Sub-zero temperatures, snow-covered mountains in the backdrop, and Raghu Dixit dressed in a lungi — that’s a scene from the Gulmarg Winter Festival in March this year. This was the first time rock music was being played at the hitherto-government run festival (earlier called the Gulmarg Snow Festival, since 2003) — and most of the band members’ first-ever experience with snow.
“That was the craziest concert we had ever played in our entire career. The temperature and constant snowfall made it a challenging locale to play at. Our hands froze and our instruments were warped and went off-key. Yet, the spirit prevailed and we had a fun-filled hour-long concert. It was quite torturous, but beautiful,” laughs the 38 year-old, who’s performed at over 250 concerts during his career.
Kashmir has a lot of good music to offer too, claims Mandeep Dhillon, Sales & Marketing, Synapses Adventures, co-organisers of the Gulmarg Winter Festival. The festival this year encouraged local rock artistes to perform and interact with musicians from other parts of the country. “Mohammed Munim from Highway 61, Siam Butt of Lamhe fame — they all played at the fest,” adds Dhillon.
Dixit and his band, the Raghu Dixit Project, have played at several music festivals in the hills, including Storm at Coorg and M.A.D at Ooty this year and Glastonbury (England) in 2011. Dixit enjoys it so much that he hopes it becomes a “culture”. “Any concert in the lap of nature makes it a surreal and spiritual experience, and they’re amazing for us as artistes. The audience is automatically in a blissful state of mind. The hills can be very inspiring, they enhance our performances and could also lead to the birth of new songs,” he says.
That’s just one of the melodious outcomes Anup Kutty, co-organiser of Ziro Festival and member of alternative rock band Menwhopause, hopes for at Ziro, Arunachal Pradesh, from September 14 –16 this year. In its inaugural year, the festival is getting bands from different regions to jam together. “The idea is to create an atmosphere where musicians can interact and hang out with each other. There is currently a disconnect between bands in the northeast and those in the rest of country. So we are planning things like an on-location makeshift studio where people can jam and record. You never know where these things can lead,” he feels.
The idea came from a tour of the northeast Kutty and his band took last year. “I fell in love with the place,” he exclaims. That’s when he, along with event organiser Bobby Hano, decided they had to host a music festival here. “Ziro is something we wanted to share with the rest of the world. It just seems like the perfect place to have a music festival — the weather, the landscape, the people, food, vibe...everything.”
And they plan to borrow heavily from the local flavour. Adds Kutty, “The locals are absolutely thrilled. Local NGOs such as Ngunu Ziro are heavily involved in this project by helping out with homestays and volunteers. Locals will open their homes to visitors to stay and learn the traditional Apatani way of living. The festival is also about promoting Ziro as a destination for people with a keen sense of adventure and music.”
Music gets you moksha
While the festivals in Ziro and Gulmarg are about encouraging local talent, the two-day Moksha Festival, which is on from August 3 to 4, invites talent from across the world. The festival, to be held in Kasol in Parvati Valley, Himachal Pradesh, has been organised as part of the Moksha Project. Harsh Sonawala, partner, India Someday, heard about the fest from a musician friend. The 28 year-old is planning to make the trip alone. “Even if the music is bad, Kasol is a gorgeous place to chill at. Live music is always fun to listen to in such an atmosphere,” says Sonawala, who organises holidays for people travelling to India. According to him, people choose the festivals they attend based specifically on their locations.
Location, accommodation, adventure
“India has some gorgeous locations and it is only obvious that organisers are taking advantage,” says 28 year-old Arjun Ravi, co-founder, NH-7 and editor, music magazine Indiecision. “I think destination festivals are becoming the thing. There is a sudden spurt in music festivals this year and everyone is looking for a more eclectic location. The hills are a great location for obvious reasons like the scenery and environment. Rather than hosting a regular concert in a big city, hosting it in the hills provides a different sort of atmosphere,” he continues.
Twenty-five year-old Anoop Sebastian, festival director, Potheads, finds that most people see festivals held in the mountains as a great excuse for families to take a weekend break. The weather and the landscape set the perfect vibe for an orgy of tunes. “A music festival at a cold place allows people to run away from the summer heat and take a relaxing holiday,” says Sebastian, who helps organise the five year-old annual Escape Festival, which takes place at Naukuchiatal, Uttarakhand. This year it was held in May.
“For the organisers it’s all about attracting the audiences and giving them something different,” adds Sebastian. Escape’s “different” idea was to set up campsites for visitors to sleep in. The annual event claims to have been the first camping festival in India. This year at least two more festivals (M.A.D. in Ooty and Storm in Coorg) offered similar camping accommodation for visitors.
The Gulmarg Winter Festival, which got something of a revamp this year, offers a combination of adventure and music. This year they offered some awe-inspiring adventure activities, including snowboarding and skiing during the festival. Says Dhillon, “The government had been hosting the Gulmarg Snow Festival every year, which was mainly about winter sports with a dose of folk music and art. Youngsters today are enthusiastic about trying something new. So this year we decided to mix it up a bit. We combined music and adventure, which are both very exciting, and perhaps that’s why it works.”
Playing Pied Piper
Several of these music festivals encourage tourism, bringing in hordes of people from all over the country as well as from overseas. Gulmarg, primarily a ski resort, saw a huge surge in tourism this year. “There were a record-breaking number of tourists in Gulmarg this year — a whopping 16 lakh tourists,” says Dhillon. While he doesn’t claim that the festival was wholly responsible for the surge, he reckons that the fall in violence might have helped.
The organisers of the Ziro Festival hope for the same for the small town in Arunachal Pradesh. “There’s nothing like Ziro,” claims Kutty, “As Bobby (Hano) would tell you, the locals are very warm, forthcoming and hospitable. Everything is great about the place — great food, great energy and wonderful weather.”
Clean and green
The one thing that organisers have to be careful about while hosting fests in the mountains is leaving the area just as they found it. “The first year we hosted Escape at Naukuchiatal, we got a lot of feedback about the area getting polluted. The next year we began associating with NGOs to help us maintain cleanliness. This year Swecha helped us conduct a cleanliness drive. Even some of the artistes who were performing volunteered to clean up,” says Sebastian. Hano and Kutty, the guys behind the Ziro Festival, are getting help from local NGOs too. “We are working closely with them to ensure that we don’t make a mess. In any case, the Apatani tribe is very ecologically aware, so it makes it easier. In fact, I am sure they can teach a thing or two about being environment-friendly to the visitors.”