Happy camping with Kabir

Strains of Kabir's dohas filled a valley in scenic Panchgani, as a bunch of city folk soaked in the sixth edition of Music In The Great Outdoors

"Jo sukh paayo Ram bhajan mein,
Woh sukh nahi amiri mein,
Mann laagyo mero yaar garibi mein,
Mann laagyo mero yaar fakiri mein..."

The band members of Neeraj Arya's Kabir Café performing outdoors at Panchgani.  Pic Courtesy/Nivedita Kotak
The band members of Neeraj Arya's Kabir Café performing outdoors at Panchgani. Pic Courtesy/Nivedita Kotak 

Forty campers grooved into the night to these joyful verses of Kabir as Neeraj Arya’s Kabir Café took centrestage, 4,300 feet above sea level, at Panchgani. Fused with Rock, Reggae and Carnatic tunes, lead vocalist Neeraj Arya’s rustic, folksy notes were backed by his band members as Raman Iyer plucked on the mandolin, Mukund Ramaswamy produced high-pitched tunes on the violin, Viren Solanki drummed the djembe while Poubuanpou Britto KC strummed the bass guitar.

Hosted by The Blueberry Trails, this outdoor live acoustic performance was part of the sixth edition of the Music In The Great Outdoors. This two-day musical weekender, that took place on March 14 and 15, packed in camping at a site overlooking the picturesque Krishna Valley. As the five-member band sang Kabir’s dohas with a contemporary twist, the venue resonated with musical notes and memories that would last for a long time, no mean feat considering the travellers had just met as strangers, a few hours ago...

The spacious tents at the campsite
The spacious tents at the campsite

The journey begins
Our road trip to Panchgani began at 7 am sharp on Saturday, in a luxurious air-conditioned bus. College students, doctors, media professionals, executives and a professional paraglider(!) were part of the group. Our euphoria moment: the band travelled with us; we had our cine moment a la Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, as we watched members tune their instruments. After a short halt for breakfast outside Navi Mumbai, we resumed the five-hour long, albeit comfortable and scenic ride that played hide and seek with the lofty Sahyadris.

The valley view
Bound by the Western Ghats and dotted with lush greenery, a beautiful still lake and clear blue skies greeted us on arrival at the campsite. It was an instant mood upper. The campsite was divided into several zones – a row of four tents that formed the sleeping area, a wooden shed and a lawn where the band would perform at night, a lunch area and two separate home-stays that were part of the site too. While you can volunteer to stay in the clean, well-furnished homestays that had attached bathrooms at the same price (Rs 4,600 + taxes; inclusive of transport, stay, meals and the gig), we chose to camp out. 

The spacious six-member sharing tents were furnished with beds and two blankets each. The temperatures dipped to 10 degrees Celsius post midnight (in March even!). Our tent had an electric bulb and a charging point (brownie points). Famished, we headed to the lunch area where we tucked into home-cooked dal, rice, a vegetarian (potatoes and peas in tomato gravy), a chicken dish, chapattis and salad.

We checked out the much-highlighted washrooms too. The home stays had spacious bathrooms with 24-hour hot water service that we had access to being a group outing. The organisers also set up a row of WCs near the gig area that were hygienic and thankfully, remained so till the end of our trip.

Juicy, fresh strawberries sold outside the Mapro Garden. This spot was a part of the trip's itinerary. Pic courtesy/Nivedita Kotak
Juicy, fresh strawberries sold outside the Mapro Garden. This spot was a part of the trip's itinerary. Pic courtesy/Nivedita Kotak 

Whipped cream and wood-fired pizzas
Part of the evening itinerary was a visit to the famous Mapro Garden. Spoilt for choice, with the vast menu (a tad expensive) at the café, we indulged in Strawberry Ice-cream that was topped with fresh cream and chunks of the sweet fruit, Strawberry Slush and warm, crispy French Fries. However, the delicious thin-crust wood-fired pizzas topped with mushrooms, olives and cheese won our vote; it could give many of Mumbai’s swish pizzerias a run for their money. Bags stocked with jams, chocolate spreads and dry fruits coated with milk chocolate – we headed back, eager to soak in the outdoor gig.

A soulful evening
Unlike a crowded, LED-lit concert where the band-audience connect feels distant, the simple, informal setting appealed to us. Dressed with ferry lights, streamers and orb lanterns, the seating area was covered with mattresses for travellers and wooden chairs for the band. An impromptu song by a fellow camper, who came armed with his guitar, made for a lovely opening act. By 8 pm, the band began celebrating Kabir with popular tracks like Halke Gaadi Haako, Moko Kahan Dhunde and Jini Re Jini. Interestingly, we were also privy to some of their unreleased tracks that they decided to test for this small group.

The vocalist added essence to the act by explaining the meaning of Kabir’s verses, usually in Hindi and Malvi dialect of Madhya Pradesh, making it relevant to the crowd; by now everyone joined in the singing. As the night passed and the temperature dipped, the party moved around a bonfire as the campers continued to jam along with the band until the wee hours of the morning, singing everything from Kailash Kher to Coldplay.

On a high, after soaking in the stunning morning view of the valley, and tasty Upma for breakfast, we bid adieu to the campsite. An astute observation by Raman Iyer, from the previous evening, rang in our ears: “Look at everyone dancing together – they are so happy; they don’t care what caste or religion the other person follows; just what Kabir wished for.”

Log on to:

From Mumbai 250 km
How to reach
By road: Drive along the Mumbai-Pune Expressway and National Highway 4. Turn right onto Wai-Surur Road that becomes Wai-Panchgani-Mahabaleshwar Road after 11.8 km. Turn right onto Shirinbai Davierwalla Marg.

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