Unlike most other countries (in the West), India’s music festivals stay in the shade all summer and come alive in the winter months. Starting from September and running until February (and in some places, March), the country’s continually expanding music festival economy is — demonetisation and GST regime notwithstanding — up for trying most things in terms of genres and brand aesthetics to bring in an audience.
I was at the Ziro Festival of Music last week. At an elevation of 1,500 metres above sea level, amidst clouds that you can almost touch, it is astounding that the festival has been in action for seven years now in this remote part of the country. While I spotted army and military personnel scattered across the festival grounds, it did not stop anyone from walking about with a smile and bamboo mugs full of rice beer, merrily enjoying the annual outing. Unlike other music festivals in the running for five years, Ziro receives funding from the Arunachal Pradesh state government. And although there is a bit of convincing involved (sponsors), it has quietly done what only the best in the country have: achieved longevity and sustainability.
With over 20 festivals — indoor and outdoor — taking place across India annually, there is always room for more. But as seasoned sound engineer Anupam Roy notes, there are more festivals dying than growing in the last two decades, with only a handful staying the course. “Quality-wise, the ones that have stuck around have got their business model and revenue streams right. The moment it goes mass, there’s no room for error,” he says.
Also, whether it comes to giving women equal representation on the line-up, sound vendors bringing in top-notch gear or implementing zero-plastic regulations, festivals are steadily coming of age. Bengaluru-based producer and DJ Rahul Giri, who has been a part of the live circuit for more than a decade, says festivals take stage requirements more seriously than individual venues. “The effort, the management, it is right up there in terms of sound and lighting. Festivals are 10 times better than venues. They actually go through tech-riders and everything.”
If you are looking for an all-round multi-genre experience that focusses on the best music, our pick is Bacardi NH7 Weekender in Pune, but if you want to get out and go far, few festival experiences match the cultural dynamism of Magnetic Fields in Rajasthan. Here are seven of our favourites:
Paddy Fields Festival
October 6 and 7, Nesco Center, Mumbai
If anyone wants to draw in Mumbai’s discerning listenership, they have to please them all. In the third edition, this folk fusion festival brings together everyone from Amit Trivedi to Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt and Anwar Khan, the Manganiyar Classroom and others.
Genre alert: If you have already caught the powerful theatrical Rajasthani folk performance of Manganiyar Classroom, we recommend some Goan folk — classic Konkani and Portuguese tunes from keyboardist Merlin D’Souza and Viva La Goa on October 7.
You will bump into: People of all ages, but most likely those who prefer sitting down unless they are ordered to stand up by the performers.
Tune in: Desert folk, Indian classical from Rahul Sharma, and fusion from ace composer Shantanu Moitra.
The Beantown Backyard Festival
October 27 and 28, Canterbury Castles, Nandi Hills, Karnataka
Drawing out the people of Bengaluru to Nandi Hills is no big feat, but using music to do so can be a challenge. The latest festival on the block is roping in UK electronic veterans Asian Dub Foundation, city-based rockers such as Parvaaz, and Beijing-based Mongolian throat singing artist Tulegur.
Genre alert: They have something for everyone, but we recommend tuning into the powerful, somewhat esoteric, electronic music from the likes of Disco Puppet, and Aerate Sound.
You will bump into: Mostly the young, considering a press release mentions, “Fans make an entry to the festival through a 500 metre zip-line running from the box office to the stage area.” Listen up, you adventure junkies.
Tune in: Make time for Ms Mohammed, the UK-based rock queer artist, who is part of a first for an Indian music festival — opening its doors to artists in the LGBTQ community.
Essentials: Though you will either camp under the stars or check into a hotel, bring a jacket and a blanket for when you want to stay back longer or just lounge on the grass.
Bacardi NH7 Weekender Meghalaya
November 2 and 3, The Festive Hills, Thadlaskein
This year’s Northeast sojourn of one of the biggest music festivals in the country brings together powerhouse voices like Shankar Mahadevan, Shillong blues queen Tipriti Kharbangar, UK guitar hero Guthrie Govan, American rockers Switchfoot and, of course, Finnish rockers Poets of the Fall for a cannot-miss edition.
Genre alert: Although there is a marked absence of metal, there is plenty of mind-bending electronic music being performed live (read, no DJs) by Komorebi, Kumail, Sandunes and Ape Echoes.
You will bump into: Campers, hippies and prim and proper locals, dressed to the nines.
Essentials: The Festive Hills are not exactly close to Shillong, so pack gumboots and a rain poncho for those unpredictable rains.
Tune in: Prep by taking a trip back in time, to when ‘Indian rock’ was actually a thing, courtesy bands like Zero and Pentagram (above). The Mumbai rock bands are sure to be a treat for anyone who has missed them.
Pro-tip: Bengaluru-based Mahesh Raghunandan, who returns for a second consecutive performance at Weekender, recommends going to Cherrapunji but, more importantly, stopping by Orange Roots, an authentic South Indian restaurant. “There are all these local women wearing South Indian attire, serving dosas , and the sambar is legit. And the filter coffee. Home is a feeling indeed,” he says.
Jazz India Circuit International Festival, Goa
December 1 and 2, The International Centre Goa, Dona Paula
Previously called the Goa International Jazz Live Festival, it will host eclectic new-age offshoots and crossover jazz this December. Featuring Australian neo-soul band Hiatus Kaiyote, French afropunk/jazz act Supergombo, and the return of British punk-jazz band WorldService Project.
Genre alert: We cannot recommend enough of Hiatus Kaiyote for their smooth, versatile influence from the genre, which might just lead you down a rabbit hole of fresh-sounding, soul-influenced rock and jazz.
Tune in: Do not miss out WorldService Project if you think jazz is all about laid-back head nods and snapping your fingers. This may not be for the faint-hearted and certainly not for the purists.
You will bump into: Likely the older jazz crowd, but also the cooler ones who will not be put off by a little loudness.
Essential stuff: When in Goa, you cannot miss the beach. Make sure you have flip-flops and water-friendly wear.
Pro-tip: Sanjoy K Roy, managing director for Teamwork Arts who run the festival, says it is “about relaxing through the day and finding a soundtrack for your relaxation”. Other attractions include music education workshops and craft gin tasting sessions.
Echoes of Earth
December 1 and 2, Embassy International Riding School, Bengaluru
A recent entrant to the pool of music festivals, this eco-conscious format has everyone from French eclectic electronic artist FKJ to house/techno duo Dusky, a showcase of New York label Awesome Tapes From Africa, and singer-songwriter Ankur & the Ghalat Family.
Genre alert: It is no surprise that there are plenty of electronic music producers like Stavroz and Iglooghost here, but the festival puts enough weight behind producers with live performances (not just console deck fiddling) too, picking Dualist Inquiry and reggae act Grouch in Dub.
You will bump into: Eco-warriors who would make sure there is no litter and responsible ravers who know their tracks when a producer drops them.
Tune in: Theirs may be a short set of many performers, but Azadi Records’ hip-hop rundown might just top energy levels thanks to their impressive roster of young rappers such as Prabh Deep, Tienas and Seedhe Maut.
Essentials: Carry your own bottle so that you do not contribute to additional plastic usage.
Pro-tip: Sohail Arora, co-founder of KRUNK, the festival curator, says, “It has some amazing installation art — it gives it a very raw, organic feel. It’s not a rave scene but more of a family festival.”
Magnetic Fields Festival
December 14 to 16, Alsisar Mahal, Rajasthan
Usually the first festival to sell out its tickets once they announce the line-up, this year brings in heavy hitters in the electronic world, including Bicep, DJ EZ and jazz act Kamaal Williams.
Genre alert: Known for its electronic line-up, but do not miss out the somewhat left-field experimental artists such as No Metal In This Battle from Luxembourg, New Delhi’s Dee En and Bengaluru’s Monsoon Search Party.
Tune in: Prepare for Brooklyn electronic artist Chrome Sparks, aka Jeremy Malvin, as they play what might just be the most hypnotic yet chilled out, happy-vibes set.
You will bump into: Plenty of young achievers and seasoned ravers who know that the desert is the best place for an all-day, all-night party.
Essentials: Considering it is a bit of a trek to the venue, and camping is a likely option for most, we recommend sunscreen and comfortable footwear.
Pro-tip: Guitarist and producer Kartik Pillai — part of rock bands Peter Cat Recording Co, Begum, and his own project Jamblu — says even though it is limited-capacity, there is no jostling for space. “It has been awesome seeing it start with something like 400 to 500 people to becoming a major festival. The curations are always top notch and it’s just a nice place to hang out.”
Orange Festival of Adventure and Music
December 15 to 18 in Dambuk, Arunachal Pradesh
The other major rock festival in the Northeast (apart from Nagaland’s Hornbill Festival and Ziro Festival of Music), this one has been bringing down some heavy hitters in the last three years, including guitar legend Yngwie Malmsteen, synth veterans Tangerine Dream, guitar ace Richie Kotzen and others. This year, they have so far announced The Iron Maidens, the world’s best-known female tribute band to Iron Maiden.
Genre alert: In the past, Orange Festival has favoured emotive folk and singer-songwriter music to start with, before progressing to indie rock and sometimes metal.
You will bump into: Motor freaks who can talk at length about gears, tyres and road conditions of Arunachal Pradesh, but also the occasional music fan who is just there for the live experience.
Essential stuff: The trek to Dambuk likely involves a flight to Dibrugarh and a six-hour road trip, though the recently-inaugurated Dhola-Sadiya bridge will help smooth travel. We nevertheless recommend a travel pillow for the long trip.
Pro-tip: Arunachalese indie rockers Yesterdrive’s producer Kabir Jamatia says, “Don’t forget to stop in Pasighat en route to Dambuk, to see the Siang river. The ferry ride is always adventurous.”
On Jishnu’s radar
SulaFest, Nashik (February)
“Excellent setting, one of the most beautiful amphitheatres we’ve ever played at.”
Bacardi NH7 Weekender, Pune (December 7 to 9)
“No question about being the best festival in the country. Excellent vibe, production and programming. A true home grown gem.”
Storm Festival, Coorg
“We miss this great camping festival. It had a super vibe.”
Covelong Point Surf, Music and Yoga Festival, Chennai (August)
“The mix of surfing and music is just magical.”
Kasauli Rhythm and Blues Festival, Solan, Himachal Pradesh (March/April)
“Can’t go wrong with the mist and mountains and music. An excellent getaway in the hills.”
Fireflies Festival of Music (Bengaluru)
“This is by far the best festival we’ve ever seen. Up until 2010 and 2011, it used to be a gathering of only the most ardent music lovers. We miss this festival...”
Jishnu Dasgupta is bassist for Swarathma
Others on the map
November 16 and 17 at Famous Studios, Mumbai
Nariyal Paani Festival
IIT Bombay Mood Indigo’s Livewire
December 27 to 30, Mumbai
December 29 to 31, Oxford Golf Resort, Pune
IIT Madras Saarang’s Rock Show
February 16 and 17 at Laxmi Lawns, Pune