Mahindra Kabira Festival, known for offering an immersive experience inspired by Kabir’s teachings, is back with its fifth edition after a year of absence owing to the Covid-19 pandemic. This year the festival is running from 26 – 28 November, 2021 in the beautiful city of Varanasi. Mahindra Kabira Festival brings together music, literature, discourse, heritage walks, boat rides on the Ganga, and an array of local cuisine, among other things.
Jay Shah, Vice-President, Head – Cultural Outreach at the Mahindra Group is one of the few industry professionals championing the idea of Cultural Outreach by a Corporate House in India. Shah helms several projects in the culture space, including the Mahindra Kabira Festival in Varanasi.
In this interview, Shah shares the vision behind the Mahindra Kabira Festival while touching upon the challenges in bringing back the festival to the Ghats of Varanasi. He also looks back at the festival’s journey while highlighting the importance of cultural outreach in a developing country like India and the need to help the artists overcome the financial losses that they have suffered owing to the pandemic.
Q. With the uncertainty created by the pandemic, what are the key attractions Mahindra Kabira Festival this year?
A. “Chalti Chakki Dekh Kar, Diya Kabira Roye Dui Paatan Ke Beech Mein, Sabit Bacha Na Koye”. Kabir laments the duality of life and how we all eventually perish between the earth and sky. This is the only certainty and we have to face up to all that comes our way, even the horrific pandemic.
It was overwhelming to receive so many queries about our festival last year when we decided to not go ahead with it. And it is with absolute delight that we bring back the festival in its full glory this year. While there will be strict audience control and the physical attendees will be lesser than our previous editions, we have an enhanced digital outreach plan which will ensure the participation of a larger virtual audience. The festival is very carefully curated to ensure diversity and unexpected combinations of artists.

Morning Music- Mahindra Kabira Festival at Guleria Ghat.

Q. What have been your recommendations and cautionary advice to those visiting the festival this year?
A. If attending physically, ensure you are fully vaccinated, follow all protocols of hygiene and safety for your sake as well as the sake of the others. If attending virtually, this would be merely a taste of the Mahindra Kabira experience, something you ought to explore in person in the future.
Q. What have been the major challenges in bringing back the festival to the Ghats of Varanasi?
A. The biggest challenge was to decide whether to do the festival at all. And if we did, it was clear we could not match the level of attendees as in the past. So, the challenge was how to scale it down without losing even an iota of the experience for those who do manage to attend. And, also it’s important to give a holistic glimpse into the festival to those who are tuning in from afar.
Q. How do you expect the festival to the boost the opportunities available to the local artists, especially after the hiatus enforced by the pandemic?
A. The Mahindra Group, with its credo “Rise” ensures that we are inclusive and promote known as well as unknown talent through all our Cultural Outreach initiatives. Whether it is Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards that reaches out pan India in search of theatre groups big and small or the Mahindra Blues Band Hunt that unravels young budding artists. Right from its inception, Mahindra Kabira Festival has also ensured a good representation of local artists and organizations and this year is no different.
Q. What does the Mahindra Kabira Festival mean to the Mahindra Group? Tell us about various other cultural initiatives that the Mahindra Group undertakes.
A. The Mahindra Kabira Festival embodies the principles of secularism which closely reflect the ideology of our founders. It personifies our core values – dignity of the Individual being most relevant. “Rise” is all about making a positive change in lives of people around us, and Mahindra Kabira is all about that.
In addition to Mahindra Kabira, we have the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards and Festival in New Delhi, The Mahindra Blues Festival in Mumbai, The Mahindra Sanatkada Festival in Lucknow and the Mahindra Open Drive which is traveling festival. All of these are annual festivals and our long term commitment to the art forms we have carefully chosen.
Q. How do you reflect upon the festival’s journey so far? Also tell us about the key achievements of the first four editions.
A. This will be the fifth edition of the Mahindra Kabira Festival. The past four editions have been phenomenal to say the least. This is the largest festival (amongst the five festivals we organize) in terms of audience size and the most complex of events to put up in the incredible city of Varanasi. Our biggest reaffirmation is to be welcomed with so much love by the citizens and cultural doyens of Varanasi – a city that has been the seat of Indian culture for centuries. We aim to bring the poetry of Kabir Das alive, through music and discourse because we feel that his words have a universality and are relevant today, centuries after he said them. If we are able to bring a sense of balance for those who seek it, in this polarized world, we would have achieved what we set out to do.
Q. The pandemic has exposed the plight of the artists all across the globe. The situation in India isn’t great either. What measures can be taken to help the artists overcome the financial losses that they have suffered?
A. Artists suffer on two counts – financial of course, but also it is stifling for them to not be able to create and perform. Our society needs to address both these aspects. It is equally important to organize festivals and performances as it is for the audiences to attend and inspire the artists and the organizers alike. In western countries, there is more participation from the state. In India, we as the corporates and private citizens need to realize the value art and artists bring to our lives and do all we can to support them.