For years, I had grown up hearing that Shillong was the rock capital of India. Then, on my first visit, music was something I definitely wanted to explore. My journey started the moment I got off the cab; by the end of the week, I had my own private rendezvous with Nobel laureate, Bob Dylan.

Dylan’s Cafe is a regular haunt for music lovers in Shillong. Photo credit: Shail Desai

First published:

Meeting Dylan in Shillong

In the wake of Bob Dylan’s surprise Nobel, discoveries and celebrations in this city tucked away in the hills

Bob Dylan and I were destined to meet.

The moment I got off at the taxi stand at Police Bazaar, I was greeted with a poster in the middle of the street that read “Dylan’s Café”. It piqued my curiosity and was the perfect welcome to Shillong.

For someone who had spent the last nine days in the mountains, the news of the musician being awarded the Nobel Prize for literature was quite overwhelming. There was so much to read, so many opinions, but I thought he deserved it, simply for ensuring my lazy afternoons over beer were well spent.

In most of India, a cafe dedicated to the American would have been quite unusual. But here in Shillong—often referred to as the “Rock capital of India”, which most say it isn’t—it made perfect sense.

So despite the initial disgust of walking through the kwai-stained streets of Meghalaya’s capital, I set out in search of the cafe. Riding in a shared cab, I inquired with a fellow passenger about live music in Shillong. He wasn’t more than 40 years old, but his disheveled salt-and-pepper mop hinted he might know a thing or two about music (don’t look at me like that, it’s true).

He suggested a couple of places that I had been told of before, and said those were my best chance of catching a gig. Other than that, he didn’t know of any regular events. Then he mentioned a name that rang a bell—Lou Majaw, the grand old man of rock and roll. The original rocker of Shillong. The Indian Bob Dylan. Meeting him was a must for a Dylan fan in these parts.

A 10-minute ride took me to Dhankheti, where a hoarding guided me to Dylan’s Café. Right below the sign, it read: Est. 2016. Surely, the owners were either clairvoyants or just plain lucky.

It turned out to be the latter, as Vatsala Tibrewala, who quit her corporate job to join her brother’s dream, later told me. While thinking of an artist they could dedicate a cafe to, it was Dylan’s songwriting and his appeal in Shillong that made him a natural choice.

Finding a venue was the easy bit, but collecting the memorabilia that line up the interiors was anything but. Hunting in markets from Shillong’s Bara Bazaar to the bylanes of Kolkata and buying, printing and framing posters of Dylan was a work started almost a year ago, and the collection continues to grow. Visitors are even invited to paint their own Dylan, which then becomes a part of the cafe ceiling.

Art work at Dylan’s Cafe

“I don’t think we had to think much beyond Bob Dylan. It’s just his influence over the years, the lines he’s written and his connect with Shillong—it had to be him,” Tibrewala said.

Walking up the first floor, I was greeted by a wall lined with vinyl records and a ceiling with an art installation of some more. From there on, it was Dylan wonderland. From cushion covers, to album artwork, merchandise and a menu that opened to his magical lines, the place was every Dylanian’s delight, as his songs filled up the crisp evening air.

As I awaited my coffee and pancakes, it was time to start stalking Lou. A long string of Facebook posts on Dylan’s Nobel. I contemplated sending him a message to check on his coordinates as I continued searching.

Then, there it was. To celebrate Dylan’s success, he was playing at Café Shillong nearby that very day, in an hour.

I scarfed down the pancakes; the coffee almost singed my throat. It was a double march to the venue, some 20 minutes away, even as Sunday church meant clogged roads. It’s the time of the week Shillong takes the day off, and the believers and fashionistas make their way to spend sundown with the Lord.

Finally, across the road from my destination—Café Shillong, a favourite with Lou and locals alike—a bright light from a camera radiated from the balcony. Lou sat there with a beaming smile, his trademark white mane flourishing in the breeze. The interviews were on before the main event. I was going to watch an Indian legend at a Dylan gig.

He had his trademark denim hot pants on, the jade beads around his neck and the leather wristbands adding to his evergreen appeal, and was patiently answering questions. As I called for my first coffee of the night (the cafe didn’t serve alcohol and all wine shops take Sundays off, perhaps to get their own fix) and settled down. Almost instantly, Lou sprang up from his seat as if struck by lightning—he had realized he was 15 minutes late.

There was a spring in his step as he approached the guitars. He could have well been a trekker in the hills around Shillong, with his worn-out shoes and short socks. For all the years he had spent as a performer in the country, he had no airs. He plugged in his guitar into the single amplifier and jumped on to the stool, eager to get going.

He took off after a sound check that lasted less than a minute, Mr Tambourine Man getting it started on an evening that saw musician friends coming in from around town and all the way from Kolkata. I’ll admit that I had expected it to be another one of those ridiculously overpriced nights with a cover, as is the case at the swanky new spots in Mumbai these days.

Local boy Lou Majaw performs regularly in Shillong.

This one though was as informal as it got, with the artists walking around the place, catching up with the old and the new and inviting anyone who wanted to have a go up to the mic. There were footballers from local clubs at one table and bikers from Guwahati at another, as well as a few lucky guys like me who had just stumbled upon the event.

The place wasn’t too big, the acoustics just perfect. The foodies settled in with beef burgers (don’t ask how much that means to a Mumbai boy who’s been denied this for a long time), while smokers lined up in the narrow balcony outside. It was business as usual for the cafe staff, ducking under guitars and dodging foot-tappers as they went about their job.

Lou and his friends have celebrated Dylan’s birthday with a gig in Shillong on 24 May every year since 1972. It was in 1965 that Lou first heard of him during a night’s drinking in (then called) Calcutta.

“I used to follow the music of guys like Elvis Presley and Cliff Richard. When Dylan’s song started playing that night, I put my drink down and listened—that guitar, that little harp and that singing. It needed some listening. It was his lyrical depth that was special, it opened me up to a brand new world,” Lou said.

This gig, their second in Shillong this year, was all impromptu as Lou’s gang—featuring the likes of musician Rahul Guha Roy and filmmaker Ranjan Palit—did their own rendition of Dylan’s songs: Knockin’ on Heaven’s DoorForever YoungI Shall be Released and more. It didn’t matter if a song was played more than once, and given the setting, it could well have been an all-nighter.

The party moved over to a bar nearby—a welcome relief despite the overpriced alcohol. Lou sat at the bar chomping on a sandwich during a break.

“See, Lou Majaw never went to high school, so I don’t know what literature means in the first place. But there is some power in writing, and if that’s true, Dylan has been doing it for years. Surely that’s literature, man,” he said in between swigs of cola.

Blowin’ in the Wind has been Lou’s pick—he calls it the song of the times. Ironically, he hasn’t ever seen Dylan play in person.

“We connect through his writing and when I listen to his songs. His work breathes life, and he’s been more of an inspiration than an influence on my music if you ask me. His songs are like drinking water, the source of life,” he said.

Lou soon took off on yet another Dylan journey as I sat at the bar, pondering on my eventful first day in Shillong. Music was a way of life there, and they didn’t need gigs at every cafe around the corner to stake their claim to being the “Rock Capital of India”.

I was reminded of it yet again as I made my way back. A car packed with singing teens drove past me. I caught a line from the chorus they sang in union, “How does it feel” from Like a Rolling Stone. Pretty cool, I thought, given the generation gap.

Dylan is a local in Shillong. I met him more than once that evening. It’s about time the man sees it for himself.

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