The Sounds Dazzled at the Festival of Words, Spoken Fest

By Suhas Thobbi
December 22, 2017
The Sounds Dazzled at the Festival of Words, Spoken Fest

Grieving Words & Celebration of Sounds: Spoken Fest 2 to Return in Dec 2018


Music and Spoken Word - a match made at Kommune's Newest Festival Called Spoken Fest

Ankur Tewari is kind of a laidback fellow. Not to be confused with lazy, but similar to his songs, Tewari likes to finish stuff on his own terms. But on 29th October, the songwriter acceded a multi-tasking role, on a grander scale. The occasion – the country’s biggest, if not first, spoken word festival called ‘Spoken Fest’ – demanded the musician to be always on his toes. And after all, it was a product of his ambitions. Tewari’s entity ‘Kommune’, co-founded with TV actor and presenter Gaurav Kapoor and theatre actor, writer as well as one of the strongest supporters of the concerned art-form Roshan Abbas, had finally executed a two and a half-year-old ideation and planning into demonstration.

In a matter of one hour, Tewari had executed three roles, of – a founder, a musician and a fan.

As a co-founder, the ‘Aa Jao’ singer, Ankur Tiwari naturally found himself with more responsibilities than his usual festival outing. When he wasn’t depending on his management skills to impress the crowd, the singer-songwriter chose performance art. Tewari stood under a shelter aptly called ‘Mehfil’, tuned his guitar to its usual arrangement, and re-fueled himself through his songs and audience’s unwavering attention followed by frequent applause. One favorite after another, the crowd crooned as the sun set behind the giant concrete jungle surrounding the venue for Spoken Fest - Jio Gardens. His 45-minute long set concluded with an announcement informally welcoming his friend and recent collaborator Raghu Dixit. A few seconds later, Tewari joined the crowd, only to listen as the Bengaluru-based songwriter perform ‘Ambar’, unknowingly imitating every other attendee’s stance in that ‘Mehfil’. In a matter of one hour, Tewari had executed three roles, of – a founder, a musician and a fan.
That, as Roshan Abbas confesses – during our phone-call two months later – reflects the debut Spoken Fest edition’s entire essence. “Everyone wanted to contribute for it. The performers did not behave like ‘performers’, but adopted the role of patrons. Some folks traveled from Ahmedabad and Delhi to volunteer,” says Abbas in a tone beaming with pride and gratitude. With ticket sales exceeding expectations, the second day added as an extension to a successful beginning. “In fact, I had requested the early performers to not remain discouraged due to the potential poor turnout during early hours. But to our surprise, people had queued outside the gates to enter the venue half an hour before the festival had even kicked-off,” informs the theatre actor and radio jockey. First smell of victory, right there. Spoken Fest, quite impressively, managed to reach its intended target audience. This was not a happy accident. “We initially had plans to launch the festival in 2016. But the numbers – social media, stand-alone shows and the community strength – suggested otherwise. Through our smaller shows in Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and other cities, the audience for this genre shot up to a heavier number,” adds Abbas, who rightfully credits venues like the now-dysfunctional BlueFrog and Cuckoo Club for acting as catalyst to the art's growth. The ‘level up’ in numbers resulted into a massive boost to the confidence, and at one point, the organisers decided to contact Canadian poet and musician Leonard Cohen for the headlining performance. However, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame recipient’s demise in November ’16 led to a essential search for ‘an ideal debut edition headliner’.

The Curation At Spoken Fest

The search ended with a two-day curated list featuring Kabir Cafe, Raghu Dixit, Tajdar Junaid, Alif and Piyush Mishra to name a few. One simply cannot organize a festival celebrating spoken word, poetry and storytelling without featuring one of the most adored artists who has unbiasedly dedicated equal amount to the three passions that have helped him find a position in India’s alternative culture like no other. Mishra, who effortlessly blends the three elements into his set, managed to complement the festival’s mantra as it prepared to draw the curtains on the second day. Before Piyush Mishra staged the curated set with his band The Bellimarans, Kolkata-based songwriter Tajdar Junaid enthralled the fans with a lyric-less set featuring the compositions that resulted into a gradual and steady rise in mainstream ad jingles, independent music, and film communities. Junaid performed an unplugged version featuring a percussionist, violinist, and a sarangi instrumentalist. Not a unique setup for Tajdar Junaid, however, the occasion and the challenge remained new for the experimental songwriter. To perform for an audience that primarily reserves applauses for bold words and sharp poetry, Junaid’s set, probably, spoke louder than what had been assumed. The musician holds the ability to puppeteer sounds according to his will thus sending the room/venue into absolute awe. Junaid left the stage as audience craved for more and that was quite evident with the thundering applause that continued even after the four performers returned to the back-stage. On the non-music front, the festival hosted the likes of noted lyricist Swanand Kirkire, stand-up comedian Tanmay Bhat, writer Anvita Dutt, storyteller Margot Leitman and more. Abbas elaborates how the curation of the festival involved an emphasis on acts strongly driven by ‘words’. With 113000+ followers on Facebook and at least 160484 subscribers on YouTube, Abbas and co. had a concrete database to narrow on the final acts depending on their popularity, reach, effect and growth over the year. Abbas recalls the advice asking him to play ‘safe’, and avoid the “gamble” by hosting a multi-day edition of a genre that rarely catered to a 6000+ audience across two days. “I was suggested to host the debut edition in an auditorium considering they’re cheaper as venues, plus lesser hassles,” informs Abbas, who later stuck to the initial plan and chose Jio Gardens over other options. The promoters’ growing affection towards Jio Gardens is justified considering how the venue tries to recreate a ‘festival vibe’ despite finding itself in the heart of the city’s highly vital commercial hub. This time, however, the venue received support from its latest inhabitants’ obsession – words. That explains Kommune’s decision to host the second edition at the same venue. “The dates have been finalized. Spoken Fest’s second edition will be held on 2 and 3 December.” Abbas also mentions a crucial development in February 2018 may also carve the festival’s direction into a multi-city format, extending to New Delhi. The success of the edition further gravitates to the other art form that complemented the purpose – music. “No other art form,” argues Abbas, “can complement each other as music and spoken word do.” However, upon serious assessment, the team has planned to exclude rap from the upcoming editions. “Naezy performed at the Day 1, but I, personally, do not feel that rap needs Spoken Fest or the other way around,” emphasis Abbas. Not much for rap to lose, as the genre’s unparalleled growth in 2017 led to several hip-hop festivals across the country. Names like Javed Akhtar, Boman Irani and Prasoon Joshi have been shortlisted for consideration, and Kommune’s reputation as ‘no-nonsense’ promoters of the art surely has ensured a stronger portfolio of its own. “We will associate with foreign embassies to host artists from other countries,” replies Abbas, addressing the question concerning the path for 2018.
Several messages and phone-calls followed soon after the conclusion of the first edition of Spoken Fest, but Abbas vividly remembers a tweet that describes the entire festival in a nutshell. “I found a tweet that simply said, ‘Finally words found a place to grieve’. Our quality of conversation has plummeted and the tweet reminded one of the aspects that represent Kommune’s ideologies,” concludes Abbas. As for Abbas, the team heads back to the boardroom to raise the benchmark that they've set. As for Tewari - the festival's co-founder, volunteer, part-time bartender and fan, the conclusion of the festival followed with the role of composer where he collaborated with lyricist Swanand Kirkire for the festival’s after-movie.

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