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Alcohol, men, night concerts—yet, Arunachal’s Ziro music festival is safest for Indian women

Unlike Maharashtra’s Enchanted Valley Festival or NH Weekender, Arunachal Pradesh’s Ziro music festival was a surreal experience for women, including those travelling solo.

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On the second day of Arunachal Pradesh’s Ziro music festival, after two hours of intense performance, the electronic band Laxmi Bomb began a crescendo on stage. Locally made alcohol was flowing like water, everyone was happy and high, and frenzied young men and women in the crowd danced and cheered. As night fell, the music rose to its climax, and the band members defied the dipping temperature and went shirtless. Many swaying men in the crowd roared and took off their shirts too.

If this sounds like a preamble to a horrible incident, think again. No such thing happened. This is Ziro, arguably the safest music festival in India for women.

All that followed was high-octane cheering by the crowd, enthralled by the music and the expanse of the lush green Ziro Valley. Many women were either first-time attendees of the festival, solo travellers, or travelling to Northeast India for the first time.

The Ziro vibe was very different from Laxmi Bomb’s experience at Pune seven years ago.

“When we performed at the Enchanted Valley Festival at Aamby Valley, the experience was completely opposite. The stage next to ours had Fat Boy Slim playing and it turned nasty. They had to call in cops because there were multiple instances of women being groped and harassed,” said vocalist Keegan Pereira.

Karuna Sharma, who had made her way to Ziro from Mumbai, was not sure what to expect. A blogger by profession, she had attended the NH Weekender at Pune in 2019 and it was not the best experience, “I was paranoid about a person next to me who seemed very high and I was worried he would grope me.”

But Ziro was a different experience. She could revel in the music without the constant worry about her safety. “Be it the scenic beauty or the number of local women you generally see, from those operating shops to others in uniform–it felt safe instinctively. Two days of enjoying the festival has only made me realise that the instinct was well-founded.”

Even the usually over-protective Indian parents know that the Northeast has a different aura altogether.

“My parents were actually okay with me travelling all the way here. ‘It’s Northeast, you’ll be safe,’ they said. I have to say, they were right,” said Vishakha Sinha, a solo traveller and freelance graphic artist from Bengaluru.

Sinha wasn’t the only woman who took every possible means of commute–flight, train and cab rides—to  make it to the almost magical Ziro Valley for the festival held from 29 September to 2 October this year. A self-proclaimed ‘born again’ female traveller from Goa and a writer from Guwahati were among the many women who were united by their love for music, nature, and the assurance of safety.

Entry gate to Ziro festival of music | Photo: Tina Das | ThePrint

Also read: Goa is Fun’s Own Country. But it doesn’t need ‘super-spreader’ Sunburn festival

For the love of music

Music festivals have become ubiquitous in India. There are over 20 such annual gatherings including Hornbill, Sunburn, NH7 Weekender, Enchanted Valley Carnival and Magnetic Fields festivals. Most claim they prioritise women’s safety, but it doesn’t always translate on the ground, a problem not limited to India alone.

At Ziro it goes beyond lip service, though it’s hard to pinpoint any one reason. In the valley, demography comes into play, as well as socio-cultural practices that ensure a safe space for women.

“Women are the bosses in Arunachal. You see them everywhere. No doubt, it translates into a safe space in the festival as well,” says Keegan. Visitors who have made all the effort to reach this remote valley are on best behaviour. This allows for an immersive experience that is at once hyperlocal and global.

Ziro embodies the spirit of the Northeast. Stage names are based on animist faith practised by many tribes in Arunachal Pradesh. They are the perfect platform for local talent like Abdon Mech, a songwriter-singer from Nagaland and Imphal-based band Meewakching to shine. From Meghalaya, the music collective, Da Minot, performs to the vibrant beat of Khasi.

“Ziro is a good space for bands like us, who are based in the Northeast. It gives a boost to indie artists, especially those who use indigenous tunes,” said members of Mizoram-based band Origami.

Members of Mizoram-based Origami pose for a photo at Ziro music festival in Arunachal Pradesh | Photo: Tina Das | ThePrint

From local tours, including lunch, to activities, campsite owners try to ensure that people can enjoy the post-festival hours as well. However, since the festival site has only one hotel, camping proves to be expensive.

But it still may not be everyone’s mug of Apong, the local rice beer. Visitors are committed to the festival, and the long journey to reach the valley.  The popular route to Ziro involves taking an overnight train to Naharlagun, and a four-hour drive to the festival site the next day.

There are no shortcuts to reach the land of the rising sun.

As the festival functions on the system of collaboration, organisers include local administration officials and members of the Apatani tribes.

“The festival doesn’t just highlight the cultural prowess of the region but is also a great boost to the local economy. I was particularly excited to see all the artists and guests returning to Ziro [after a forced two-year gap due to Covid]. It has been a long wait for all of us,” says festival director Bobby Hano.

Shops selling local art and handmade curios inside the festival site of Ziro | Photo: Tina Das | ThePrint

Also read: Korean pop in India — a love affair that could well define this generation

Blend of culture, ecology and music

Arunachal has embraced the culture of celebration with its annual Tawang and Orange festivals that also serve to promote tourism. In 2012, Hano and Menwhopause guitarist Anup Kutty decided to start a music festival in Ziro with the singular goal of inviting people to experience music in the lap of nature.

“We believe in the philosophy that no matter what backgrounds we come from, music makes us one. Nature is a great leveller. At the festival, we encourage everyone to respect nature and look after each other. This makes the festival one of the most unique confluence of people,” Hano said in an interview to The Indian Express.

The government was quick to grasp the potential, and threw its weight behind the festival.

“When I was looking after the state’s tourism department, I thought to myself, why don’t we showcase the beauty of Arunachal Pradesh to the rest of the world?” said Chief Minister Pema Khandu, in an interview with EastMojo. Ziro, which promotes indigenous rock songs, was the perfect place to show everyone else what the state has, he added.

A view of the crowd enjoying the performance of Laxmi Bomb | Photo: Tina Das | ThePrint

Most Indian music festivals court international artists. The bigger the festival, the bigger the artist. Sunburn has been hosting names like Grammy-winning Afrojack and the wildly popular The Chainsmokers while VH1 Supersonic can boast of bagging Machine Gun Kelly. While Sunburn focuses on EDM, VH1 Supersonic is home to many genres from techno to indie and pop to reggae music. Mega venues in Delhi and Mumbai attract international idols like Justin Beiber and Ed Sheeran.

For indie bands, space to perform is becoming increasingly limited despite the plethora of festivals. Ziro Festival of Music, for the most part, bucks the trend. Most of the acts are local, though it does have a few international artists. In the nine years since its inception, it has achieved global recognition despite its focus on indie bands.

International performers, too, are eager to tap into the potential of India’s fan base. Few refuse an invitation to perform.

“As soon as my booking agent told me about it, I was super excited and started counting the days,” said Emilie Hanak, a singer-songwriter from France.

Her musical act Yelli Yelli had the crowd clamouring ‘once more’ throughout her performance, even as the sun was beginning to set. “I am from the suburbs of Paris and sincerely, when I started music I would never have thought that my songs would take me to such a far away place… It still seems pretty unreal to me,” she said.

What stood out for first-timers and repeat fans of the festival is the eco-friendly practices the organisers have adopted. Locally brewed alcohol is served in hollow bamboo ‘mugs’ and food is served on either banana leaves or paper plates. Plastic water bottles are prohibited on the site.

“We ensured a trash-free festival site. Local administration also cleared the area of trash before the beginning of the festival,” said Yashika Girdhar, one of the organisers.

Cleaning crew ensuring the area inside the festival site is kept clean | Photo: Tina Das | ThePrint
The Donyi stage as a band does sound check before Day 2 of the Ziro festival of music on 30 September | Photo: Tina Das | ThePrint

Everyone seated themselves on the wide expanse of green, either in front of the Donyi or Polo stage, with mugs of rice beer or millet wine. They remained there till the last note was sung, ignoring the nip in the air as dusk blanketed the valley.

At night under a canopy of stars, they walked back to their home-stays and campsites. For women returning home with groups of strangers, the experience remains surreal.

On the walk back home, a member of the audience, Rohan, requests us to take a picture of him and his friend. “We have taken at least 100 selfies, but I still don’t think they can capture exactly what I am experiencing here today,” he said. Karuna and Vishakha, who were standing nearby, nodded their heads in agreement.

(Edited by Prashant)

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