The hills of Naukuchiatal in Uttarakhand had been lashed by a storm and the sky was still overcast. All around me, the sounds of synthesisers and heavy bass lines meshed in an animated frenzy as I lay on the grass at the Escape Festival, discovering new music.
While listening to music is often a solitary activity, it takes on a different aspect when it becomes a shared pleasure. I’ve always thought that music sounds best when heard at a concert. While the performers respond to the pulse of a crowd, the energy of the audience is in a state of constant change, mounting with each strum of the guitar, each beat of the drum, each trill of a singer. It’s something that no solitary listening experience can replicate.
I had been to Naukuchiatal only a few years before, but when I revisited it in 2011 for the Escape Festival, it seemed completely different. Gone was the sleepiness of the small hill town. Instead, Naukuchiatal was gripped by infectious waves of excitement, brought by the hundreds of visitors who had swept in for the festival. Familiar faces kept springing up. Not-so-familiar faces—the ones you often notice at your pub or the ones you rub shoulders with while jumping around at a gig—showed up as well. Only this time, the meetings were more leisurely and meaningful than a courteous smile or brotherly fist bump.
For the music lover, festivals are like a pilgrimage. Fans plan months in advance and congregate from across the world with the same delirious ecstasy that is seen at religious gatherings. Some festivals cater to specific interests and genres of music, but the best are those that offer the temptation of the unknown.
I experienced something similar in Jodhpur. The Rajasthan International Folk Festival (popularly known as Jodhpur RIFF) had been highly recommended. It was the first time I’d travelled alone to a music festival. To make the trip doubly daunting, having been brought up on a staple diet of rock ’n’ roll, I knew next to nothing about folk music. The first thing I thought to do was to look around for interesting people, which is amazingly simple at the music festival. The company of friends, old or new, is essential because even for someone with eclectic tastes, it’s hard to love all the bands playing at a festival. You pick the ones you like, and when the ones you don’t like are performing, you need friends for deep conversations and drunken adventures.
It wasn’t just music that I bonded over with my new friends—it was mutual love of books, art, travel, and all the things that make life beautiful. This led to a camaraderie and some of us ended up travelling together to other music festivals. Like Naukuchiatal, Jodhpur felt transformed during the festival—especially the venue, Mehrangarh Fort. Shorn of its usual tourist traffic, the fort witnessed spectacular displays of folk music and dance, presented in a manner that would have once been the privilege of the royals. I wouldn’t ever choose folk music over rock ’n’ roll, but I wouldn’t blink an eye before agreeing to go for RIFF again.
It’s hard to put a finger on what makes travelling to a music festival so fulfilling. It’s not just the musicians. It’s not just the people who turn up. It’s not just the destination. It’s how much of yourself you add to it all, how much you are willing to venture into a new world of music with the spirit of discovery that is so essential for enjoyable travel.
Over the last decade, India’s western music scene has evolved from revolutions of rock to the current craze for electronic dance music. The demand for different genres has led to numerous well-organised festivals. The biggest ones are usually in the biggest cities. However, there are many smaller, more intimate festivals spread across scenic locales that are perfect for a melodious getaway.
Jodhpur and Nagaur, Rajasthan
February 13-15, 2017 in Nagaur and February 17-19, 2017 in Jodhpur
Mehrangarh Fort, Jodhpur and Ahhichatragarh Fort, Nagaur, provide inspiring backdrops for performers of this festival. Artistes from mystic traditions like Sufism, theyyam, and Bheth, take part. www.worldsufispiritfestival.org.
Kasauli, Himachal Pradesh
End March-Early April 2017
The festival is headlined by established Indian R&B artists. Attendees buy donor cards and proceeds help the underprivileged. www.genesis-foundation.net.
Around May 2017
The Big Gig features Indian acts, including school and college bands. Part of the proceeds are donated to charity. www.facebook.com/biggigfestival.
Nubra Valley, Jammu and Kashmir
Dates to be announced
One of the first festivals to allow onsite camping, Escape is a relaxed music festival in an idyllic setting. Previous editions were organised at Naukuchiatal in Uttarakhand. www.facebook.com/escapefestival.
Ziro, Arunachal Pradesh
September 22-25, 2016
Northeast India has traditionally fostered a vibrant alternative indie music scene. The Ziro Festival was the first to get Indian bands to perform with local musicians. www.zirofestival.com
October 13-17, 2016
Few festivals have a venue as majestic as the Jodhpur RIFF. Held within the Mehrangarh Fort, this festival showcases Rajasthan’s best folk musicians. The inclusion of world musicians adds to the diversity. www.jodhpurriff.org.
December 1-10, 2016
Traditional drummers take centre stage as performers from Naga tribes dance to the beats all day. As the sun sets, the new generation takes over. The crowd gets noisier at the Hornbill Rock Contest. www.hornbillfestival.com.
December 27-30, 2016
With a large line-up of electronic music, this festival is one of India’s most successful. Before this year’s festival in Goa, there will be city editions in Mumbai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Delhi in November. www.sunburn.in.
Ragasthan kicked off in December 2012 with performances by folk and indie artists. It included stages, movie screens, and tents pitched on the desert sand dunes. www.ragasthan.com.
August 13-15, 2016
Freedom Jam is free and the performers don’t charge either as its a “for the musicians, by the musicians” initiative. Genres range from jazz to blues, and Kannadiga rock to avant garde electronica. It is celebrated on a weekend near Independence Day. www.freedomjam.in.
Madras Music Season
December 2016-January 2017
For six weeks each year, 3,000 small and large Carnatic music concerts are organised by various sabhas. Most day time performances are free, evening ones feature well-known artistes and are ticketed. www.musicacademymadras.in.
Delhi International Jazz Festival
The Delhi International Jazz Festival brings together Indian collectives with musicians from countries as varied as Israel, France, Russia, Spain, and South Africa. www.iccr.gov.in
Previously known as Jazz Yatra, this long-running festival brings together jazz musicians from India and the world. In past editions, it has travelled to Mumbai and Pune, and has featured big-ticket acts. www.facebook.com/jazzutsav.
Dover Lane Music Conference
Tickets to this long-running festival are usually sold out within days of being announced. The four-day festival features established classical musicians, but also has a stage where young musicians are encouraged to perform. www.doverlanemusicconference.org.
Mahindra Blues Festival
The Mahindra Blues festival is one the biggest highlights of Mumbai’s music calendar. Held annually at Mehboob Studios in Bandra, the soulful festival is attended by jazz novices as well as connoisseurs, and has gathered a faithful following over the years. www.mahindrablues.com.
November 2016-March 2017
Set beneath the beautiful trees of Hanging Gardens, Ruhaniyat puts the music of mystics in the spotlight. The two-day evening festival features Sufi, Baul, and qawwali performances. The festival also takes place in cities across the country. www.ruhaniyat.com.
Sawai Gandharva Bhimsen Mahotsav
Started by venerated musician Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, this classical music festival has been celebrated in Pune since 1953. The agenda includes artists predominantly from the khayal and bhakti traditions of Hindustani classical music. www.sawaigandharvabhimsenmahotsav.com.
The NH7 Weekender has expanded from its birthplace, Pune, to include festivals in Delhi, Bengaluru, Kolkata and now Shillong and Hyderabad as well. Easily one of the largest music festivals in India right now, NH7 Weekender offers visitors a crash course in the Indian indie music scene, and a chance to experience some stellar international acts as well. www.nh7.in/weekender.
Note: This list of music festivals is not exhaustive. For costs of tickets or donor cards and updated dates, check the festival websites.
Appeared in the April 2013 issue as “A New World Of Melody”. This article has been updated in July 2016.
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