The early-morning video coach from Tezpur was playing the 1990s Suniel Shetty flick Rakshak with its hit numbers Shehar Ki Ladki and Sundara Sundara. Outside, the verdant north-bank landscape of Assam — tea gardens and paddy fields — passed by. Nothing much has changed in these areas over the years. Up ahead in Lakhimpur and Dhemaji, there was flooding caused by heavy end-of-monsoon rainfall. At Banderdewa, where the road forks towards Itanagar, there was a landslide caused by earth-cutting. JCBs were clearing the mud and slush while passengers walked across to the other side.
The Sumo taxi from North Lakhimpur to Ziro in Arunachal Pradesh was stopped at the border checkpost in Kimin, where two labourers with suspicious-looking inner line permits (one was valid until the year 20014) were told to get down by a policeman, who then changed his mind after they parted with a Rs 100 note each, delivered via the north Indian driver.
The driver, who works for a local malik in Ziro, had his head filled with potato figures: Rs 25 a kg in North Lakhimpur, Rs 40 a kg in Ziro; Rs 2,200 a basta (sack) in North Lakhimpur, Rs 3,600 a basta in Ziro. He transports a sack of potatoes every day to his malik’s shop. The taxi had music too, a compilation of Udit Narayan hits, including Pyar Ki Kashti Mein and Saanwali Si Ek Ladki.
After the rough trip, it was a surreal experience to walk through the yellow, harvest-ready rice fields of the Ziro valley, with Apatani women coming home from the fields in the dusk, baskets hanging from their backs with straps running across their foreheads, and then to enter the festival grounds in Biirii basti or village, where New Delhi-based electronica group Tankbund were playing on stage.
Anup Kutty, guitarist of the rock band Menwhopause, and Bobby Hano, a local who works as an event manager in Itanagar, started the festival in 2012. They say social media and word-of-mouth have helped increase the turnout every year. In 2012, they had around 500 visitors; this year’s edition drew 3,000, they claim.
Judging by the turnout of people from places such as Mumbai, Bengaluru, Kerala and New Delhi, and closer home from Guwahati and Shillong, not to mention local visitors, both young and old, Kutty and Hano seem to have effectively turned the “rock show” of the Northeast into something larger and more inclusive.
There were stalls selling local food and brew and crafts, and the festival had activities such as cycling, hiking, bird watching and heritage tours lined up for those who could get up early enough. The festival also had two camping grounds with tents for those who didn’t want to stray too far away from the music. With a greater interest in “mainland” India about the seven states of the Northeast — think Mary Kom, the Shillong Chamber Choir and I-League football players — the festival seems to be doing a good job of bringing people together.
Apart from the usual rock acts and indie bands, the festival had a separate daytime stage for folk acts, set in a sort of natural amphitheatre with grassy slopes. This year’s attractions included the Sajda Sisters from Punjab, who performed with Neel Adhikari from Kolkata, Rewben Mashangva from Nagaland and Arunachal’s own Omak Komut Collective, a jazz/folk outfit. Among the acts on the evening stage were Superfuzz from New Delhi, Freddy’s Nightmare from Mizoram, the all-girl rock band The Vinyl Records, Shillong-based Street Stories, We The Giants from Nagaland, Laxmi Bomb from Mumbai, Ganesh Talkies from Kolkata and old favourite Indus Creed from Mumbai.
The Ziro valley lies in a pretty pine-tree-fringed plateau and is inhabited by the Apatanis or Taniis, one of the several tribes in the state. The high-yielding rice fields have been tended to for generations, along with fish being reared in the canal waters, and this has allowed for a high degree of population concentration in a sparsely populated state where people traditionally practise the slash-and-burn method of jhum cultivation.
Kutty says he has given up on the roads though. The road up to Ziro from North Lakhimpur in Assam is typical of all long-distance routes into Arunachal Pradesh — a bone-rattling experience on winding mountainside roads that go up and then down one ridge after another, the vegetation changing from cloud-wreathed wet tropical to pine-tree cold temperate, and with landslides, fallen trees and stretches of slush and mud.
There is another road that comes in from the state capital Itanagar but that is no better. Kutty concedes that given the effort it takes to get to Ziro, most festival-goers tend to be the committed types.
A rough road from Kimin in the foothills to Ziro was first cut by Indian Army engineers in the 1950s, with several lives being lost in the treacherous terrain. But going by current evidence, the Border Roads Organisation seems not to have improved on it much, again a typical story all over Arunachal Pradesh.
Most of the visitors have good things to say about the festival and the Northeast. New Delhi-based The Ska Vengers, who had played at clubs in Guwahati and Shillong before the festival, were pleased with the response they got. Taru Dalmia aka Delhi Sultanate, one of the band’s two vocalists, says crowds in the Northeast seem to know their music.
Jeet Thayil, the author of Narcopolis and guitarist in the band Still Dirty, says the festival has “easily the most spectacular location among similar festivals, along with great roasted-millet beer”. Anjali Joseph, a writer from Mumbai who recently moved to Guwahati, said it was one of the more relaxed festivals she has attended, and felt like being among friends.
Lubna Shaheen, the festival’s communications manager, says choosing performers is a year-long process of keeping an ear out for the kind of sound that would add to the Ziro vibe. Plus artistes, especially the better-known ones, have to be ready to accept an honorarium instead of a fee, and be willing to travel all the way (travel, accommodation and food are paid for).
Organising the festival poses quite a few challenges. The distance from cities is a major hurdle. The four diesel generators (with a combined output of 229 kv), which lit up the evening stage and grounds, and the sound equipment, were brought from Guwahati, almost 450 km away. Weak cellphone and Internet connectivity are also a problem.
There was some criticism from a few people in the Hapoli area of Ziro, who said the tickets were too expensive (the first day was free for the public though, and students got discounted tickets), and some people from a neighbouring village said the guitar-playing acts in the evenings were not “our type of music”.
Hano says it has been a slow process convincing the local people to support the festival. There has been growing acceptance over the years though, with locals earning from home stays, transport, hotels and shops, and also from the sale of bamboo for constructing the stages (which are built from scratch every year).
The budget for this year’s festival was around Rs 60 lakh and it came mainly from the state tourism department and the North Eastern Council (NEC). The only big corporate sponsor was Vodafone. The organisers say there have been enquiries from foreign artistes such as Canadian-American singer Alanis Morissette, but getting their sound systems to Ziro would be a logistical nightmare.
Perhaps Mercy Tetseo, of the increasingly popular Tetseo Sisters who perform Naga folk music, puts it best: “You need time on your hands and the heart of an adventurer to come and enjoy this little piece of heaven.”
Apart from established events such as the Hornbill Festival in Nagaland and the Autumn Festival in Meghalaya, there are many festivals coming up all over the Northeast of late, nearly all of them bankrolled to a large degree by state government funds (which ultimately come from New Delhi) or institutions such as the NEC. What benefit they serve in terms of tourism, investment and cultural promotion remains to be seen as connectivity and infrastructure lag behind.
In the absence of a thriving private sector, ways and means of tapping into state and Central government funds is the name of the game in the Northeast, which is what some of these new festivals seem to be about.
For instance, the Indian Panorama Film Festival, a three-day event held in Shillong earlier this year and sponsored by the Meghalaya government’s Directorate of Information and Public Relations, had a budget close to Rs 1 crore, as local activists found by filing an RTI query.
“Apart from an expensive holiday for the invitees and a large bill from the organisers, the film festival doesn’t seem to have accomplished anything,” says a local businessman.
Due to its remoteness, eclectic lineup and diverse crowd, the Ziro Festival seems to be bucking this trend for now.
Whatever the case, Hano and Kutty know that the magical experience of that first year, when barely 500 people got together in the muddy fields, is gone forever. The Ziro Festival is growing bigger and is now part of brand ‘Northeast’, a hip and edgy destination for those looking for something different on their holidays.
So, if you are planning to attend the Ziro Festival next year, bring along a raincoat and a pair of gumboots. Just don’t expect better roads anytime soon.
Ankush Saikia is the author of The Girl from Nongrim Hills