Goa, in late December, begins its busiest time of year, as tourists and partygoers from across the world begin to pour in for New Year celebrations. For people returning to the Sunburn Electronic Dance Music festival, the revelry will feel like homecoming—if home has been taken over by three times the number of people they saw last time, and gone from being just Sunburn to “Brand Sunburn", as the festival’s organizers are calling it this year.

Sidelights: This year’s Sunburn includes an Anthem Tour party and a DJ mixing contest.

But when your dance music festival makes it to CNN’s Top 10 list of best festivals in the world, it’s safe to say that you’re no longer at a chilled-out little beach jam. In its three-year history, Sunburn’s “one big dance party" atmosphere has been closely connected to festival-goers’ feeling of being part of a small, close-knit scene. Thanks to the Electronic Dance Music (EDM) festival’s niche—though now growing—popularity in India, the Sunburn vibe has always been closer to an underground project than better-known stadium extravaganzas that mark India’s more mainstream music festivals.

Last year, during Dutch DJ Armin van Buuren’s gig, it may have seemed as if Candolim beach was exploding in a whirl of colour and noise, but in truth, the number of festival-goers didn’t number more than 15,000.

But Sunburn is now at a turning point. “We started off with 5,000 people in 2007," says Shailendra Singh, joint managing director of Percept Ltd, the communications firm that helps organize Sunburn. “This year, we’re expecting 50,000." With growth comes inevitable change. Sunburn is looking to spread beyond its beach festivities this year.

The festival kick-off has spanned multiple cities, with a Sunburn Anthem Tour Party and contest that brought international superstar DJ BT to Mumbai, Pune and Bangalore. A mixing contest has given amateur DJs a chance to be featured on the Sunburn compilation that features DJ BT, with the other international acts who will play at Candolim (DJ BT, one of Sunburn’s planned headliners this year, pulled out of the festival for personal reasons earlier this month). Percept plans to market merchandise beyond the customary T-shirts and accessories, and also open India’s first ever Sunburn Café in Pune soon, and subsequently in Mumbai and Delhi.

“It’s going to be more of a music carnival than festival," Singh says. “But we are not trying to divert guests’ attention. We just want them to enjoy everything around them even as they focus on the music."

To Nikhil Chinapa, the festival’s guiding force and its creative director, the balance between the indie vibe and a growing focus on the brand isn’t even a challenge. “The essence of the festival is always going to be the same," he says. “At its core, it’s a place where you come by in flip-flops and shorts, with your friends, to listen to music you love."

He repeats a sentiment he expresses on the Miss Malini blog, where he responds to commenters saying, “When Pearl (his wife, DJ and Sunburn performer) and I first travelled to Ibiza (Spain), all we used to think after every single night out was, ‘I wish we could share this with our friends…’ It’s exploding in my heart to know that there are others who feel what Pearl and I feel when we stand in front of the speakers, with our toes in the sand."

According to him, the festival’s growing numbers cannot dilute its emotional connect. Chinapa remembers 2008, when Sunburn went ahead in spite of grave misgivings and government fears that public gatherings were a target for terrorist violence after the Mumbai attacks. “With everyone ducking for cover, it seemed like there was still space for love, and for music. It’s just grown since then."

And Sunburn’s quantum leap, he says, just reflects the leap in popularity EDM has made in urban India. This year’s bigger audience comes despite the absence of someone with the stature of van Buuren among their acts. “There’s the sand, the palm trees, the sparkling Arabian Sea," Chinapa responds wryly to a question about which of his acts might turn out to be exceptionally dazzling. “The main reason Sunburn is an end-of-year ritual for people around the world. It’s about so much more than any one act, or a name."

He says there’s a very complicated strategy to deciding the Sunburn line-up. “I think of DJs I love around the world, and in India. And I book them."

The Sunburn Electronic Dance Music festival is at Candolim, Goa, from 27-29 December. For details and the final schedule, log on towww.sunburn-festival.com


Nikhil Chinapa’s tips for first-timers at the Sunburn festival

• Pick up a pair of noise-cancelling ear plugs if you want to dance near the speakers and still keep your hearing for life.

• Dress light (wax your chest hair), carry sunscreen, and drink lots of water.

• Do not attempt to do or consume anything illegal; you will be caught and banned for life. If you think your friend is in danger, don’t hide or wait to ask for help, though; Sunburn has a drug-counselling and emergency response centre that will provide help immediately.