'Kommune was born out of the realisation that performing artists are largely loners': Roshan Abbas
Held over the weekend, the third edition of Spoken Fest by Kommune in Mumbai saw over twelve thousand people in attendance, celebrating the beauty of words through a series of performances across the genre of poetry, music and storytelling. Headlined by The Local Train and Peter Cat Recording Co., the two-day festival also saw the presence of artists like actress Mithila Palkar, screenwriter-lyricist Varun Grover, comedian Rohan Joshi, journalist Faye D'Souza, actress Radhika Apte, commentator Harsha Bhogle, and social media influencers like Srishti Dixit and Kusha Kapila. While today the festival has grown leaps and bounds since its inception, we speak to founder Roshan Abbas about the initial days of Kommune and what made him create this community in the first place. Excerpts:
Q: How did Kommune happen? Can you please take us through the journey of Kommune since its inception.
It was around 2012, one of the films that I had created didn’t get the kind of response that I was hoping for and as an artist, I felt a big creative vacuum. I was starting to doubt myself but luckily, my whole bunch of friends started coming over to spend time with me and telling me about their ideas or projects that didn’t work, in their effort to get me back to the creative process. It was then that I started thinking about an artist’s network that would support each other since performance artists are largely loners! Eventually, in 2014, I reached out to my friends and people from the industry like Gaurav Kapur, Ankur Tiwari, Mini Mathur among others. We started pitching ideas but most of them were either out of budget or were difficult to produce. I wanted it to be a collective project, something that has an impact beyond its pocketability. Ankur had a great biographical music idea, Gaurav was very keen to do conversations (which he eventually turned into Breakfast With Champions) and my idea was storytelling. And, thus begin Kommune.
A friend of mine found a bungalow in Versova which had an afternoon slot free, so we took that space and I sent an email to some 30 friends of mine, asking them to come for a storytelling session. I had also asked one of my friends to send a person to shoot it. About 15 people turned up and in no time, they were telling stories which ranged from being unsure in career to what to do in a drama school. Everybody had a story. Afterwards, we spoke to Vijay Nair from OML and they were doing a multi-disciplinary festival titled ‘Stage 42’ and asked us to do storytelling there and frankly, that’s when Kommune took off from an idea in my head in 2012 to an informal gathering in 2014 to our first show in 2015.
Q: Its digital presence took it across the country but was it a part of the initial plan?
It wasn’t. What happened was that we had limited money, and when you have no money, you become more ardent since you have nothing to lose and if you are smart, you can take the leverage of digital media without even spending a rupee. Initially, I handled social media and I am so proud that today, we have over half a million reach on our platform, which is big for someone who hasn’t spent a single rupee.
Q: And, when did you start ticketing it?
In 2017, when I wanted to do a fest called Spoken, people were not willing to bet their money on it because we had no history (this year, the festival had tied up with brands like Spotify, Netflix, Asian Paints, CRED, Stranger & Sons, White Owl, Blue Tokai, Bumble, and Harley Davidson). And, I was a quick believer that people must learn to pay for art because the artists also need food and accommodation. So, we started with a small ticket, which goes up to Rs 500.
Q: Is this model sustainable?
For now, we've injected some of our money into Kommune and we treat it like a startup. I won’t lie and say it’s not a tightrope every day but it is fun and I have never been more content in life.
Q: Do you remember the first time you were introduced to spoken word?
Yes, I do. It was about six years ago. I was at my son's school and Sarah Kay (American poet) had come there for a performance. She recited some poems and I was blown away. It made me wonder how to give people the power of words, the power of stories and somewhere she left me with a hidden mission.
Q: Kommune sees a mix of established artists and common people. Was it intentional to bring in celebrities, in the beginning perhaps, to bring in traction?
My circle of friends were all established artists in their respective fields and I reached out to them and they became the towers that people looked up to and that’s a good thing to do unless it becomes the only thing that you do. But, people like Rabia and others too came into the system and became big.
Q: And, now that Kommune has been established, do you still need celebrities to attract a crowd or is the name enough?
So it’s a mix. Sometimes, there's a piece done by a new artist and you will find it to have the best reach on social media but brands do get swayed by social media of some artists. So, each show of ours has some established artists but they are also accompanied by great storytellers who we believe have great value. There’s always a great demand for celebrities but we, as a brand, pushback.
Q: Lastly, how do you see spoken word evolving in India? Can it be a viable career option?
We've had poetry laureates but we've never had storytelling laureates. I think the spoken wave is the third wave of culture after music and comedy. It is real, authentic and resonates with a culture that wants no filter. You only want filters on Instagram. It’s a career option for anyone who looks at it seriously and for them, it can earn anything from Rs 30,000 a month to astronomical amounts, depending on who you are.