The need to protect the Sunderbans dawned on Arijit Sett during a 2008 visit to the world’s largest deltaic region. As he passed through the labyrinthine network of islands, mangrove forests and marshy creeks, it wasn’t just the beauty of the land that struck Sett: He was introduced, via ominous reports, to its ecological frailty.
According to a study conducted by Jadavpur University’s School of Oceanographic Studies, Kolkata, an estimated 12 islands in the area will be under water by 2020, and the entire region by the end of the c@entury. Islands such as Lohachara, Bedford, Sagar, Ghoramara and New Moore are already being affected by rising water levels.
Sing for a cause: Members of Magic Wallrush (Indranil Bhoumik/Mint); and Ladakh (Rudraneil Sengupta/Mint).
Today, Sett and a team of young volunteers at Magic Wallrush, a Kolkata-based arts and culture collective, are fine-tuning an ambitious plan to organize a three-day music and arts festival at Frazerganj, a sunny beach in the region, about 130km from Kolkata. Beginning 10 March, a mammoth line-up of 21 rock, jazz, fusion, reggae and electronica bands and over a dozen folk performers are likely to take the stage for a cause—the future of the Sunderbans.
Called Ujaan, the idea is to put the region at the centre of public consciousness and dispel the popular notion that the Sunderbans are merely the final bastion of the endangered Royal Bengal Tiger.
We met Sett at the Magic Wallrush studio in Kolkata, amid a flurry of activity: Busy laptops, ringing phones, meetings and individual presentations kept breaking into our conversation.
“The festival is aimed at highlighting the complexity of the issue—there’s environmental refugees, water salinity, man-animal conflicts, the lack of development. Lots of ongoing research, not much in the way of consensus,” says Sett.
Yet, considering the immense scale of the festival, which is being supported by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and West Bengal Tourism, and is expected to find thousands trooping down to Frazerganj, there is real concern that the event might further strain the meagre resources of the region. A high-energy festival could add tons of garbage, chemical waste and broken beer bottles to the brittle ecology. The organizers, however, say such concerns will be taken care of and waste management will be a priority.
The closest parallel to Ujaan is the Ladakh Confluence, a three-day music festival held in the town of Shey in Ladakh. The 2009 edition of the fest saw more than 5,000 attendees, but last year’s event was cancelled after opposition from local tourist groups. The festival was accused of bringing a lethal trifecta of drugs, Western culture and rock music to the area. “Our focus was always sustainability,” says Swaati Langeh, the festival director, “of giving people a glimpse into a local, more environmentally friendly way of life.”
The argument is that while recycling and clean-ups help, a music festival, by its very nature, is high-impact. “The important thing is to give back to the local community; make them stakeholders in the endeavour,” says Karn Kowshik, who was head of communications for the Ladakh Confluence. In spite of the oppositions to this claim, Kowshik maintains that the net impact of the event was positive on the area.
Likewise, a blueprint of how Ujaan will tangibly help the rural population in the Frazerganj-Bakkhali belt seems to be missing. The organizers mention that a lot depends on how well the ticketed festival, where prices range between Rs2,000 (season ticket) and Rs800 (daily) for non-student listeners, does. For now, the Ujaan website states, the plan is to provide waste management solutions to the local community and invest in local schools and medical facilities.
Minus the “cause”, Ujaan is likely to be another fun beach music festival like Goa’s Sunburn, involving a high-calibre, high-decibel feast of contemporary Indian sounds.
At the Sunderbans, the validation of the cause will depend on how well the festival participants respond to their music-message plea. There aren’t a lot of past precedents to go by. “We’re actually not sure if legitimate mainstream awareness is actually possible when you work with niche artistes,” says Bruce Lee Mani of Bangalore band Thermal and a Quarter. The band is known to articulate its dissent through special shows and fund-raising gigs, and has even launched a website (www.letsdrawtheline.com) to “stimulate interest and participation” in causes from other musicians. “If you really wanted fast, ‘big’ attention and fund-raising, you’d probably be better off with Bollywood or cricket. Many of these initiatives are more ‘doing what you can’ because we believe in making a difference, no matter how small,” says Mani.
Tickets for Ujaan (10-12 March) are available at www.ujaanfestival.org