Living in the suburb of Electronic City in Bengaluru, Gargee Vasavada was frustrated with the constant traffic snafus and surge pricing on taxi apps that seemed to distance her from the city’s cultural centres. At times, despite meticulous planning, she would end up late for performances.
“No one ever empathized with me; in fact, people would constantly remind me that my neighbourhood of Electronic City isn’t even considered a part of Bengaluru,” she says, only half-jokingly. “Also, my daughter has just turned 3, and I wanted to expose her to music and dance, and it was proving near-impossible to do so.”
A trained Bharatanatyam dancer and teacher, Vasavada recalled her own childhood in Ahmedabad, where her mother, Uma Anantani, a noted Bharatanatyam choreographer-dancer, hosted baithaks at their family home. “We would have visiting artists perform a mini-concert for an intimate audience of invited guests, family and friends. Though it wouldn’t always be a classical recital—at times, it would be someone singing old Hindi film songs or we would even just listen to noted recordings of known artists,” she recalls. Vasavada was determined to create a similar experience in the city.
On 30 March, she started Layakari Evenings, a series of home concerts. “It wasn’t easy finding the first artist to begin the series but it has gotten much easier from then. And Instagram has been a big boon in this regard,” she says.
Vasavada, however, has a particular aim in mind. “I want to give artists from in and around Electronic City, like Rabindrasangeet artist Kakali Ghosh, who kicked off the series, a platform to perform first before expanding the roster to other artists,” she explains. “Also, I want to spend time with the artists and build a rapport before presenting them.”
For her, another driving motive is “to infuse a sense of culture and community into this neighbourhood. I want to show its other residents that going out for a movie, dinner and drinks isn’t the only option in this place. And culture doesn’t only happen outside of it,” she asserts.
Her experience has been that “if you build it, they do come”—both audiences and artists. That Hindustani singer Gurupriya Atreya’s The Living Room Kutcheri (in the Carnatic music tradition, kutcheri or katcheri is a term for musical concerts, usually smaller and intimate ones), also in Bengaluru, just celebrated its second anniversary is proof of it.
With furniture removed and curtains decorated with fairy lights, Atreya’s family room in Malleswaram is transformed into an ethereal realm for music and dance. “From 20 people in the audience, we are now bursting at the door jambs with 70-odd people at every gig,” she says. “And, we are booked up with artists for the rest of the year,” she says. In the early days, Atreya led a core team that set up the event; now it’s a community-run event. “We have repeat audience members coming in early to help clear the space and others bringing in snacks; the audience seems to also take responsibility for the smooth running of the event,” she says.
Atreya, who is familiar with the economics and performance barter system of the music scene, “where artists aren’t paid to perform or rather have to pay to perform at certain festivals and venues”, was determined to offer artists at The Living Room Kutcheri a token amount. “And slowly, over these two years, through our hat collection, we are able to pay artists more than just a token,” she says.
The Living Room Kutcheri has gained so much traction that people have even expressed interest in organizing similar evenings in other cities. “People who have been regulars at the series and are now moving to other cities for professional reasons want to take this format to their new cities,” she explains. “This simple format of no microphone, no technical equipment, and direct sharing between artist and audience really seems to have struck a chord with people,” Atreya adds.
Atreya is working on formalizing the brand, registering it, designing a logo that will lend it credence for adoption in other cities, but is determined to “keep the structure of the space and performance informal always because that’s the draw”.
M.D. Pallavi, a Bengaluru-based singer, composer, actor and film-maker who has performed at The Living Room Kutcheri, finds the intimacy and freedom attractive. “I have been performing sugama sangeetha—a genre where Kannada poetry is set to music—for over 24 years. I have been invited to present concerts like this before, it isn’t something entirely new to me. But, earlier, these home concerts were more exclusive, invite-only—open to only a select few. Mostly, they were accessible only to those in the know. It isn’t the case with these emerging home-concert series. I am really happy and excited by the more inclusive way in which it is happening lately,” she says.
Pallavi has grown to appreciate the diversity of audiences at such concerts compared to the more formal performance spaces. “Social media has really helped acquaint me with people with similar tastes but also it has broken down some tastes instilled by cultural context and upbringing for many of us. These formats allow for many such barriers to be brought down, it has allowed me as a performer to have a more visceral connection with each individual in the audience. It feels like an intense, intimate, individualized exchange,” she explains.
Pallavi insists formal and home concerts are two different beasts, feeding the audience and the artist in different ways. “I get to play around more with the structure of the concert itself and with the audience at the home concert. I get to try out new compositions, new treatments to older ones—sometimes a conversation with the audience might take me off on another tangent, changing the shape of the evening,” she says.
“At these more informal spaces, I also get to learn something from the audience, there’s an exchange of information and cultural snippets—like at one home concert I learnt that an audience member’s grandfather was a classmate of the Kannada poet D.R. Bendre, whose poems I was singing that evening. There’s also more room for sensitive feedback at these spaces,” she adds.
There are several other groups running similar cultural salons—take Jagali561 in JP Nagar, formed by a group of four friends: a food stylist, a photographer, a media marketer and an IT professional; or PowerCut, a pop-up art show run out of a private apartment in East Bengaluru that showcases up-and-coming artists working across mediums.
There’s also just space for ideas and debates—such as the one run by spaceship engineer and aerospace entrepreneur Susmita Mohanty and investment banker-turned-technology consultant Siddharth Das. At their MAD Salons, thinkers from the fields of architecture and design discuss ideas over food and drinks.
These spaces, of course, don’t necessarily address all the issues related to access, affordability, and availability of space and resources for practitioners, says Shiva Pathak, co-founder of Sandbox Collective, a Bengaluru-based organization that produces, curates and arranges tours of performances. “I am firmly putting on my sceptic’s cap while I say this: Over six years ago, when we started out with our format of home shows, there weren’t too many alternative performance venues in the city. But now, they are mushrooming in every corner, and, in most instances, they are an extension of people’s private homes or workspaces,” she points out. “And over time, the trouble is that in a bid to profitably monetize the space, they lose out on the element of curation, so everything goes,” she says.
She does accept, however, that this phenomenon has resulted in newer audiences. “It breaks the idea of a set audience for a particular event, which used to be the case—especially with events at formal venues,” she says.
“In the case of theatre, while we would always tour shows written and created for these informal spaces, not everything works in an intimate space. Also, sending around a hat for collections doesn’t always pay off for theatre practitioners because of the costs incurred through renting of rehearsal space or the number of actors for even a play with no props,” she explains.
Pathak believes the growing trend of home gigs is motivated by a “cool quotient” but concedes that “home concerts have steadily built audiences for musicians and dancers in the city by bringing in people who might not want to be associated with ‘these arty types’ or are put off by the clannish quality at formal venues.”