Terrific location and fantastic music. What it was like at the Manali Summer Sundowners experience.

What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of Manali? Gorgeous snow-capped peaks, a prattling brook, apple orchards and pine forests. When Vivek Benipal, Founder-Director at Soul Curators, sent me an invitation to attend The Manali Summer Sundowners — touted as Himachal Pradesh’s biggest music and arts festival — it was hard to turn down.

The thought of Indian folk-fusion rock, electro fusion, and Sufi rock music echoing in the meadows of the Beas valley of Himachal Pradesh was too temping to resist. After an exhausting 20-hour 521-km road journey from Delhi to Manali via Bilaspur, Sundernagar, Mandi and Kullu, we arrived at Rambagh Amphitheater, the outdoor venue of the festival.

A Sounds United Project, the Manali Summer Sundowners was also positioned as a Green Festival with cleanliness drives promoting responsible travel and concert tourism in India. “Why Manali?” I ask Benipal, who has previously helmed the Gulmarg Winter Festival in Kashmir and Woodstock Festival in Rishikesh. “Manali has been sold as a ‘honeymoon destination’ for too long. My objective was to give Manali a makeover for tourists, to acquaint locals and tourists with their own contemporary music, merge lesser known bands with established ones and give artistes, photographers a platform to showcase their talent,” was his reply.

Superb location

After tea and snacks at our hotel superbly located right opposite the Rambagh Amphitheater, I was ready for the acts of the evening: Lagori from Bangalore and Moon Shadow Frequency from Delhi. While Lagori played a scintillating blend of Hindi/Kannada rock and folk music, Delhi-based Moon Shadow Frequency was inspired by western beats married to contemporary Indian pop. Geeth Vaz, lead guitarist and composer of the Bangalore-based Lagori, shared his views: “Visiting Manali was one of my dreams. I’ve watched a slew of movies that have been shot here and it has always been a dream to perform here. But turning this fairytale into a reality was harder than we imagined. It involved 20 hours of exasperating travel leaving us with very little time to prepare. But I am glad that our compositions were well received by the crowd. Audience interaction has always been one of our USPs. But I wish the festival had drawn larger numbers.”

Arnav Adhikari, the lead vocalist and guitarist of Moon Shadow Frequency, agreed. “The idea of hosting a contemporary music festival in a location as stunning as Manali was pretty exciting, to start with. In concept, it seemed like a festival that would be an indisputable crowd-puller. The organisers did a splendid job with the sound system but, overall, the gig was disappointing. No sane person would shell out Rs. 600 per person! But I would like to congratulate Soul Curators for having the gumption to envisage music festivals such as The Manali Summer Sundowners in locations as exotic as Rishikesh, Gulmarg and now Manali.” But was his first out-of-town performance free of snags and hiccups? “Not at all. Exotic locations are terrific but the lack of infrastructure is a huge impediment. We still have a long way to go. There were too many hiccups. Unavailability of resources was one of the primary ones.”

After a good night’s sleep, it was time for some sightseeing. I headed to Old Manali village to re-explore some breathtaking hangouts. Vaz and Shrey, founder members of Delhi-based Pratham scheduled to perform later that evening, were on the same track. “Old Manali is beautiful. Trekking, camping besides the Beas, exploring the eateries and shops in Old Manali village, a visit to the Hadimba Temple made my day,” said Shrey. “Old Manali has some of the coolest spots. River rafting on the Beas was an experience of a lifetime. As cheap as Rs. 250 per person for a seven km stretch, it didn’t dig a hole in my wallet,” quips Vaz.

I was ready for the second instalment of the Manali Summer Sundowners. The Rambagh Amphitheatre came alive with Baat Chalat and Naina by Delhi-based Rock Veda. Lead vocalist Kabul Rishi was in super form while Fateh Ali Khan on the tabla was a revelation. His recent claim to fame was his performance with Lady Gaga in Noida. How was the Manali experience? “Extremely hectic. Tiring beyond belief. Our performance was delayed by four hours. So that was a bummer to start with. We barely got time for rehearsals. Manali is a terrific choice of location but the turnout was terrible due to overpriced tickets,” Rishi is candid.

Show stealers

Shrey was a show stealer as he dived into the crowds and crooned a medley of chartbusters: ‘Bula Ki Jaan’, ‘Bandhya Ho’, ‘Sanu Ek Pal’, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s ‘Tere Bin Nahi Lagda’, ‘Kangna’, ‘Amplifier’ and Pratham’s own composition ‘Jaati Hai Toh Jaa’.

He seconds Kabul Rishi’s travel woes. “The journey to Manali was never-ending. Two bands were stuffed into one tiny mini bus and the journey that was scheduled to take 16 hours took 21. But other than the shaky start, I thoroughly enjoyed the festival. Good food. Good accommodation. The sound arrangements were terrific,” Shrey also has some positives. However, like Adhikari, he too laments overpriced tickets and abysmal turnout. “I dived into the crowd to attract bystanders,” he joked. “Even though an effort was made to slash ticket prices from Rs. 600 to Rs. 200 per person, people had lost interest”.

Other stars were Abhishek and Tarit from Delhi-based bands Astitva and Rishi Inc. respectively. “A road trip with the boys is always fun. What caught our fancy was that the Manali Sundowners was a Himachal Government-based initiative. We had performed in Manali for the Apple Festival and made up our minds to return whenever opportunity beckoned. So here we are. As a band, we are also extremely proud and happy to be a part of cleanliness drive initiated by Soul Curators,” said Abhishek.

Tarit, the tabla player of Rishi Inc, was overjoyed that the tickets had been brought down to Rs. 200 per person by the time Astitva and Rishi Inc performed.

As I packed my bags and watched the sun set over Manali’s gorgeous snow-capped peaks, I pondered if this edition of “Himachal Pradesh’s biggest Music and Arts festival” had managed to bring the sun down with it or not?

As Arnav pointed out, exotic locations such as Manali, Gulmarg and Rishikesh are terrific but lack of infrastructure and unavailability of resources still pose a major threat to Vivek Benipal’s dreams of setting up India’s first world class franchise of a truly international music and arts festival. What we have seen is just the tip of the iceberg!