Everybody in the palace, let’s go!
Magnetic Fields is a huge rave in India’s desert. A vivid indicator of dance music’s global reach, or simply another playground for the well heeled? Tara Joshi reports
Before this, there was Bollywood, and everything else was deep underground.” These are the words of producer Karsh Kale, describing India’s 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 DJ dropping Big Shaq’s Man’s Not Hot under the stars), but 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 once clubs were 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 underground alternative to the Bollywood music mainstream is quickly, fervently, becoming something bigger. As Kale puts it: “There’s a thirst now for something else, something other than what has been fed to Indian audiences for decades.”
India’s 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 it’s totally different; with social media and Youtube there’s an immediate connection with the rest of the world.” His own experimental blend of Indian classical and electronica has pushed through the country’s 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 didn’t really sell the latest house music. We’d burn CDS and share what we’d downloaded with each other. It’s 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 – India’s 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 we’d 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 – arguably – 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 you’re talking about anything that’s 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 don’t think of them when they talk about the indie scene here.”
For all that non-mainstream India might be giving birth to bilingual indie rock and lowermiddle class hip-hop produced on smartphones, the electronic scene feels less inclusive. A festival such as Magnetic Fields – though exciting and forwardthinking – is largely for the country’s young, urban middle classes. Perhaps that is not dissimilar to elsewhere in the world, but under-