‘I’ll be going through a slum to a rich club’: India’s upside-down rave scene

Magnetic Fields, a three-day festival in the Rajasthan desert, saw the countrys burgeoning dance scene go overground. But there are concerns that clubbing is a corporatised rich persons game

Before this, there was Bollywood, and everything else was deep underground. These are the words of producer Karsh Kale, describing Indias music scene as recently as 10 years ago. It is telling of just how much has changed that Kale is saying this by a fireplace in the middle of a desert in Rajasthan, where an electronic music festival is taking place.

Now in its fifth year, with a capacity of more than 3,000 (having started at less than 500), Magnetic Fields is one of many events catering to a burgeoning underground music scene in India. Sets from Four Tet and Ben UFO that go on until 8am in the grounds of a magical 17th-century palace are remarkable in themselves (as are surreal moments such as a local hip-hop DJ dropping Big Shaqs Mans Not Hot under the stars), but what is especially noteworthy is the number of Indian acts and attendees.

The week prior to the festival, Boiler Room, which streams DJ sets online, held a three-day series of talks and shows in Delhi; meanwhile organisations such as Wild City offer alternative music news, features and listings, and also run events; Red Bull has spent the past few years investing in Indian artists including Jivraj Singh, sonaluna, and the Sine Painter. And where clubs were once only found in hotel bars, purpose-built venues are now popping up, alongside an illegal rave scene. This infrastructure means that what was once a deeply buried underground alternative to the Bollywood music mainstream is quickly, fervently, becoming something bigger. As Kale puts it: Theres a thirst now for something else, something other than what has been fed to Indian audiences for decades.

Oceantied
Oceantied at Magnetic Fields. Photograph: Neville Sukhia

Indias ongoing development as an economic power has produced a middle class with a greater disposable income than ever before. But, as with most stories in modern music, the biggest catalyst for change has come from the internet. When I used to come to India as a kid, there were two channels on TV, so I used to bring mixtapes and share them with my cousins, says Kale, who was raised in New York. Now its totally different; with social media and YouTube theres an immediate connection with the rest of the world. His own experimental blend of Indian classical and electronica has pushed through the countrys underground to reach a wider audience.

That connection is a huge factor in the new sounds coming out of India; for Bangalore-based producer Oceantied (real name Ketan Bahirat), it proved essential. He explains how he and friends first got into the electronic scene. It was mainly via YouTube and [file-sharing site] Limewire, because our record stores didnt really sell the latest house music. Wed burn CDs and share what wed downloaded with each other. Its something that makes the scene different here, he says, and as a result people were more familiar with sounds than particular artists or their backgrounds.

The internet has also helped promotion, as Dev Bhatia, the co-founder of UnMute Indias first independent artist booking agency explains. When we started working with a group called Jalebee Cartel in 2007, there was a huge gap in marketing; they were producing music, but how did we get more people listening to it? Then Facebook started picking up; at every gig wed tell people to sign up and join our group.

Of course, with a population of about 1.3 billion, and giant disparities in wealth, geography and to a degree culture, to talk of India as one tangible entity is reductive, and any underground in India is more nuanced than a westernised hipster concept. As Taru Dalmia vocalist of ska band Ska Vengers, and who is also known as MC Delhi Sultanate explains: If youre talking about anything thats not mainstream, you also have to include folk music, Dalit music, artists like Kabir Kala Manch, Sambhaji Bhagat, Gaddar artists that are not part of the anglicised, urban, upper-middle class, so usually people dont think of them when they talk about the indie scene here.

Magnetic
Revellers on the palace rooftop at Magnetic Fields. Photograph: Carys Lavin

For all that non-mainstream India might be giving birth to bilingual indie rock and lower-middle class hip-hop produced on smartphones, the electronic scene feels less inclusive. A festival such as Magnetic Fields though exciting and forward-thinking is largely for the countrys young, urban middle classes. Perhaps that is not dissimilar to elsewhere in the world, but underground scenes in Europe largely started from the ground up; in India, the artists catalysing the movement are mostly coming from the top down.

All the same, Dalmia says, more young artists doing things differently can only be a good thing. Its very heartening to see kids taking risks in following their artistic vision, rather than just trying to cater to market expectations.

Sanaya
Sanaya Ardeshir, AKA Sandunes.

For producer Sandunes, real name Sanaya Ardeshir, there is certainly a conflict regarding the accessibility of the electronic scene. It stings me to be involved so deeply with such a rich persons game, she says. Its weird, and Im very sensitive to it, especially when I go [to] play gigs in the west and its not like this at all. If Im playing a gig in India, Ill be going through a market then a slum to get to the rich club Im playing, but that is India.

Like Dalmia, though, Ardeshir says these discussions are at least a step in the right direction. The important conversations about representation, equality, accessibility, and treating people fairly are already being had. And given how new this scene is, its good that its happening now, because its setting a precedent.

As the scene builds, the next big discussion is its viability outside India. There might be a tendency for western audiences to imagine a distinctly Indian sound, with perhaps some sitar, or tablas in the background. But while some artists toy with their roots EDM artist Nucleya blends traditional Indian instruments into his songs, and in Oceantieds Carnatic-infused iteration of Chicago footwork, traditional flute meets skittering, syncopated beats and twisted bass there is a whole confluence of influences at play, from the Beatles to Zakir Hussain and DJ Rashad.

Techno, conversely, is a genre that tends to morph into whatever landscape it finds itself in. The point is not to wave a flag, but to dissolve boundaries, says Kale, highlighting a general sentiment among this section of Indias musicians: embrace your culture without being too overt about it.

There are other things holding back Indias musical accessibility, however. As UnMutes Bhatia explains: Were so disconnected with visa issues and location, so that can be a drawback, but there are artists breaking through that. He cites Arjun Vagale, the first Asian artist to release on [techno label] Drumcode; he just played western dance festivals like Awakenings and Electric Daisy Carnival. Its happening, and Im sure others will follow.

For now, a lot of the questions facing the underground are more universal than you might expect: the debate around the influence of brands, for example, is one that keeps coming up. For Bhatia such collaborations are necessary to help fund artists and shows, but Dalmia is more hesitant. This economic reality is not necessarily healthy for the scene the ability to build a cultural community through music is severely hindered by the fact these events are corporatised.

Its a fertile time for Indian music beyond the mainstream, and there is much room for growth. As Ardeshir says: Theres actually a lot of opportunity and a lot of work for people who are making music; demand is still outstripping supply.

Indeed, back at Magnetic Fields, as the sun sets and crowds sway to Sandunes set on the palace rooftop, you can feel that demand building alongside her synth lines.

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/us

Marissa Safont‘I’ll be going through a slum to a rich club’: India’s upside-down rave scene

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