The hills were alive with the sounds of rock, heavy metal, fusion and everything in between.

The sun leaves people hot under their tattoos. But nobody really cares. It's three days of music at the MAD Festival in Ooty. From 11 in the morning to almost 11 at night, the stately old Fernhill Palace hotel, once the summer retreat of the Mysore maharajah, reverberates to drums, guitars, synthesisers, cheers and whistles as musicians perform folk, jazz, heavy metal and spiritual fare.

There is an impressive line-up of performances split between two stages, separated by a wooded stretch. A half-hour buffer between performances on each stage gives everyone the time to take a loo break, snack break or fortifying swig before they get ready for more. This way, they also don't have to worry about choosing between performances.

As it transpires, it doesn't quite work that way. Sound checks take longer than they should, or someone overshoots their time and of course there is the inevitable, interrupting rain.

Kryptos from Bangalore is first up. It is disconcerting to see a heavy metal band performing in broad daylight with a smattering of fans head-banging gamely along. But the crowd grows gradually. It is Thursday, after all, and a working day. The dress code is jeans and black tee shirts (lots of Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix), pony tails, earrings, beards, jholas and backpacks. Everyone looks like a rocker. Footwear ranges from orange sneakers and Hawaii chappals to purple ballerina shoes and fur boots. Those who are not in jeans are in floating skirts and balloon pants with strappy tops and flowers in their hair; quite 1960s. The music has an unmistakable Indian flavour.

“I am loving it. Back home I always listen to Indian music,” says Katharine, a yogi from Ulm, Germany, who came from Kodaikanal to Ooty when she heard about the fest. She plans to take back CDs from the festival for friends back home. Her favourite, so far, is Indian Ocean. Quite a few foreigners are present. Anna and Sunna, from Iceland, are volunteering at a school in Bengaluru. Douglas is from New York, currently living in Ooty, and says he is working on a book about India.

Between the acts

It is like a picnic. Seasoned festival hoppers have tightly rolled yoga mats under their arms, while others just sprawl on the grass. Enthusiastic fans scramble from one stage to the other while some just stay where they are and enjoy whoever is performing next. Between performances, people catch a quick nap, read (one lady whips out Emma), or simply hold their own jam session with friends.

Not far away food counters sell biriyani, bondas and sandwiches. People play frisbee and foosball. A flea market under the trees becomes a watering hole with a bar and stalls that sell crazy hats, wigs and elephant poo paper products, besides funky tee shirts, flowery headbands, posters and coffee mugs. One of them also sells the CDs of some of the performing artists.

La Pongal sweeps up the honours. People can't seem to get enough of the kuthu songs and dance moves straight from rural Tamil land. They are unapologetically home-grown. Vocalist Anthony from Thanjavur and the thavil players from Madurai are the real rock stars, says the band leader Darbuka Siva. The members are in bright costumes; Siva has bells on his ankles, and Anthony wears a long plastic garland that he promises to the most enthusiastic dancer.

Later Siva says, “It was a brilliant idea to do it in Tamil Nadu. I have always wished we could do it here. Only, I never thought of the Nilgiris as a possible venue. Whoever thought of Ooty cracked it. And it was great that bands from all over the country played here, as well as international ones. I take great pride in Tamil folk music and I hope we can be a bridge between the urban and the rural. We are just urban wannabe folk musicians. But we do not sing in the streets, in the villages, in the small towns. These people do.”

Ebullient Raghu Dixit is one of the stars. Also at the festival is his brother Vasu who is part of Swarathma (the group featured in Dewarists along with Shubha Mudgal). Along with the songs, there is dancing and digs at the politicians (“Our politicians are ‘Porn' leaders, not ‘Born' leaders”). Then they sing Ghum, a song about child sexual abuse.

Kerala's Avial pulls in the faithful, but their performance seems to be less than perfect. “They did not quite do it for me. I think they are missing lead vocalist Benjamin,” says a crestfallen Samridhi. Benjy has moved to the U.S. and apparently left behind shoes too big to fill.

It is strange to hear Ganesha Stuti in a rock festival. But Agam from Bangalore has disguised it as rock. Lead singer Harish Sivaramakrishnan is a trained Carnatic vocalist. So the crowd headbangs to a Tyagaraja kriti as well.

Tanvi Rao of Sulk Station is grateful, she says, for the opportunity to perform here. “This setting is superb, especially for those of us coming from cities. I think it is the first time where bands that play similar kind of music have come together under one umbrella. Most of all I love the fact that it is so clean. I could happily bring my parents here.” Sulk Station has been on the Bobby Friction Show on BBC Asian Network that features emerging artists.

The oldest group, perhaps, is Skinny Alley from Kolkata. Of the four-member ensemble, three are related: the husband-wife duo Gyan and Jayashree and son Jivraj. Very cool.

Loudest cheers

But it is lok geet that gets the loudest cheers. Papon and the East India Company's boat song receive a rapturous welcome. A rock version of the Sufi Duma Dum Mast Kalandar brings the roof down. The song is performed twice more in different styles: once by the Rajasthani Manganiyars and by the Abhyas Trust.

A half hour of rain messes up some schedules and gigs have to truncate their performances. But the Kabir Project is worth sitting in the wet and cold night. In their short time, Shabnam Virmani, Prahlad Singh Tipanya, Mukhtiar Ali accompanied by more singers from Malwa simply blow the audience away.

“My God, what energy!” says Junaid Sait, a resident of Ooty. A boy wearing a colourful wig, a moustache and dark glasses butts in, “We are locals,” he says, “but we know how to throw a party”.  Lalitha Suhasini, Editor, Rolling Stone, India, concludes, “The MAD fest was a hit in the sense that it introduced bands to newer audiences and vice versa. Despite a couple of organisational setbacks, the fest managed to be the first of its kind to expose local audiences to indie bands from across the country.”

We pulled it off...

... says Suneesh Tom, CEO Cobalt (Organisers of MAD Fest).

“We want to make it a calendared event like the other music festivals across the world, and make sure it is a part of the tourist itinerary,” says Suneesh Tom, CEO of Cobalt, which organized the three-day MAD fest at Ooty over the Easter weekend.

“It has been a logistical nightmare, but I think we have pulled it off. It has been on the drawing boards for over two years and all the money we have made over the years has been poured into this,” he says. That is an approximate two and a half crores. They had the best of musicians (350 of them), with the best possible sound system, two stages (“Having just one would have cut our costs considerably,” he smiles), and the best possible facilities for the audience (more than 400 crew members worked round the clock to ensure a smooth event).

Suneesh travelled music festivals across the globe, including festivals in London and Edinburgh, the Burning Man in the U.S and the Amsterdam Jazz Fest, to get an idea of how to organize an event of this kind. He feels he can confidently say that “Everybody who is a somebody in the contemporary music scene in the country was here.” Suneesh is fairly certain that MAD is the first festival of its kind in India and he hopes that it will become a permanent feature that music lovers will look forward to.

He is grateful for the support and encouragement of the artists. “All of them have played for less than what they charge elsewhere,” he says. He found Ooty a great location. “Good weather at this time of the year, and easy accessibility to Bangalore, Chennai, Coimbatore and even parts of Kerala.”

Only, Suneesh is a little dismayed at the turnout. “We expected at least 3,000 people, but only around a thousand showed up. We had done everything to make sure the festival would go off without incident. We invested a lot in advertisement. We need to do more homework and figure out why this happened,” he says. For now, he is happy with the feedback of both the performers and the audience. And he is especially pleased that many local people have come forward and pledged their support.

The MAD festival will be an annual event, and every two years the venue will change. So the Nilgiris will come alive with music once again next year.

Keywords: MAD Festival


Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012