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Jazz by the Yamuna

Artistes collaborate to usher a vibrant jazz culture in Delhi with the help of a British national, inspired by the beatnik generation

The Jazz scene is not new to the town, but new energy is being infused in it by an iconoclastic Briton Stefan Kaye, who made Delhi his home some 10 years ago. He is the founder of Stiff Kittens Inc — a mission to challenge the mainstream by advancing healthy, vibrant, original and diversified live entertainment.

Married to an Indian, he has a 5-year-old daughter and even he finds it difficult to spell her name, Ximidhatirakit.

Kaye lives in Sainik Farms with leafy surroundings, where the chirrups of birds are strong enough to interrupt conversations. His house reminded me of the dak bungalows of the colonial years. A vibrant place, with artefacts and mirrors adorning the wall, he resides here with his wife, daughter and housemates. It’s a kind of art residency where people come, stay, hone talent and make music. There’s an in-house studio, which is a is venue for house concerts.

His stay in Delhi has been eventful for more than one reason, but for now we talk about jazz. He has been creatively active. Inspired by beatniks of the 1950s in the US, he likes to pull people out of their comfort zone. Art resides outside the comfort zone. The jazz scene in Delhi was nascent when he arrived. There were as many musicians as the number of bands, and the same set of artistes were to be found in various bands.

Every musician who considered himself worth his salt would open a jazz band. There was quantity but no originality. “Sameness” and “derivative” are the words Kaye uses to describe the jazz scene in Delhi. An admirer of Louis Jordan (R ‘n’ B jive), Perez Prado (mambo), Charles Mingus, Lalo Schifrin, Brother Jack McDuff (jazz), Skatalites and Prince Buster to name a few, Kaye was a harbinger of change. His mantra is entertainment and originality. So initially, he roped in stand-up comedian Abish Mathew  — who wasn’t a big name at that point in time — and created a variety show where there was humour, dance, performance by a house band, musical comedy and what not! It was an adult-oriented variety show that was political, glamorous and irreverent.

These efforts culminated in Stiff Kitten’s Word Jazz — poetry and prose with live music. Kaye roped in talented lyricists, not just big names like William Dalrymple, but also the young and accomplished. He has an eye for talent. They all contribute lyrics, to which Kaye composes music. When he’s inspired, it takes him a little time to set lyrics to music.

Because there are a host of contributors, all very good in their unique way, each piece is notably different from the last. What’s common, though, is the originality — it’s engaging, thought provoking and establishes an emotional cord. “I try out different things, get the essence, the mood and then compose,” Kaye describes the organic process to churn out music.

Divya Dureja is in her late 20s and wears many hats. A psychologist, a performance poet with a theatre background, she’s also a queer activist and talks passionately about the power of the spoken word (a word-based performance art) and its ability to evoke all sorts of emotions. Poetry to her is a tool that connects people from various backgrounds. A lot of rehearsals go into it and it requires understanding of the melodies. She describes participating in Word Jazz as, “an experience greater than the sum of its parts,” where the author recites his own poetry set to music.

Radio jockey Sabika Muzaffar, who is entering her 30s, was the last to perform, just after William Dalrymple, who later texted her for being “the most charismatic of all of us.” She has been documenting her poetry since she was 11 years old and describes performing at Word Jazz as her “biggest night”. “I have grown up reading William (Dalrymple) and to share the stage with him was my recognition as a performer,” she says, ecstatically. And only someone  like Stefan would give such an opportunity to a newcomer like her, as his “appetite for risk is very high” and he’s perhaps, the only one who can make “shayari and jazz meet.”

A true beatnik personified, Kaye is driven by passion, speaks his mind, and harbours controversies—though not deliberately. He has already sued the state four times. He made a video raising doubts on Narendra Modi’s suitability to be the prime minister, which he believes landed him in trouble with the authorities.

Being married to an Indian and being a father of an Indian girl, makes him eligible to stay longer in India. But the authorities aren’t convinced. Born to a Jewish father and a Christian mother, Kaye neither goes to a church nor a synagogue. “I don’t subscribe to any religion. They (the Foreigners Regional Registration Office) decided that I’m a Jewish and therefore my marriage is illegal,” he narrates and liberally uses adjectives like “morally bankrupt, narrow minded, bigotry, infantile” to describe the bureaucracy he dealt with in the last seven years to ensure he gets to stay with his family in India.

He makes pertinent points, like virtue and morals are not the exclusive prerogative of those who subscribe to an organised religion. He lived in London, but ‘belongs’ to Delhi, and his love for India’s pluralism has sustained him for the last 10 years and will, for many more years to come.

In the meantime, Delhi can boast of a vibrant jazz scene.