From college fests to NH7 Weekender: The independent music scene has come a long way

Aditya Varma | Updated on August 16, 2019 Published on August 16, 2019

Thank you for the music | This decade has seen more new festivals than the previous three decades put together   -  Kunal Kakodkar

As the ’90s ushered in the age of MTV, there was a renewed sense of awareness among fans of international music. The past decade has seen more new music festivals than the previous three decades put together

The historical arc of India’s music festivals is a curious one. On one side, independent music in India — which was almost exclusively centred on rock during the ’90s and early noughties — was birthed from a sense of community and inclusion. On the flip side, music lovers often shrug off the current spate of festivals as uninspiring. But India is at a juncture where the biggest and most flamboyant music festivals can not only survive, but thrive.

Through the ’60s and ’70s, Indian cinema had a monopolising control over popular music, though college bands playing western music had their share of die-hard fans. But music out of the West that was shaping the world’s contemporary music history was accessible only to the privileged urban Indian who had an abiding passion or connections abroad. The sparse but steady flow of rock music’s finest made its way to the average Indian listener in the ’80s, as cassettes and albums became more easily accessible.

Fests were held across India, too, with bands making remarkable music in the south, the North-East and cities such as Kolkata and Mumbai. In 1986, the country’s festival scene got a boost when entrepreneur and musician Farhad Wadia organised Independence Rock, or I-Rock. The debut edition was a two-day music festival in Mumbai, and I-Rock became the first large stage for bands such as Bhayanak Maut, Avial, Kryptos, and others that would later become household names. Meanwhile, much to the joy of music lovers, international bands and musicians — from Osibisa, Jethro Tull and Samantha Fox to Bruce Springsteen, Peter Gabriel and Youssou N’Dour — would occasionally perform in India.

As the ’90s ushered in the age of MTV, there was a renewed sense of awareness among fans of international music. In 1993, musician and music journalist Amit Saigal, a resident of what was then Allahabad, founded Rock Street Journal (RSJ) — India’s first dedicated rock publication that focused on independent, homegrown art.

Bottom (right): Amit Saigal, founder of Rock Street Journal   -  The HIndu


The RSJ  fraternity debuted Great Indian Rock (GIR) in 1997 — a three-day rock festival that called in applications from bands from across the country, having set up a colossal stage for local pub bands and other musicians in Kolkata. In a 2004 interview with The Telegraph, Sam Lal, one of the founding editors of the RSJ, said, “The community was large and strong but very fragmented at the same time. When we thought about this, we decided to come up with RSJ, which would provide news about rock music anywhere in the country.” Over the next decade and a half, GIR and I-Rock’s yearly editions became flagstaff events for Indian musicians and music lovers.

Through the mid-2000s, the Indian independent music circuit religiously continued its tradition of hosting fests as a competition, and was dominated by rock and metal music. But in 2010, Mumbai-based events organisation OML’s NH7 Weekender marked its debut and eventually became the most popular multi-genre, multi-city music festival in the country.

While in 2007 the one-off Eddfest brought English heavy metal band Iron Maiden to India — making it a seminal moment in the history of international acts playing in the country — NH7 Weekender and its larger-than-life lineups took the urban youth by storm. Boasting a roster that included everyone from Steve Vai and Joe Satriani to Mogwai, Weekender set itself up as the inarguable juggernaut of music festivals.

Despite allegations reported in 2018 of rampant sexual harassment and sexism in OML’s work culture, which led to widespread calls for a boycott of the event amid concerns that the festival was losing its musical sheen, Weekender survived the ordeal with barely a dent in its footfall, still attracting over 100,000 attendees each year.

Post 2010, India witnessed a surge in the creation of everything from destination festivals such as Escape, Magnetic Fields, and Ragasthan, to genre-dedicated Mahindra Blues Festival, Delhi International Jazz fest, and Rajasthan International Folk Festival.

The past decade, for music festivals in India, has been one to marvel at. This decade has seen more new music festivals than the previous three decades put together. The most endearingly impressive among these are the crowd-funded music festivals Control Alt Delete and New Wave Asia — both Mumbai-based initiatives — that, though small and intimate, successfully clock in recurring editions year after year.

In August 1969, long before the advent of the internet and the ease of global communication, Woodstock debuted its three-day concert in New York, giving the world its biggest and most legendary music festival. It would have been hard to imagine congregations of such proportions to come out of India, but it’s been a decade full of surprises for us.

And I, for one, am eagerly waiting for the next chapter.

Aditya Varma is a freelance writer based in Delhi


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Published on August 16, 2019
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