The Storytellers’ Bar Wants to Put Pondicherry on The Music Map
The new venue seeks to bring musicians and patrons alike to the otherwise sleepy Southeastern seaside town
When you think of Pondicherry, you might think of colonial era blue-grey townhouses, or a picture-perfect promenade and pier stretching out into the Bay of Bengal, or golden, flaky French pastries and cafÃ© au lait by the seaside. You might think of a giant golden golf ball, or you might think of an imposing portrait of a French woman somewhat disturbingly known as the Mother. But you probably won’t think of music.
The Storytellers’ Bar, Pondicherry’s newest venue, hopes to change that–without compromising any of the coastal city’s myriad other stories. The bar, which just opened its doors last week, aims to serve as the intersection of food, nightlife and culture within Pondicherry, the capital city of the tiny Southeastern state of Puducherry. Everything about the venue, including the programming, is designed to reflect what publicists delight in referring to as “local flavor”–from location-specific drink names like “The Lighthouse” and dishes that feature organic Auroville produce, to workshops and exhibits featuring local artists and entrepreneurs.
Dilip Kapur, the man behind luxury leather brand Hidesign, is wandering through Pondicherry’s Heritage Town on a Friday morning. As he walks, he tells stories about each of the buildings we pass–his days spent in the picturesque school courtyard, the history behind the perfumery that still sells vintage fragrances at 20th century prices. His tone dips to a whisper as he points out the Japanese botany in the eerily quiet Sri Aurobindo Ashram; an old sports teacher who’s stepped straight out of The Life of Pi comes over to shake his hand when we arrive at the Ashram sports complex.
There is no better person to receive a Pondicherry tour from than Kapur. He grew up in and around the area and has established two boutique hotels in the seaside town: Le Dupleix and The Promenade–the latter serves as the location for The Storytellers’ Bar. It was on a walk like this one that the venue was conceptualized over a year ago.Together with Simran Mulchandani, the man behind the immensely successful India-wide BlueFROG music venue franchise, architect Ayaz Basrai (who designed the BlueFROGs in Pune and Bengaluru) and sound designer Kapil Thirwani, Kapur visualized The Storytellers’ Bar as the physical embodiment of a walk through his beloved town.
It may seem a little strange to open a music venue a three-hour drive from Chennai, the nearest big city, and in a place where the music scene is limited to restaurants and bars that cater to seasonal tourists. But Mulchandani, who co-founded the now-closed BlueFROG Mumbai and served as the franchise’s first Managing Director, wants The Storytellers’ Bar to put Pondicherry on musicians’ maps. He hopes that the little town’s relative proximity to Chennai and Bengaluru (a seven-hour drive away) will push artists to use Pondicherry as a means to create a South India tour circuit.
“I’ve reached out to my entire network of programmers, music managers from around the country, and said, ”˜Look, here’s the venue we’re opening. If you’ve got anyone going to either Bangalore or Chennai, more like Chennai, now you have a real circuit in the South,’” says Mulchandani. “If you’ve got an artist going from Delhi to Bangalore, then you’ve got a Bangalore gig, a Chennai gig, a Pondi gig.”
Mulchandani’s experience from establishing the BlueFROG franchise informs the direction he wants to take with The Storytellers’ Bar, which–he repeatedly mentions–he considers to be more than a music venue. “When we started BlueFROG Bombay we thought we were going to open a jazz club. But you have to be flexible, you have to learn as you go,” he says. “When we started BlueFROG, the dollar was 40 rupees. So a 10,000 dollar artist would cost us four lakhs. So if we wanted to bring in some really spectacular artist from out of India, the cost was four lakhs. The same artist four years later was six and a half lakhs. That became a big constraint. How do you build a sustainable story?”
Mulchandani believes that the monetary restrictions on having a venue in an otherwise remote location will work themselves out. Musicians who would otherwise not find it financially viable to fly to Bengaluru to play just one show could now potentially book gigs in Pondicherry and Chennai as well and drive from one location to the other. Artist accommodation will not prove difficult, either. “We have the good fortune of having a hotel, so putting them up is not an issue,” Mulchandani says.
The town itself, Mulchandani predicts, will also grow to become a cultural hub in its own right, which will pull in musicians and patrons alike. “I would say Pondi is what Goa was 25 years ago. It’s a really relatively untapped market,” he says. “I think that the tourist trade here is going to pick up tremendously over time. We hope to contribute to that.”
It’s a balmy, breezy Friday night, and Pondicherry’s first real music venue has just opened its doors to the public. Emergence, an Aurovillean four-piece band fronted by a bald white man named Krishna McKenzie–three guesses for his birth name; Steve? Bill? Thelonious?–are the very first musicians to play on The Storytellers’ Bar’s basement stage. Karthik Srinivasan winds intricate tales on his electric violin, and unfairly talented French bassist Mishko M’ba settles into a groove, while McKenzie spouts lyrics in shockingly fluent Tamil. As the band’s mesmerizing set comes to a close, the party doesn’t end–it merely disperses to the bar, the terrace, the balcony. The vibe is decidedly jovial; like the feeling of the first sip of your first drink of the night, or the first page in the first chapter of a new story being turned.