On July 23, in a house tucked inside the waterlogged lanes of Jamia Nagar’s Ghaffar Manzil Colony, a group of people sat listening to singer Nitesh Rana’s rendition of Mora Saiyyan, a thumri composed by Ustad Amanat Ali Khan. With the gentle pitter-patter of rain outside, fairy lights twinkling in every corner and an intoxicating smell of jasmine flowers, the evening matched the mood of the song about a woman pining for her lover.

Sawan beeto jaye peeharwa, mann mera ghabraaye.
Aiso gaye pardes piya tum, chain hume nahi aawe.

As the monsoon passes by, my heart is getting anxious.
You have left for a foreign land, and I have not had any peace since.

Around 25 people had gathered in journalist Bilal Zaidi’s childhood home on July 23, for an evening of ghazals, shayari and a discussion on the significance of the Urdu language, in poetry and popular culture. The recently-renovated house is known as The Centre for Art and Free Expression, or CAFE, and aims to be a space for a range of activities – lectures, workshops and classes – to promote free expression. The Facebook page of CAFE, set up by Zaidi and his sister Rabab Zaidi, a Dubai-based artist, describes it as a “safe space in a minority-dominated neighbourhood”.

“We realised that in the bid to keep Jamia Milia Islamia, a central university, safe and secure, the entire locality can become really isolated from the rest of the city,” said Zaidi. “A person could be living 300m away from the Centre for Fine Arts, but still have no idea about the value of free expression.”

Nitesh Rana at the Centre for Art and Free Expression.

CAFE’s first session, on July 9, included poetry recitations by Amy Singh, Sabika Abbas Naqvi and members in the audience on their idea of peace. Encouraged by their enthusiasm, the organisers wanted CAFE’S second event to be bigger, but due to heavy rainfall and subsequent water-logging, two of the invited artists were stranded and half the people who registered couldn’t make it.

Despite the setbacks, the event settled into an intimate rhythm with Rana strumming his guitar to soulful ghazals and the audience pitching in with lyric interpretations and Urdu couplets. And while it did not have the spirit of their first event, it still had a lot of heart.

Participants at the 'Ghazal Meets Guitar' event organised at the Centre for Art and Free Expression inspired the audience to share Urdu couplets.

The idea for CAFE first came to Zaidi during a trip to New York when he visited Harlem, a neighbourhood which, after the end of World War I, became the hub of literary, artistic and intellectual movement that created a new black cultural identity. From the 1920s to the mid-1930s, Harlem was a melting pot for writers, artists, musicians and poets. “During the Harlem Renaissance, while there was a lot of talk about oppression of the African-Americans, which is similar to what Muslims are facing right now, there were also a lot of conversations around that oppression,” said Zaidi. “Right now there is a very visible narrative around being a victim, but how do you transform it into something constructive? Harlem did not do anything specific. It just created spaces and people came on their own. That’s what we are trying to do here as well.”

To advertise both events, Zaidi had put up posters around Jamia Nagar.

Amy Singh at Centre for Art and Free Expression's inaugural event, Ashhar-E-Aman (Image from: Facebook.com/Centre-for-Art-and-Free-Expression).

“When we were living in Meerut, going to mushairas [a gathering where poets perform and share their works] was a regular part of our lives,” said Anjum Siddiqui, 53, who has been living in Jamia Nagar for almost 32 years and was one of the first to arrive on Sunday. “It is very heartening to see young people taking an interest in Urdu. They are learning Urdu poetry, ghazals and really understanding its meaning instead of just engaging with it superficially.” Siddiqui still loves to attend mushairas at Delhi’s India Islamic Centre or the ones organised by the Jashn-e-Bahar Trust, a non-profit organisation. She was invited to the CAFE event by Bilal Zaidi’s father, Ghazanfar Zaidi.

Another member of the audience was Nasheet Shadani, a creative strategist at Facebook India and the founder of Ishq Urdu, a page dedicated to making Urdu language relevant for contemporary readers. Shadani, 30, has been a resident of the neighbourhood since 1996. “During our parents’ younger days, such gatherings happened regularly,” he said. “Intellectuals, poets, artists would come together to discuss everything – politics, philosophy, love. There is a need to revive this tradition.”

Shadani, who seemed to know every ghazal or couplet that was sung or discussed, admitted to hating ghazals as a child when his parents would listen to them for hours. “I found them so boring,” he said. “I don’t know when they became such a big part of my identity. I now actively try to put this language out there for the younger generation to see and understand.”

Nasheet Shadani and Anjum Siddiqui at the Centre for Art and Free Expression.

According to Zaidi, their goal is to build an audience before they look for funding. “We also want to start doing sessions around slightly more contentious topics, like inter-religious marriages,” said Zaidi.

CAFE’s main aim is to bring intellectual and artistic discussion, usually limited to spaces like the India International Centre or Jantar Mantar, to Jamia Nagar. “Knowledge should not be restricted to specific places,” said Zaidi. “We need to start decentralising the spread of knowledge and education and introduce this neighbourhood to artists like Naqvi and Rana. We had no idea whether people here would participate, but we were overwhelmed by how many wanted to be a part of our discussions.”