From Kolkata to Coorg and Shillong to Shekawati it is raining independent music festivals as the lines between genres and languages blur. Apoorva Sripathi and Esther Elias tune into the phenomenon.
You’re a speck in a sea of 10,000 people. Rows of bodies bounce to the beat; roving lights wash over, and the cold winds of the open night sky sweep all around you. As power cans flash lightning on stage, the rumble of thunder strikes above. With every note of the double flute and sarangi rising up to the heavens, the clouds shower down torrents in return. After a day spent listening to 20 different artistes, across five stages and numerous genres, with skin now soaked in rain, sweat and the soul of spirited music, there’s little else in the world that really matters. Welcome to the spellbinding power of India’s indie music festival nights.
From the scattered few stages of a decade ago, today, nearly every metro and two-tier city in India has a music festival to its name. With veterans, such as the five-year-old, four-city strong NH7 Weekender and Bangalore’s decade-old Oktoberfest, and young ventures, such as Ziro in Arunachal Pradesh, Rajasthan’s Magnetic Fields, Coorg’s Storm, Ooty’s GoMAD, Chennai and Goa’s Sunburn, Mumbai’s Mahindra Blues Festival and over 30 others, it’s raining independant music festivals on the country, and the drizzle swells into a full-fledged monsoon as the year comes to a close.
A classic character of India’s major music festivals has been its multi-stage, multi-genre nature, where the bass pulsing off the electronica stage is just a hop away from the strains of someone’s guitar on the singer-songwriter stage. Modelled on the Glastonbury festival, the upcoming NH7 Weekender, for instance, features five genre stages with simultaneous acts that culminate at the ‘Arena’ for its headlining performance. It’s in creating that heady cocktail of a 100-artiste line-up — 70 per cent Indian acts (with fresh names each year or established ones with new material) and 30 per cent International performers — that Vijay Nair, founder of organisers Only Much Louder (OML), finds their biggest breakthrough.
“Festival curation is an art,” says Anup Kutty, co-founder of Ziro, a three-year-old indie festival in the grasslands and meadows of Ziro village in Arunachal Pradesh. Their just-concluded edition highlighted folk artistes and less-known singer-songwriters from across the country, including the Sajda sisters, singing songs from their homeland Bathinda, Punjab. They had flown for the first time ever for this festival, and ended up jamming with Kolkata producer and solo artiste Neel Adhikari. “Multi-genre festivals bring about a convergence of cultures. The lines between folk and indie, urban and rural, language barriers, all blur, and the focus shifts to just quality music.”
It’s precisely this sense of community across genres, and the possibility of collaborations, that draws artistes to such festivals. “It’s understood that festivals pay you half your artiste fee, given they bring so many performers to one stage, but for us, it’s the chance to see people you’ve only heard before, perform live, and discover young, fresh talent that makes it exciting,” says Rahul Ram, bassist for Indian Ocean, who’ve performed at Storm and GoMAD, and will stage their multi-collaborator new album Tandanu, live at NH7 this year.
For the Raghu Dixit Project, that experience of being discovered at a festival is all too precious. In 2007, at OML’s Big Chill festival in Goa, Raghu and his band of lungi-clad boys were an innocuous bunch playing to a hundred people at first. “By the gig’s close, over 3,000 had gathered; news of us had spread fast and wide by word of mouth and that was our first big break,” says Raghu. From flautist Shankar Tucker, to claw-hammer banjoist Abigail Washburn, many of Raghu’s collaborators have been people he’s bumped into, and struck a chord with, at festival backstages. “There’s so much to learn just by watching fellow artistes play too!” he adds. “These spaces also give you a clear sense of the latest creative boundaries independent artistes in the country are pushing,” says Sharath Narayan, vocalist for one-album-old band Black Letters. “For a young band, they let you reach exactly that clued-in audience you’re looking for!”
For how nascent India’s music festival culture is, audiences couldn’t be happier with how fast the scene has mushroomed. One offshoot has been niche festivals such as the EDM-only Sunburn festival that recently turned a Chennai resort into a dance floor, the Kasauli Rhythm and Blues Festival in Himachal Pradesh, and the Mahindra Blues Festival in Mumbai, to name a few. “Running a blues-only festival was quite a gamble,” says Owen Roncon, founder of Oranjuice and Fountainhead, which runs the Mahindra two-day show. “When we began, people considered the blues as ‘beggar music’, some old, black man somewhere crying about something.” Curating the festival has been about changing that perception by bringing in the best of International blues artistes, such as Zac Harmon and Jimmie Vaughan. Running full-house now for four years consecutively from Bandra’s Mehboob Studios, Owen says success has come from tailor-making the entire experience for both die-hard blues fan who come just for the music, and for those there just to “hang out”.
Most music festivals today are thus as much about their destinations, the vibe and atmosphere they exude, as the music. Take Storm for example. The three-year-old Bangalore-based festival actually began as a camping event that would initiate responsible tourism through promoting local, musical talent reveals Lavin Uthappa, festival director. A camping festival is certainly unique to India, especially because, as Lavin says, “we don’t respect Nature”, something Storm aims to change by “bringing people together to enjoy Nature. Think of it as a camaraderie-based event, replete with late-night barbeques and adventure sports!” Tourism is a mainstay for Magnetic Fields festival too, which unfolds within the palatial splendour of Alsisar Mahal in Rajasthan. Live through the expansive worlds of art and heritage while lolling around in Bedouin tents, take yoga lessons or lose yourself in treasure hunts, lounge around at kite-flying parties or art workshops, or even attend costume balls and secret parties. “When we sell a music festival, we don’t just talk about the music; it’s a three-day holiday in Rajasthan that is an experience in itself,” says Munbir Chawla, festival organiser.
Over time, festivals take on a character for themselves defined by the artistes and audience that frequent them, adds Vijay. While NH7 makes conscious efforts to keep the colour black out of its stage designs and signage, in keeping with its ‘happiest festival’ tag, and Ziro draws strict lines about its environmentally conscious model, it’s the attitudes of leisure and comfort that festival-goers bring to these venues that create their spirit of peacefulness. From a broad demographic of listeners in their 20s and 30s, festivals with an air of safety and security, now also cater to families that come with grandparents and kids in tow, each finding their own space of happiness at these festivals.
As business burgeons though, Rahul notes, that there is a tendency to exorbitantly price festival tickets, making the music needlessly elite. “It makes no sense to take the music away from the youth, who are our most ardent fans, and don’t have huge budgets!” Moreover, as the frequency of such festivals draws closer, the more often a line-up of ‘usual suspect’ artistes too repeats itself. Stories abound of festivals that have opened with great aplomb, but fallen in on themselves a year after birth, from poor planning, shoddy artiste management and few sponsors. Magnetic Fields, for instance, has no sponsors (they have private funding), and Munbir says that gives him “the freedom to do what we want and work with a specific vision, while Storm and Ziro enjoy Government sponsorship.” Anup explains: “It’s about finding a sustainable business model between your sponsorships, merchandise, stall rentals, and campaigns, which enables you to subsidise your tickets to reach the audience you want to. It boils down to your intentions, really. Over commerce, you have to believe in the festival itself, in great artistes, great music.”
A year in festivals
When: Usually takes place end of January-beginning of February. Storm 2015 is likely to be held between November-December.
USP: A full scale camp-out music festival in the middle of unspoilt natural beauty. Previous acts include Agam, Karsh Kale Collectiv, Indian Ocean, Anthony Daasan.
When: December 27-29, 2014
USP: The country’s first and arguably most popular Electronic Dance Music festival for seven years now. The festival has also seen editions in other cities like Chennai, Mumbai, Delhi and Indore.
When: December 12-14, 2014
USP: A festival that takes place in a 17th Century palace in Shekawati, Rajasthan can only be exotic. So expect not just music but everything from yoga to costume balls and treasure hunts.
When: February 7-8, 2015
USP: Literally a heady mix of music, gourmet food and alcohol and add to it retail therapy as well. They added fashion to the mix this year.
Bangalore Open Air
When: September every year
USP: For strict metal-heads only. This edition saw German thrash metallers Destruction, Greek extreme metal band Rotting Christ and Italian brutal death metal band Cadaver Mutilator and Bengaluru-based folk metal band The Down Troddence and thrash metal veterans Threinody.
When: October 23-27, 2015
USP: Reportedly, Sir Mick Jagger is an international patron of the festival that takes place at the Mehrangarh Fort and has folk music in its line-up. This year’s main stage events included a mix of blues, soul and Scotland’s foremost drummer James Mackintosh.
Where: Kolkata, Bangalore, Pune, Delhi
When: November 1-2, 8-9, 21-23, 29-30, 2014
USP: There’s five stages of music, from electronica to fusion, rock and acoustic singer-songwriter, stand-up comedy, dance, theatre… take your pick.
Enchanted Valley Carnival
Where: Amby Valley City
When: December 19-21, 2014
USP: Three days, four stages, and over 25,000 people, with a focus on EDM, live bands, adventure and watersports, hot-air ballooning, a flea market, campfires, barbeques and live music all night.
Where: Ziro village, Arunachal Pradesh
When: September every year.
USP: Set in the pristine hills and valleys of the village of Ziro, a 14-hour journey from Guwahati, home to the Apatani agrarian tribe who are Animists, the festival blends the local culture with the best of singer-songwriters from across the country, besides nationwide folk acts aplenty.
Mahindra Blues Festival
Where: Mehboob Studios, Mumbai
When: February every year
USP: In its just-concluded fourth edition, Mahindra Blues brought home different kinds of blues from, the New Orleans and Chicago blues, to more young and contemporary varieties with Blues legends such as The Tedeschi Trucks Band, besides Indian acts such as the Soulmate duo from Shillong and Mumbai’s own Warren Mendonca of Blackstratblues.
India Bike Week
Where: Vagator, Goa
When: February 20-21, 2015
USP: The festival rallies together bikers and musicians for two days featuring DJs, race tracks, live bands across three music stages, stunt and dance zones.
The Great Indian Octoberfest
When: October every year.
USP: The just-concluded tenth edition of this festival featured The Raghu Dixit Project, Benny Dayal and Funktuation, besides the Manganiyar Seduction, the Down Troddence, Thaikkudam Bridge and many more. Of course, food, games and great beer come with the three days of revelry.
Kasauli Rhythm and Blues Festival
Where: Kasauli, Himachal Pradesh
When: April 3-5, 2015
USP: Organised by the Genesis Foundation, this year’s edition of the festival was its third, and included 10 bands such as Bangalore-based Lagori, Shillong’s Soulmate, folk rockers Susmit Sen and Indus Creed.
October 24, 2014