The great Indian college fest

Published: Oct 23, 2019, 05:11 IST | Mayank Shekhar |

Oasis at BITS, in-the-middle-of-nowhere Pilani, used to be the 'Burning Man' for Indian campuses. Has that changed?

The sound-check for a rock music competition being done at 2am, while the gig starts at 5am and carries on until 11am at Oasis, the BITS Pilani college fest
The sound-check for a rock music competition being done at 2am, while the gig starts at 5am and carries on until 11am at Oasis, the BITS Pilani college fest

MayankIf you want to know how deep is the human root of corruption, and indeed, how it has little to do with education or poverty, probe deeper into account books of desi college festivals — or any major expenses incurred by students' unions.

One of the years in my college at Delhi University (DU), the T-shirts ordered from the students' union, at a pretty steep rate, turned out to be so shoddy that they shrunk to above the waistline in a single wash.

A friend who happened to visit the farm-town the student in charge of the T-shirts was from, noticed that half the village — in the khet, riding bicycles and bullock-carts — was wearing the same college tee!

The college across the road (in DU) was notorious still, with festival coordinators and union presidents known to bring home new motorbikes; and in one well-known case, buying an apartment, from 'cuts' made from the annual inter-varsity, cultural festival!

What kind of money are we talking about here? While fests of all IITs, IIMs are massive, the budget for Mood-Indigo (Mood-I) at IIT Bombay is considered the highest at Rs 6 crore-plus. They guarantee footfalls (to sponsors) running into much over a lakh.

And for (culturally inclined) college kids from across India, Mood-I remains the best way to visit the youngster's beloved Bombay — away from the prying eyes of parents/teachers.

Every other Mumbai college, Sydenham, etc, is at best the size of an apartment block, to ever host a proper, nationwide fest. St Xavier's is as huge as it gets, with five trees on the campus constituting the 'woods', while the Supreme Court argues over whether Aarey is a forest zone. Malhar, Xavier's annual fest is much-loved too.

But the mother-ship of college festivals in India, with pilgrims in tens of thousands merging from all parts, has been known to take place in Birla Institute of Technology and Science (BITS). Where's that? In Pilani. What's that? A hamlet in the middle of nowhere in Rajasthan, bordering Haryana, equidistant from Jaipur and New Delhi, where the late GD Birla came from and established a nearly 1,000-acre engineering campus, with temple-like architecture.

Ever since entering college I'd been meaning to go to Pilani. For some reason, it didn't happen. It's never too late. No, it is. Going in as a quasi-senior citizen, invited to judge a short film competition, years after you've left college, isn't quite the same thing, as invading a desert-town with friends in carefree youth, testing the bounds of reality, substances and life itself, while the night and its novelties simply never end.

The Pilani festival, in its 49th year, is iconic, because it goes on for four days and nights, totally uninterrupted — that is 96 hours of round-the-clock events, competitions, and streams of people generally milling around, sleep-deprived, because hitting the bed has its own opportunity costs and natural fears of missing out. And you only live once, etc.

I watched a film sitting in the amphitheatre way past midnight, walked into a sound-check of the rock competition closer to 2am in the main auditorium. That gig eventually started at 5 am, wrapping up at around 11 am, while the street dancers were competing outdoors.

This, while the crowds had already lapped up Sunidhi Chauhan's concert earlier in the evening, proving to me that no matter how much times change, some things don't — like a group of North Indian boys holding hands, forming a circle and unleashing on a Bollywood gig a series of pelvic thrusts and breaststrokes, inspired by much pre-gaming... The energy is infectious.

How's a college fest different from several Magnetic/Zero-type music/cultural fests in vast open fields, designed for much older adults? For one, many may look similarly baked/drunk, there is still a sense of shared purpose, since everyone is there because they're good at something — to bring home laurels, through debating, quizzing, theatre, dance, music, origami, whatever floats your boat.

Some make a name for themselves in a circuit that truly rewards the talented at an age when the insecure, middle-class young are too obsessed with what to make of their professions thereafter. You remember these fests because they drove you towards excellence, rather than money, which singularly defines life outside campus.

Actor Ayushmann Khurrana was once the dude at Mood-I. Filmmaker Imtiaz Ali, also at Pilani this year, recalled with much warmth the time he was there as a student, 25 years ago. Musician Shankar Mahadevan similarly cut his teeth performing at Pilani as a college kid.

And this national show is entirely run/managed by 18-to-20-year-olds, procuring budgets from top alumni and corporates (like Cisco, etc), to the tune of Rs 1.5 crore plus, with multiple checks to ensure there is no chance of corruption whatsoever.

The creativity flows from the name itself. Pilani all-nighters in the desert of Rajasthan is called Oasis. It's undoubtedly the Mecca of college fests. But the annual fest of DU's Hindu College is called Mecca. Lovely!

Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14

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