On the second day of Arunachal Pradesh’s Ziro Music Festival, after two hours of intense performances, electronic band Laxmi Bomb began a crescendo on stage. Locally made booze flowed like water, everyone was happy and stoned, and frantic young men and women in the crowd were dancing and cheering. As night fell, the music reached its climax and the band members defied the dropping temperature and went shirtless. Many men swaying in the crowd roared and also took off their shirts.
If this sounds like a prequel to a horrific incident, think again. Nothing like that happened. This is Ziro, arguably the safest music festival in India for women.
All that followed were high-octane cheers from the crowd, captivated by the music and the expanse of the green Ziro Valley. Many women were attending the festival for the first time, traveling alone or traveling for the first time to North East India.
The Ziro vibe was very different from the Laxmi Bomb experience in Pune seven years ago.
“When we played the Enchanted Valley festival in Aamby Valley, the experience was completely opposite. Fat Boy Slim was playing on the stage next to ours and it went wrong. They had to call the cops because there were multiple cases of women being groped and harassed,” singer Keegan Pereira said.
Karuna Sharma, who had traveled to Ziro from Mumbai, was unsure what to expect. A blogger by profession, she had attended the NH Weekender in Pune in 2019 and it wasn’t the best experience, “I was paranoid about someone next to me who looked very stoned and I was afraid that he pets me.”
But Ziro was a different experience. She could revel in the music without constantly worrying about her safety. “Whether it was the beauty of the scenery or the number of local women you usually see, from those running shops to others in uniform, it felt instinctively safe. Two days enjoying the festival made me only made you realize that the instinct was grounded.
Even usually overprotective Indian parents know that the North East has a completely different aura.
“My parents were okay with me going all the way here. ‘It’s the northeast, you’ll be safe,’ they said. I have to say they were right,” said Vishakha Sinha, a solo traveler and freelance graphic designer from Bengaluru.
Sinha was not the only woman who took all possible means of transport – plane, train and taxi – to travel to the almost magical Ziro Valley for the festival which was held from September 29 to October 2 this year. A self-proclaimed ‘born-again’ traveler from Goa and a writer from Guwahati were among many women who were united by their love of music, nature and ensuring safety.
Also read: Goa is the land of pleasure. But he doesn’t need a ‘super-spreader’ Sunburn festival
for the love of music
Music festivals have become ubiquitous in India. There are over 20 such annual gatherings, including the Hornbill, Sunburn, NH7 Weekender, Enchanted Valley Carnival and Magnetic Fields festivals. Most say they prioritize women’s safety, but that’s not always translated on the ground, an issue not limited to India alone.
At Ziro, it goes beyond lip service, although it’s hard to pinpoint a single reason. In the valley, demographics come into play, as well as socio-cultural practices that ensure a safe space for women.
“Women are the patron saints of Arunachal. You see them everywhere. Without a doubt, this also translates into a safe space in the festival,” says Keegan. Visitors who have made every effort to reach this remote valley have the best behavior. This allows for an immersive experience that is both hyperlocal and global.
Ziro embodies the spirit of the Northeast. The stage names are based on the animist faith practiced by many tribes in Arunachal Pradesh. They are the perfect platform for local talents like Abdon Mech, a singer-songwriter from Nagaland and the Imphal-based band Meewakching to shine. From Meghalaya, the music collective Da Minot performs to the vibrant rhythm of Khasi.
“Ziro is a good space for bands like us, who are based in the North East. It gives a boost to independent artists, especially those who use indigenous tunes,” said members of the Mizoram-based band Origami.
From local tours, including lunch, to activities, campsite owners try to make sure people can enjoy the post-festival hours as well. However, since the festival site has only one hotel, camping is expensive.
But it might not be everyone’s cup of Apong yet, the local rice beer. Visitors engage in the party, and the long journey to reach the valley. The popular route to Ziro is to take an overnight train to Naharlagun and a four-hour drive to the festival site the next day.
There are no shortcuts to reach the Land of the Rising Sun.
As the festival works on the system of collaboration, the organizers include local government officials and members of the Apatani tribes.
“The festival not only showcases the cultural prowess of the region, it is also a tremendous boost for the local economy. I was especially excited to see all the artists and guests returning to Ziro [after a forced two-year gap due to Covid]. It’s been a long wait for all of us,” says festival director Bobby Hano.
READ ALSO: Korean pop in India — a love story that may well define this generation
Mixture of culture, ecology and music
Arunachal has embraced the party culture with its annual Tawang and Orange festivals which also serve to promote tourism. In 2012, Hano and Menwhopause guitarist Anup Kutty decided to start a music festival in Ziro with the sole purpose of inviting people to experience music in the lap of nature.
“We believe in the philosophy that regardless of our backgrounds, music makes us one. Nature is a great leveler. At the festival, we encourage everyone to respect nature and care for each other. This makes of the festival one of the most unique confluences of people,” Hano said in an interview with The Indian Express.
The government was quick to grasp the potential and threw its weight behind the festival.
“When I was in charge of the state tourism department, I thought, why not show the beauty of Arunachal Pradesh to the rest of the world?” Chief Minister Pema Khandu said in an interview with IsMojo. Ziro, which promotes indigenous rock songs, was the perfect place to show everyone what the state has, he added.
Most Indian music festivals court international artists. The bigger the festival, the bigger the artist. Sunburn has hosted names like Grammy-winning Afrojack and the hugely popular The Chainsmokers, while VH1 Supersonic can boast bagging Machine Gun Kelly. While Sunburn focuses on EDM, VH1 Supersonic is home to many genres ranging from techno to indie and pop to reggae. Mega venues in Delhi and Mumbai attract international idols like Justin Beiber and Ed Sheeran.
For independent bands, the space to perform is increasingly limited despite the plethora of festivals. Ziro Festival of Music, for the most part, bucks the trend. Most of the acts are local, although there are a few international artists. In the nine years since its inception, it has gained worldwide recognition despite its focus on indie bands.
International artists are also eager to tap into the potential of the Indian fan base. Rare are those who refuse an invitation to perform.
“As soon as my booking agent told me about it, I was super excited and started counting the days,” said Emilie Hanak, a French singer-songwriter.
His musical act Yelli Yelli had the crowd screaming “one more time” throughout his performance, even as the sun began to set. “I come from the suburbs of Paris and sincerely, when I started music, I never thought that my songs would take me to such a distant place… It still seems quite unreal to me,” he said. she stated.
What stood out for first-timers and loyal fans of the festival were the eco-friendly practices the organizers adopted. Locally brewed alcohol is served in hollow bamboo “cups” and food is served on banana leaves or paper plates. Plastic water bottles are prohibited on site.
“We have ensured a litter-free festival site. The local administration also cleared the area of rubbish before the start of the festival,” said Yashika Girdhar, one of the organizers.
Everyone sat on the vast expanse of greenery, in front of the Donyi or Polo stage, with mugs of rice beer or millet wine. They stood there until the last note was sung, ignoring the bite of the air as dusk covered the valley.
At night under a canopy of stars, they returned home and to their campsites. For women returning home with groups of strangers, the experience remains surreal.
On the way back, a spectator, Rohan, asks us to take a picture of him and his friend. “We took at least 100 selfies, but I still don’t think they can capture exactly what I’m experiencing here today,” he said. Karuna and Vishakha, who were standing nearby, nodded in agreement.
(Edited by Prashant)