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At SulaFest 2015 in Nashik, you had to watch the live bands through a tangle of flowers and hair. Flower crowns have become an essential at music festivals. Young girls wear them in numbers that suggest there is a fear that not doing so will preclude them from fully imbibing the “vibe" the festival has promised to create. Flowers in the hair goes back to 1960s beat culture, of course. “Flower power" was a poignant anti-war symbol. Hippies at festivals such as Woodstock would gather flowers and fashion them into tiaras to emphasize their closeness to nature and rejection of materialism. At SulaFest, synthetic flower crowns sold for up to 850.

Over the past year or so, more than 50 music festivals have been held across India, on beaches, at hill stations, vineyards, forts, nightclubs, palaces, in cities, on highways and even in the middle of the desert. They have promoted music genres as varied as acid house and Sufi, but you do not have to like the specific genre, or even music in general, to attend. You go to a festival to be part of an alluring but unquantifiable experience, the “scene".

Atomic Forest at Sneha Yatra in 1971. Photo: Fred M Miller
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Atomic Forest at Sneha Yatra in 1971. Photo: Fred M Miller

Till the mid-2000s, music festivals continued to appeal to a niche audience and were seen as a rebellion against mainstream culture. “Bollywood" was an evil word at rock festivals such as Independence Rock in Mumbai, the Great Indian Rock concert in New Delhi, and Freedom Jam, in Bengaluru, where long-haired young men and women head-banged and moshed away their angst against societal pressures. These concerts were either free or charged a small entry fee. The electronic music festivals held in popular hill stations in the Himalayas were usually drug-filled bacchanals, kept a secret so as not to alert the authorities.

It was only when the Sunburn festival in Goa began mass advertising for its first edition in 2007 that festivals began to appeal to a wider audience. Electronic music had been growing in popularity thanks to the growing number of discotheques in metros. Meanwhile, independent rock and pop had found an audience among the urban elite.

When NH7 Weekender was launched in 2010 by people seen to be “in the scene", more than 10,000 people showed up to listen to a variety of artistes. This was an audience willing and able to spend, and ticket prices for Sunburn and Weekender soon shot up to more than 2,000. Food and drink at the festivals were as expensive as at a city pub.

Weekender and Sunburn’s success—both now have more than 100,000 attendants—had a ripple effect, and several other promoters jumped on the bandwagon, all claiming to provide India’s “craziest", “wildest" or “most authentic" festival. Music festivals were now the place to take a picture for Facebook or Instagram. The paradox was that the new-age festival goer still wanted a taste of “the atmosphere" that supposedly existed at Sneha Yatra back in 1971.

“Going to a music festival has become a rite of passage," says Munbir Chawla, co-founder of Magnetic Fields, an annual three-day festival at the luxurious Alsisar Mahal hotel in Rajasthan. “Once a year, you plan to go for one with your friends, to enjoy the experience." It is unclear, though, what festivals are perceived as being a rite of passage to. It would seem that the ideas propounded at the 1960s and 1970s American and British festivals such as Woodstock, Burning Man and Glastonbury—those of spontaneity, self-discovery, inclusiveness, communal living and self-reliance—are still a major draw for festival goers around the world. This explains why a number of Indian music festivals organize campsites, yoga and meditation classes, dance workshops and a range of other activities that can be marketed as facilitators of a “spiritual awakening".

Vikrant Chheda, of White Collar Hippie, a travel company that organizes special buses and campsites for festivals, says the services they provide are more important than the music itself. “Some people don’t even watch the bands. They just spend time in the campsites we set up, listening to their own music," he says. “For them, a festival is just an excuse to camp out with like-minded people."

When Magnetic Fields offered a space where people could pitch their own tents a year ago, there were few takers, Chawla says. Most campsites now feature deluxe tents, with attached bathrooms and power supply. At some festivals, the soi-disant rustic set-up seems nothing more than a pretentious attempt to have well-off urban people play at being intrepid. The goMAD festival, in Ooty, for example, says it provides a camping experience “in the wilderness", but the campsite hosts a special “pampering area" where girls can, among other things, get their hair straightened, presumably to create a comfortable bed for their flower crowns.

People are looking for an escape from their hectic lives and musical festivals give them a chance to let loose, says Arjun S. Ravi of Only Much Louder, the group behind NH7 Weekender. Chawla says they act as “an escape from reality; a world of their own". This is, perhaps, why you will find stages at festivals named such things as Magic Forest and Soul Garden—both at the Escape festival, in Naukuchiatal, Uttarakhand.

It would seem that people desire an escape not just from their surroundings but from a version of themselves they find boring. A music festival allows them to feel like people who listen to hip indie music, offer to make strangers sandwiches and can survive in the great outdoors. Whether or not they end up doing any of these things does not matter.

At a festival called the Secret Garden Weekend, held in Pune last year, what was billed as a “secret oasis of a forest" in the city, was a brewpub with a garden. The “flower show" was a few roses stuck to the ceiling of the pub’s anteroom; the “walk-through maze" was a small tent with a couple of doors in it; the “hammock party" ended within the first few minutes, when the five hammocks available collapsed; and the “fountain of secret desires" was an inflatable children’s pool. Yet, several people walked out saying it had been a “beautiful festival" with a “chilled-out vibe".

Festival goers seem determined to convince themselves they have had a radical experience. They shove their hand into the belly of the festival and yank out a vibe, even if nothing around them suggests one exists. They must have a “festival experience", even if most of it is just drinking till they drop.

Festival Sherpa, a site that lists and reviews Indian festivals, has never given one a bad review. Karan Pherwani, one of their writers, says they only promote and attend festivals they know beforehand will be good, a novel approach to reviewing.

A good music festival can offer attendants a simple but enjoyable mix of a scenic location, stylish accommodation and world-class music for a price— 1,500-5,000 for a ticket. There are some Indian festivals that do get this formula right. Amid the thousands of manufactured moments captured on phone cameras, there are still spontaneous instances of genius that occur on festival stages. The trick is not to miss them, while looking everywhere but the stage, desperately searching for the vibe.

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