The ghats of Varanasi are all set to resound with music as artists such as Carnatic vocalist Aruna Sairam, Dhrupad expert Ashish Kumar Jaiswal, singer Jasleen Aulakh and the urban folk music band Tapi Project are going to perform at the upcoming Mahindra Kabira Festival (18-20 November). The sixth edition of the event continues to celebrate Kabir’s ideals of equality with special performances by Fouzia Dastango and Dadi Pudamjee of the Ishara Puppet Theatre Trust. “Sant Kabir’s philosophy and teachings are still relevant in our lives. He spread the most basic message of love and brotherhood to all. His call to embark on an inward journey holds good even now,” states Anand Mahindra, chairperson, Mahindra & Mahindra Group, which organises this annual festival, in an email interview.
The Kabira Festival is one of the many such art and culture initiatives started by the Mahindra Group in the past few decades—the oldest being the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (META), which began 17 years ago and the newest entrant being the Mahindra Independent Rock, the first edition of which was concluded earlier this month. Some of the others include the Mahindra Blues, the Sanatkada Lucknow Festival, which debuted in 2010 to not just bring back the Lucknawi ‘tehzeeb’ but also to support the artisans in the city, and more. As corporations start to support literature festivals and art exhibitions, these efforts could be a bid of rational-thinking organisations to add a softer “emotive” touch to their existence.
According to 67-year-old Mahindra, the META started because he perceived theatre to be the fount of all art forms and the primaeval form of community entertainment. “Theatre has become overshadowed by cinema and is seen more of a stepping-stone for actors, directors and technicians to the numerous ‘film-woods’ that exist in our country. But I have always said that in reality, theatre is the ‘source-code’ of film,” elaborates Mahindra, who started supporting theatre at a time when not a lot of corporates or private institutions were backing it. Similarly, the rock festival was initiated to revive the rock scene in India and become an expression of freedom for young independent rock musicians in the country.
And now the group is now all set to flag off the World Percussion Festival in Bengaluru in March 2023, with focus on the diversity and history of the instruments in India. According to Jay Shah, vice-president and head of cultural outreach at the Mahindra Group, the company’s commitment to the art and culture ecosystem has been strengthened with the new festivals, “which add to the vibrancy and diversity of our programmes. All our festivals will continue to have an element of discovery and hope to make a positive difference to the art form, the artist and the audience.”
One finds it interesting that the company decided to initiate a Blues festival in Mumbai, so far from its source in Mississippi. “We launched the festival primarily to connect with farmers in the Mississippi Delta. Mahindra Tractors has a robust client network in the US. So, we thought we should support the Blues, which has high cultural and artistic significance in that country,” says Mahindra. To him, the musical genre is all about human emotion—it is the music of the disadvantaged, who hope to rise and make a better life for themselves. “Mumbai and its residents live through these emotions everyday as well. They have tough lives but always have a song on their lips. Outside of the US, Mumbai seemed to be the best place for a Blues event,” he adds.
The past two years of the covid-19 pandemic have been hard for people across the world, including artists and performers. In such a scenario, how did the group reaffirm its commitment to the community during these times of sadness and struggle? According to Mahindra, the group managed to keep some of the festivals such as the META and Kabira going, albeit via the online medium, in 2020. “This significantly increased the number of viewers. And that helped the artists immensely as they could get a lot of online gigs after that. We continued to pay the performance fee to META participants during covid-19. And when the cases declined in 2021, Kabira was one of the first festivals to go live,” he says.
As one emerges from the dark period of the pandemic, the arts have gained further importance in their ability to heal and soothe. In such a scenario, it becomes even more critical to support the tangible and intangible cultural heritage of the country. Mahindra feels it was his background in the arts that helped in understanding the power of art and culture. With an undergraduate degree in film, he expected to face a disadvantage when he entered the corporate world. However, creative thinking and ‘understanding of people and culture’, in fact, turned out to be a huge strength.
“By integrating arts and culture into our core values, we hope to inspire ‘creative thought’ within the Mahindra organisation, and in the communities we are a part of,” he elaborates. “The government has an immense responsibility of providing basic needs to millions of people from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds. Hence, it is the duty of corporations, as constructive members of society and with the resources, to do our bit for arts, artists and our cultural values.”
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