Hanita Bhambhri, a 25-year-old indie pop musician, had most of her audience in tears when she performed a spoken word poem amid her set in a house concert. It was all the more touching for her because she had fever that day but still decided to perform. "When I perform in a café, I don’t always get the focus of my listeners, but if I am performing in an intimate gathering or at a house concert, I get dedicated listeners… Also, there is this personal connect between me and them. The audience in such a space is not there just for the food or to celebrate an event, they are there for the music," she says.
Bhambhri is right. There’s an increasing number of people today who are actively seeking out an intimate experience with music, wanting to immerse themselves fully in the art form. Take, for instance, Aritry Das. The media professional, who switched jobs and came to Delhi from Mumbai, used to initially scout around on Facebook for information regarding music events that she could attend. This would, unsurprisingly, lead her to bars and pubs, only for her to realise that it wasn’t her scene. "In bars and restaurants, you have to drink and eat. There are very few venues, in fact, where people just listen to the music," says Das, adding that this is the reason she loves intimate gatherings as there one goes for the sole purpose of listening to music and even if you drink, it’s secondary to the music. "I have had artiste friends telling me that food becomes a distraction for the audience… they miss out on the nuances of music… That’s why in jazz bars in the US, they don’t offer food, but only drinks to enjoy the music with," she says.
Interestingly, Das compares the music in such spaces to the Baul and Lokgeeti musical traditions of India. "In the Baul culture, there is intimate interaction of the audience with musicians… they sit in the middle and are surrounded by the audience. There is clapping, snapping of fingers… You make eye contact with a stranger and there is a non-verbal acknowledgment of the fact that both of you enjoyed that particular moment ," she says.
In India, house concerts gained popularity after Sofar Sounds, a music events startup headquartered in London, entered the country a few years back. Today, there are many such players operating in the space-BeatMap, House Concert, Free The Verse, Space Session, Awaaz Studio, HivePad are just a few examples.
Interestingly, such concerts are not just limited to houses. They can take place anywhere-a hostel, garage or even an art gallery. Usually, though, these events are exclusive and you can only attend if you are invited. So how does one get to know about them? Social media, word of mouth, forwarded text messages, it could be anything. Once you show interest in a gig, you get an invitation, depending on the availability of seats. Since it’s usually an ‘underground’ event, you can contact the organisers directly. The host provides the premises and decides who gets to attend. Keep in mind, though, that these are small events and have limited space-the audience strength is usually between 20 and 50. Only if the venue is a large space like a rooftop terrace does the number go up to 100 or 200. Among the audience, you will find a diverse set of people from all walks of life united by a common passion for music.
If your request to attend is accepted, you have to either pay a meagre admission fee or make a voluntary contribution at the door. Once you enter, the host will guide you to the performance space-it could be the living room, balcony, terrace, basement or garden. Here, you will find rows of chairs, stools, yoga mats, etc, placed for guests. Sometimes you might even have to squat on the floor!
Irrespective of the amenities, there’s one thing you can be sure of: enjoying a full-length musical performance in an intimate setting that allows you to see the artiste closely and even interact with them.
But what about the hosts who throw open their house for such concerts? It can’t be easy, one wonders, hosting people you don’t know. "It depends on your nature," says 26-year-old Gargi Sharma, who lives in Malviya Nagar, Delhi. She recently hosted musician Martin J Hopkin from Guwahati as part of The Microphone Project by Free The Verse, a community organisation of young artistes. The show took place in Sharma’s living room and had a strength of 25 people. "I am not suspicious… I don’t have OCD… I really like people and when artistes get exposure through these gigs, it’s a good thing," she says.
Kunal Malhotra, founder, Worker Bee, a Chandigarh-based artiste management and music events company, says that if the host is assured that his/her space will be respected and not taken for granted, they are more than happy to host gigs. "During Worker Bee’s past house concerts, we made sure to keep their space neat and clean. We didn’t allow booze, and also made sure that whatever revenue we generated, a part of it was kept aside for the electricity bill of the host’s house," he says.
Last year, Worker Bee supported a tour called Hai Khabar featuring musicians Saby Singh and Samar Mehdi. As part of the tour, the musicians travelled to and performed in 25 cities. These performances were not just limited to houses, but were also held in spaces like art galleries, etc. "Hai Khabar was essentially a pan-India tour that I and Samar Mehdi did in the middle of last year. We played in 25 cities in 45 days and covered almost the entire nation. A lot of the gigs were indoor, intimate sessions… the driving idea was to play gigs where people came mainly for the music, where people experience music in the form it is supposed to be heard-in silence and in dimly-lit, ambient atmospheres," says Singh, who performs frequently with Worker Bee, Space Session, House Concert, Awaaz Studio, etc.
For Hai Khabar, the musicians performed in studios, a cathedral and many other unconventional spaces. The most surprising, Singh reveals, was the incredible audience response in tier-II cities like Indore, Jabalpur and Bhopal. The intimacy factor, Singh feels, is the best thing about such gatherings. "There are zero disturbances around, and the kind of connection you make with the listeners is truly divine," he says, adding, "I have been performing at a lot of cafés, etc, and there is this disconnect between the audience and the performer at such places-there is noise from the kitchen and bar, people eating, and so on. So I decided to play only at intimate and personal spaces for a while, spaces that have an artistic peripheral to them and hosts who appreciate and understand the essence of live music. And it has been a terrific experience. A lot of artistic clarity has come as a consequence."
Like Worker Bee, the House Concert initiative, too, aims to provide artistes an involved audience. Started in Delhi around five years ago, their first concert was held in Gurugram. Since then, they have been organising such concerts once or twice every month in cities such as Guwahati, Mumbai and Bengaluru besides Gurugram. "I wanted a dedicated space for artistes to showcase original music to a receptive audience. My only criteria is original music. The music in House Concert is genre-agnostic jazz, classical, etc," says Manu Mathews, founder, House Concert, adding, "When we started, we got artistes from our extended friends’ network… now, artistes reach out to us."
So how are artistes selected for such gigs? "An artist is selected based on their work. They send links and the team takes a collective decision. Initially, there was a lot of hesitation… but now, the artistes understand the concept. We keep getting positive feedback from people too. They say these concerts make them feel at home. Some have made new friends, some came for a date and eventually got married!" says Mathew.
When they started operations, Aditya Bhandari, founder, Free The Verse, had a tough time finding venues. He tried to book conventional spaces like India Habitat Centre in Delhi, but realised he couldn’t afford it. "The venues charged a lot. Sometimes we would not even get a shot at booking because the venue would already have been booked by some corporate agency. Plus, a lot of money goes towards logistics, which we had to give from our own pocket because we couldn't charge our audience more than `200-`300," he says, adding, "Most of the venues in India are focused on making money and that’s why they need to include food and drinks."
That’s when Bhandari thought of holding the performances in friends’ houses. "We have now found the hack to make a stage in someone’s house pretty. It just takes `100-`200 to decorate a stage with fairylights… Now, we are glad to be performing here because in traditional venues, there was not only no respect, but also no profit," he says.
Bhandari loves intimate gatherings because everything feels cozy. "I love how the audience sits on the floor without any qualms, listens to the musician intently, and when the musician is done with their performance, they come and join the audience on the floor," he says, adding, "People are chilling, not having to spend tons of money on overpriced drinks and food. As artistes, we are already insecure, so intimate gatherings give us validation. Plus, sometimes we get to make friends out of strangers too."
Revenue, however, is important for an artiste as well. So how much can they earn from such a gathering? "It’s subjective," says musician Saby Singh. "Of course, musicians do earn from such concerts, but most of the time, it just covers the basics. People in India are now being exposed to such concepts, so it’s fairly unknown to a lot, but as the frequency of such concerts increases, musicians will start to earn better. The hosts/organisers also have to understand that if the artiste isn’t earning enough, then there is no point," he says.
Since these concerts are mostly underground and attended by youngsters, it’s understandable that the revenue would probably not be a lot to begin with. But as long as there are music aficionados like Das, these types of gatherings are here to stay. "One time," Das shares, "a band called Soul came from Sri Lanka… their music was so good, we were dancing in the background."
And, it is just coincidental that in face of the Coronavirus outbreak, when large gatherings and outings are a no-no, people are taking to such small gatherings to entertain themselves.