We recently attended the Mahindra Kabira Festival that was held from Nov 16-18 2018 in Varanasi. By Radhika Tandon

The boat ride along the ghats, where most events of the Mahindra Kabira Festival were held, provided my first glimpse of Varanasi’s riverside. The ghats are the steps leading down to the river. They are the heart centre of this ancient city, the reason that Varanasi draws a staggering number of visitors every year, and the setting for the 3-day festival celebrating the spirit of 15th century poet Kabira, who lived here all his life. At Guleria Ghat, on a stage set up above the river, singer-songwriter Deepa Nair Rasiya sang her tribute to Kabira, followed by a feast of local cuisine. The evening set the tone for the days to follow.

The best part of the festival were the morning music sessions held at Guleria Ghat. There is a special, buttery light just before dawn that bathes the east-facing ghats in a golden glow. Seated on the steps overlooking the river, sipping chai in a kulhar, I watched the sun rise, while listening to the mesmerising strains of Hari Prasad Paudyal on the flute. If there is one memory of this trip that will stay with me forever, it is this one.

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The festival offered a range of musical styles — from folk to thumri, dhrupad and ghazal to fusion, every artist inspired by the verses of Kabira. The featured artists included classical singer Padmashree Malini Awasthi, Carnatic music exponent Shruti Vishwanathan, sitarist Pandit Rabindra Goswami, and fusion artist Sonam Kalra, among others.

One of the concerts was held at the Shivala Ghat and was open to the public. Outside of a cordoned off area reserved for invitees, hundreds gathered here to enjoy the music that carried on late into the evening. The representation of artists from across the country and beyond, and the amalgam of musical styles on one platform, was itself a tribute to the outspoken Bhakti poet whose over-arching message was that we are all one.

There was a guided walk each day, up the steep winding stairs that led to a labyrinth of narrow passages off the ghats. The buildings here are crammed with ancient palaces, temples, mosques, homes, hotels and crumbling ruins. We visited lesser-known nooks and crannies, such as the 200-year-old Parshunath temple, with original murals and a richly carved and painted shrine, housed on the first floor of an unassuming building, and the Phaware Wale Masjid, where a Hindu shrine sits within the courtyard of the mosque. We dodged bulls and bicycles on the streets, and explored the peaceful environs of the Kabir Chaura.

The afternoons were devoted to literary discourse at the Kabir Math, where the weaver poet lived most of his life, which today is a centre for followers and scholars of Kabira. The author and mythologist Devdutt Patnaik, and renowned Bhakti scholar Purushottam Agrawal spoke knowledgeably about Kabira’s verses, and their continuing relevance in the modern world.

Every meal served at the festival was a traditional spread of local specialties. One notable dinner was served among the shrines of a temple at the top of Shivala Ghat. I discovered a host of new flavours like Nimish, a sweet saffron-flavoured concoction that involves skimmed milk froth and night dew, different types of chaat, including ones made with crispy spinach and fried raw banana, kachoris, fruity thandai, etc.

Apart from the designated events, the festival organisers were helpful in arranging an excursion to the Kashi Vishwanathan temple, and even got a weaver to open on a Sunday for a group of attendees who wanted to shop.

The Mahindra Kabira Festival is more than a music festival. It is a banquet, serving up the best of Benaras in thoughtfully curated morsels of music, culture, food, and discourse. It’s held every year in November, so mark this one in your diaries!