CRACK

Curated by DAYTIMERS, Mehfil is the intergenerational space fostering connections away from the dancefloor

Photo by Kunal Lodhia

31.05.24
Words by:

Bringing South Asian artistry to the forefront, DAYTIMERS are the London-based collective reigniting a cultural movement across the UK. Inspired by traditional South Asian gatherings, their Mehfil event series forges connections beyond the club, uniting the community through poetry, spoken word, live music and more.

Within just four years of their launch, Daytimers have taken over some of music’s biggest stages, platformed talented South Asian artists and creatives through their own events and residencies, and ultimately carved out their own expansive space in the industry. From the success of their 24-hour live stream fundraiser with No Nazar and countless sold-out events, to collaborating with Dialled In and Going South on a South Asian-dedicated space at this year’s Glastonbury festival, it’s clear that the power of the collective is stronger than ever. 

Stepping into new territories in 2022, Daytimers introduced Mehfil – an event dedicated to spotlighting poetry, spoken word and live music. Spearheaded by Daytimers’ own multidisciplinary Rohan Rakhit, it drew inspiration from traditional mehfil gatherings that took place in intimate settings across South Asia. Tapping into the talent and skills of their ever-growing roster, the team behind Mehfil are now fostering an intergenerational space for South Asians and allies to come together away from the club. With the element of sound at its core, Mehfil has evolved further into the arts space, giving rise to new conversations, new disciplines and new opportunities. 

Powered by collaboration and unity, Mehfil delves into themes of art and culture, history, politics and more, touching on the complex intersections that tie them together. Each event is a celebratory experience and opportunity to strengthen the community, while simultaneously improving cultural representation in the arts. 

Partnering with the London-based cultural community hub Rich Mix, the team has since co-curated Mehfil Resonates. Now in its second iteration, the programme features a cohort hand-selected by the team to explore specific themes through a series of creative workshops. Taking place every other Sunday for eight weeks, the programme concludes on 9 June with a special group exhibition and event.  

Having just sold out the legendary Royal Albert Hall for their latest event, team members Rohan, Shirin Naveed and therapist Naila Dunleavy, who joined the team after taking part in the first cohort of Mehfil Resonates, reflect on the impact of the series and what’s next.

 

Photo by Daniel Evans

 

Back in 2021 when Crack first spoke to Daytimers, [collective co-founder] Provhat said: “We ultimately want to take control of how our heritage and culture are displayed in public spaces.” What’s been some of your milestone moments towards achieving this? Do you feel there’s still a long way to go? 

Rohan: I feel like a lot has changed, but a lot hasn’t changed as well. Since that article, it’s rare to find line-ups which lack South Asians on them now. I think we’re at a place where a lot of us are being platformed away from the ‘South Asian edit, DJ’ bracket as well. People are now being celebrated for their own artistry more than they were back in 2021 when our Boiler Room went viral.

In terms of seminal moments, there’s the emergence of [artist-led platform] Dialled In and the space that Dialled In has fostered in elevating even more voices, being quite explicit in that we’re platforming South Asian talent but it is for everyone. I think there’s a misconception with a lot of what we do that it’s just for our communities, but for a movement to become both expansive and financially viable, it needs to bring everyone in and everyone up as well. 

I also think that, because we have a lot more power when we’re approaching institutions or when people reach out to us, we’re in control of our narrative a lot more. We can platform early career artists and emerging voices. It seems like there are a lot more doors open to us now, which is fantastic. Now the trouble is capacity because there’s so much we can do. 

Shirin: I would say our Phonox residency kind of speaks to what you were saying, in that we were given creative control to platform and collaborate with different collectives and sounds that we like as well. 

R: That’s a great shout, I forgot about that. We partnered with other collectives and organisations that are platforming specific intersectionality and very grassroots, amazing communities.

S: It was Suzio, Prestige Pak, Dreamnights and Nasha Records.

R: Nasha Records are repping that whole Bengali-meets-drum’n’bass and jungle. We’re talking uncles behind the decks. We’re talking their kids in the rave. It was a real moment to bring in some legends who are underappreciated. That’s another thing we’re really appreciative of: the people that paved the way before us. 

 

"Mehfil was conceived to start more intergenerational conversations, provide sober spaces and allow for real, authentic conversation and connection away from dance floors" 

 

Of course, that’s really special. With Mehfil, what was the thought process behind it and why was it important to create a space that differentiates its offerings from the rest of Daytimers?

R: Mehfil had always been an idea of mine. I work as an actor in the live performance space and I write a lot of spoken word poetry as well. With the success of Daytimers and the doors that opened, I was intrigued by the number of emails coming in asking us for very specific South Asian talent across a wide number of creative disciplines. We almost overnight became a consultancy agency, maybe a sort of brownwashing thing for organisations to call on and speak to, which was never the intention. But I thought it’d be an amazing idea to use the platform and audience that we have in the music industry to uplift and celebrate more voices, initially across spoken word and more live music. There also came a recognition that there’s a ceiling on the connections that you can foster on the dance floor. 

The Daytimers crowd is a lot more sober than other crowds amongst the club ecosystem, but it’s not specifically designed to celebrate sober spaces. We try to have safe spaces, but they’re not sober spaces. And they’re not very intergenerational either. It’s young people finding themselves and celebrating their identity on their own terms, maybe for the first time, which is a beautiful thing. That space has its place, but Mehfil was conceived to start more intergenerational conversations, provide sober spaces and allow for real, authentic conversation and connection away from dance floors. 

We started in 2022 at Rich Mix, where I programmed an evening of South Asian spoken word and poetry and we had performances and live music from the Grewal Twins. It was really paying homage to what the historic mehfil celebrations were back in the subcontinent, where people would gather informally, share food, share poetry, share music, and just spend an evening connecting. That’s the whole ethos of it. 

You just sold out your takeover at the Royal Albert Hall, congrats! Tell me a bit more about that. How did it come about?

R: Vivek Gudi, who works in the programming team had been to a couple of Daytimers raves – also, classic, it turns out we’re family friends but we didn’t know. He stumbled across an old page for our very first Rich Mix event and then went down the rabbit hole and saw all the content. The rest is history. It was a bank holiday, and he was like, ‘If we get everything in line in the next day, maybe this has got legs’. And so I spent that bank holiday Monday at my laptop texting Vivek. 

It’s important to note that having South Asian programmers opens the door for us to tell our stories in these spaces. There’s always apprehension when faced with the decision to run an event in venues so associated with the coloniser. Our event and the artists who performed recognised that history, addressed it, and willingly took up space with such bravery. Bringing our stories to these institutions is the only way of shifting the narrative and providing spaces for collective healing.

Photo by Timothy Eliot Spurr

Photo by Daniel Evans

Naila, tell me about your involvement in Mehfil? 

Naila: I’ve got a project, Migrant-Woman Histories on Instagram. What Mehfil was thinking about, I was thinking about it separately. I happened upon Mehfil when they were recruiting for the last cohort at Rich Mix. I just applied and I was the oldest by far, but it’s been a wonderful experience and underlined my thinking around intergenerational conversations for so many different reasons.

I had never contemplated doing spoken word. I think part of our psyche as migrants and children of generations of migrants taps into what we have perhaps touched on, in that platforming ourselves is not something that comes to us. We are taught to stay under the radar. I would never have had the courage to put myself out there had it not been for Mehfil. I think that’s the power of having these conversations, both ways. 

I’m part of an organisation called BAATN which is a professional organisation of Black, African and Asian therapists. The work that we do as therapists mirrors this. I was able to take my spoken word and take it to a conference there and the impact was amazing. In a way, they are doing the work Mehfil and Daytimers are doing, but in the therapy world. So it’s wonderful to connect now. 

And Shirin, could you explain a little about your role? 

S: I got involved with Mehfil to facilitate the Rich Mix Resonates programme. As a core member and DJ for Daytimers, but also coming from a background in the arts, workshop facilitation, and multidisciplinary spatial practise in architecture and community engagement, I saw potential in the programme as a means to holding physical space. [I was] looking at Mehfil as community building in a therapeutic space outside the club.

The first programme was part of a post-covid recovery fund, and for us it was an experiment around community arts and to connect with our audience more personally. The idea was to hold workshops for people to explore their different creative sides, however comfortable they were or not with different mediums. The outcome of those workshops was always the conversations around it, and that aspect of gathering in itself. Naila always says something really nice: “It only takes two people to gather.”

We found the feedback so positive that we were invited back for another year. This year’s iteration is all about exploring solidarity through art. We’re producing a big fundraising event for Medical Aid for Palestine. We’ve also got an exhibition of all the work we’ve been exploring, as well as workshops including collective banner making, information stands and more, all produced by the cohort.

Photos by Kunal Lodhia

I love that. What do you hope to achieve through Mehfil? Do you plan to transition deeper into the arts space with community building and education being a focus?

S: It’s based on the opportunities that come up, but for example, with the upcoming Daytimers festival at The Horniman, we’re curating a Mehfil stage using the community connections that we’ve been nurturing. My interest is in community-engaged arts, crafts and cultural curation. 

We’ve been curating a panel talk that I’ll be hosting with Meneesha Kellay from the V&A, Navjot Mangat, who’s the curator of the Chá, Chai, Tea exhibition at The Horniman, and Pakistani artist Mahtab Hussain, to explore why we are now being commissioned by these institutions to run festivals. What is our role as producers inviting our communities into these spaces? What does it mean to work in the arts and museum sector and look at our heritage and culture? Who is it for? I’m really happy to be having that conversation at the Daytimers festival for our audience, rather than for white people, to speculate on. To actually have that conversation between us; to say what our role is in these spaces and institutions the more recognised we’re becoming. 

Similarly to what we’re doing with the Mehfil Resonates exhibition, you’ve got workshops, information, stalls. The plan is to bring some of the people that we already know doing the grassroots work, to platform them, make connections and build solidarity, so that as a community we feel held, feel safer and learn from each other. That’s my intention with curation.

 

 

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With the question of ‘Who is this for?’ within the arts sector, there’s so much that needs to be unlearned, especially here in the West. You guys are in a great position to potentially educate the wider public. Can you expand on that? 

R: That’s what I wanted to get at as well. It’s all interwoven. There’s a responsibility I feel when creating spaces, or creating a community, to educate people on systems of oppression, on colonialism, on why we’re here in the first place. Why do we need to have these spaces to gather? What are we gathering and healing from? We’re all sitting in a room and we appreciate that this is really powerful and amazing, but what’s the bigger picture?

But also, when I started Mehfil, I never would have ever perceived that it would have gone down this way. That’s through collaborating with people like these two and the wider network, and understanding our place in this industry to the extent where people are now looking at our events and our output as a form of collective healing and collective resistance. That’s a responsibility I don’t take lightly. It also gives us a drive and there’s a real need, I feel, with this sort of work to keep building. 

S: We did Rally festival last year which was all about community. This year their brief is about intimate gatherings and it fits really well with Mehfil. It’s about platforming some of the voices we think are really important and having these conversations in those spaces. It’s about speaking truth to power, but first, coming together to feel confident enough to be able to do that publicly. 

N: What Mehfil and gathering provides is that we give each other permission, without explicitly saying that, and then secondary conversations can take place with other people. It’s a ripple effect. I also feel that we need to make space for healing and joy. We can’t keep fighting unless we take the restorative practices alongside fighting for justice. 

Do you have plans to do more global or regional work as well? 

R: Why not! We’re pretty reactive at the moment and we’re a very small team, and I quite like that we’re a small team. We could pursue the funding route, we haven’t actually had those conversations yet. But there are loads of opportunities that we get through our inbox. 

What’s next for Mehfil? 

S: Sunday 9 June at Rich Mix. It’s a whole Rich Mix takeover!

R: Our Resonates cohort is coming together to share an incredible exhibition of their work; a range of workshops they’ll be facilitating for free for attendees. There’ll be a classic ticketed Mehfil performance at the end of the day, with proceeds going to Medical Aid for Palestinians. It’s a full day of programming that they’ve put together from 12-5pm. It’s going to be really special. 

The following week, we’re in South East London at The Horniman for the Daytimers festival. We’ve programmed the conservatory stage for a day of talks and poetry as well as craft workshops. In between those two things we’re doing Bloomsbury Festival. We have this massive community arts engagement project which celebrates South Asian embroidery. And then some more festivals later in the summer.

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