It is art and culture that is keeping people sane during the pandemic, states Mahesvari Autar, who is disappointed that governments worldwide are clamping down on cultural events in the name of lockdowns. “They are behaving as if art and culture is not important,” says the Netherlands-based founder of DesiYUP, a platform for artists, musicians and performers from India.
Launched a decade ago, the events company organises concerts, master-classes and corporate events that showcase the beauty, depth and colour of Indian classical art forms to the European world.
“I had a dream of starting my own platform for Indian music, culture and literature, and to inspire people through art,” says Mahesvari, who has so far conducted over 50 events in Holland with audience sizes ranging from 200 to 1000 persons.
In January 2020, just before the Covid pandemic, they even held a concert for infants, where parents and their babies could listen to soothing Vedic mantras being played live.
“There were babies everywhere! It was the cutest concert I have ever done, it was just beautiful,” smiles Mahesvari. Later, during the pandemic, they organised another one titled Little Yogis for kids older than five years.
Born and raised in Rotterdam, the 34-year-old’s Indian parentage and European roots have both played a role in her venture. After completing her Bachelor’s degree, Mahesvari started her career as a television journalist.
Her first show was called ‘OHM’, which gave Dutch audiences information about spirituality and Hindu lifestyles. “There was a programme for every religion,” explains Mahesvari.
A documentary that Mahesvari made on environmental activist Vandana Shiva woke her up to how the ‘web of life’ works and the importance of biodiversity. “It shaped me as a person and contributed to my love for Indian literature and mythology. You name it, I’ve read it!” she laughs.
Mahesvari developed a deep and lasting respect for India’s ancient culture and art traditions. “I would rather call it the world’s oldest way of life instead of a religion,” she says. “You can cherry-pick anything you want from it and make it your own.”
Though starting a new venture came with risk, Mahesvari thought, “If I fail, I fail, but at least I tried.” Through DesiYUP, she brought in independent artistes from India and the diaspora – from renowned flautist Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia to German-Indian musician Prem Joshua – to perform in Dutch theatres and concert halls.
“Meaningful music has the power to connect people, uplift their minds, and bring them peace and happiness. I especially want to give the younger generation a platform,” she says. Along with her venture, she did her Master’s in media and journalism from Erasmus University
At a time when Bollywood has become India’s greatest export and soft power, Mahesvari is careful to stay away from commercial genres. “India is so much more than Bollywood. The more I research, the more I realise that I know only a fraction of all there is to know,” she says, talking about the guru-shishya parampara (teacher-student tradition) that has taken forward the arts for centuries in India.
Introducing raga music to Dutch audiences has been an interesting experience for Mahesvari. “Music has no borders,” she says, describing a night concert when the audience was asked to lie down and go through a session of yoga nidra with melodious classical Indian music being played.
In another concert titled ‘Many Faces of Love’ held in February 2020 after nine months of curation and organisation, love stories from Hindu mythology were narrated through raga music and Western violin. “My audience never knows what to expect from me,” smiles Mahesvari over a Zoom call from her flat in Rotterdam.
What Mahesvari has noticed is that the classical arts of all traditions are bound together by a certain mindset and aesthetic. “For instance, those who listen to Bollywood songs may not be likely to sign up for a sitar instrumental, but if one is inclined to enjoy Western classical music, one is more easily persuaded to listen to Indian classical instrumental,” she shares.
One day, Mahesvari got a call from a man whose mother had attended a DesiYUP concert. The elderly lady had recently lost her husband and had been unable to sleep. The concert was her first outing since the funeral – and it was the first time she had slept well all night, her son told Mahesvari on the phone.
“Mantra music has nothing to do with religion or your political mindset,” says the young entrepreneur whose name stands for Goddess Durga. “This music is here to help you heal, relax and forget your mundane life. It can be a gift for you.”
First published in eShe’s July-August 2021 issue
Syndicated to Money Control