The combination was matchless. Kathak doyen Pandit Birju Maharaj was on the stage performing his famous Mor Gat, accompanied by Ustad Zakir Hussain on the tabla. The audience at the Capital’s Kamani auditorium was entranced by the nazakat (grace) of Maharajji’s bhaav (movement and expressions) as he swayed to the beats created by the Ustad’s nimble fingers. Perfect, except my view was completely blocked by two ladies chattering in front.
Mustering up enough courage, I requested them to be seated and maintain silence. The response I got was shocking: “You can see Zakir Hussain, what more do you want?”
A couple of years later, I enter dancer Nisha Mahajan’s apartment in New Delhi, leaving my chappalsin the pile of the 30-odd pairs already outside. Most of the people inside are sitting cross-legged on a mattress covered with a white sheet. Two neon lights and a couple of lamps illuminate the room, creating the right atmosphere for an evening of classical music.
I exchange greetings with those I know. As I make my way into the room full of artistes—some well-known, some young—and music lovers, I see the performer for today’s baithak, singer Hema Aziz. I find a seat on one side of the front row and, reaching out, touch her feet. She smiles and blesses me. One of the senior artistes urges that the performance, already 20 minutes late, begin, and everyone nods in assent. Hemaji begins the alap.
And so began my visits to baithaks—which literally translate into “sittings”. It is a niche, but thriving phenomenon in New Delhi’s cultural landscape. Finally, I found a place where I don’t need to worry about wanting to “watch” an artiste perform.
Formal concerts, of course, still draw crowds. In the last five years, New Delhi has become a hub for Indian classical music, with regular performances at the India Habitat Centre, India International Centre, Shri Ram Centre, the Kamani auditorium and other venues—often at the same time, every day.
But, as music connoisseur Vinod S. Kapoor says, these concerts are corporate-sponsored events, where it is difficult to truly enjoy the music. The first dozen rows are reserved for company bigwigs, and artistes are pushed to the back. For an artiste performing in an auditorium, there is a certain amount of glamour involved. But while performing, they literally look into a dark abyss. Baithaks allow much closer interaction.
Kapoor, who organizes the famous VSK Baithaks in New Delhi’s Satya Sai Centre, puts it more succinctly: “Concerts are like fast food, while a baithak is like fine dining. When people come to my baithaks, the first thing I tell them is to put their watches away.” His first baithak lasted six and a half hours, from 9.30pm to 4am in Bareilly, where renowned thumri singer Girija Devi performed, back in 1967. He was addicted thereafter.
According to Mahajan, who has been organizing such gatherings under her banner, The Yoga And Art Group (Tyaag), since 1999, baithaks in New Delhi have also become a platform for emerging artistes—places where they get validation and constructive criticism from seniors and peers. Well-known names such as Pandit Channulal Mishra, Pandit Vinayak Torvi, Pandit Venkatesh Kumar, among others, performed in baithaks before they were widely recognized.
For the listener, a baithak is less intimidating and more engaging. “I never understood Indian classical music. A friend once forced me to attend a Holi baithak organized by Birju Maharaj, and it changed my perspective. Meeting the artistes before they perform creates a connection, which helps you appreciate the music better,” says software professional Shilpa Choudhury, who now attends baithaks or sabhas in Chennai, having moved from New Delhi a year ago.
Renowned Kathak exponent Manjushree Chatterjee, who has hosted the crème de la crème of Indian classical music and dance at the annual baithak at her residence in memory of her guru, Pandit Shambhu Maharaj, since 1973, says: “These days attending a classical music concert has become synonymous with name-dropping.”
At least no one will come out of a baithak boasting: “Guess what? I just attended the greatest concert by Pandit Ravi Shankar playing the tanpura.”