of commercialising everything,” he remarks.
It can’t be denied, however, that Hindustani poetry has seen a massive rise and found favour among the youth. Even if it’s merely for internet stardom, it’s surely good news for lovers of the art form.
As for me, I’m happy to have found my tribe among the busy lanes of Jamia Nagar at Saiyidain Manzil, and with the likes of Rashid, Zaidi and the Pipraiyas, there is no dearth of meetups with other literature enthusiasts.