In its third year, Magnetic Fields Festival takes the leap from local player to international powerhouse.
When I first came to Alsisar Mahal, the site of Magnetic Fields Festival, there was no tent village. There were no brightly coloured festival freaks in all manners of fantastical attire. There was just a lovely palace in a small town about half of the way down the road from Delhi to Bikaner.
I was lucky enough to join the festival organizers on an early planning trip to Alsisar Mahal. The location was locked and the dates were set, but the team was still in the process of deciding how the festival would come together. Stage placement aesthetics were weighed against the technical realities of acoustics while a young Rajput noble delightedly watched on, eagerly offering to buy any plot of land or demolish any building as needed, as long as everything was the best for Magnetic Fields.
In the two and a half years since that trip, just about everything has changed. The desert dunes surrounding the palace, which sported 25 tents during the festival’s first year, has grown to a village of 600. The same desert has sprung a stage of its own, and the palace’s former dungeon has even been refurbished into a club space that could double as a BDSM dungeon. In the meantime, Magnetic Fields Festival has been featured in Mixmag’s “Ten Breathtaking Festival Locations” list and developed partnerships with heavy-hitters like Red Bull Music Academy, Resident Advisor, and Thump, Vice’s electronic music and culture channel.
But perhaps most obviously, the festival has grown from a small gathering predominantly composed of friends in the desert into an internationally notable affair straining the seams of the once oversized palace that hosts it. The 2015 edition, which boasted artists travelling to India from 12 countries, easily competed with any comparably sized international electronic music festival when it comes to line-up, while blowing away most in terms of spectacular setting.
In a sense, the line-up was exactly what it should be: an eclectic selection of mostly electronic performers from three continents, ranging from the groove oriented keyboards and guitars of Ratatat to the hip-hop inspired grime-bass of Mumdance. But with no Indian music festival other than the behemoth Weekender franchise even approaching Magnetic Fields Festival when it comes to international curation, the intimacy of the palace festival provides an opportunity to drop in for a chat with some of your favourite artists in the world.
I was half way through a conversation with a slightly confused young Englishman named Benjy before I realised that I had seen him on stage, two nights previously, performing a standout reggae and dancehall set as Palmistry. Intimate late night parties, such as the crammed early morning dungeon set by Soul Clap and Soulspace, provided festival-goers with an experience that’s essentially unheard of in India: yes, you may be able to see more world famous bands at NH7, but good luck finding yourself raving next to them underneath a palace after the show.
And indeed, it is this combination of globalism and intimacy that truly makes Magnetic Fields Festival stand out. “Watching the festival grow yet still remain intimate is something I didn’t think was possible,” says Sarah Chawla, festival organizer. “There were many instances where I stood back and marvelled at what people were wearing, how people were dancing and the way people were engaging with each other.” For Sarah, one of the most important indicators of a successful festival was “the fact that we have so many solo festival goers, male and female, that attend and leave with rave reviews. It is a very special space where people seem to be genuine about who they are.”
Part of that magic was found in the fact that in addition to being a showcase for both top Indian talent and international favourites, it was a place for South Asian electronic artists to come together. Between crew and artists, the third edition of the Magnetic Fields festival featured contributions from individuals from Nepal, India, and Pakistan.
Border Movement was created with the idea of supporting a venue for South Asian electronic musical cross pollination, but India’s sheer size means that the country often looms large in discussions of music in the region. Border Movement’s support of the scene laid the groundwork for an amazing collaborative space in the Forever South X Consolidate showcase.
Forever South and Consolidate are two music labels based in Karachi and Bangalore, respectively, designed to promote electronic music in places where it rarely gets the attention it deserves. The Border Movement showcase brought together _RHL (the production force behind Sulk Station) with Rudoh and TMPST, two sonically diverse bass producers from Karachi.
The road to the showcase was a long and difficult one, beginning in 2014, when Rudoh was forced to drop out of the line-up at the last minute due to visa challenges. Though he was able to get his visa this year – and to bring TMPST along for the ride – the pair was only allowed to stay in the country for a short time, with a requirement that they check in with the police every day. But the artists made the most of their brief time, performing one of the most eclectic moments of the festival. Though the scrupulous mental notes I took at the early morning performance washed away in a haze of exhaustion and substances, the overwhelming impression the sets left was one of bass heavy banger after banger, with a beautiful disregard for genre in three sets that wandered from abstract rhythm to footwork to trap to drum and bass. It was one of the high points of the festival, powered entirely by South Asian collaboration.
“I absolutely loved the crowd that was there for the Forever South X Consolidate showcase,” said TMPST. “They were brilliant and just the way they responded to everything … was amazing. It was just tremendous fun playing for people who bought completely into what the showcase was about. … Till then I think both Rudoh and I didn’t fully feel at home, but the moment we were done with our sets any semblance of discomfort vanished.”
Rudoh echoed this sentiment, speaking to the way that the festival opened up India to them in spite of official challenges: “It was an epic experience being there, hanging with people I’ve only known of through the Internet and then finally being with them at this awesome place out in the middle of nowhere and listening to this ridiculously well mixed and curated list of some very very deeeeeep tunes.” For him the BLOT! closing set – a festival highlight for many – was what allowed the festival experience to coalesce. “Our journey to the festival was quite hectic, so the whole experience was a tad bit nerve wracking. I hadn’t totally felt connected to the festival, but that last set by BLOT! just brought everything together for me. Since we had to report to the police station at 12pm in Delhi, we had to rush the second their set ended. I couldn’t even properly part ways with my newly found friends. I felt super emotional about leaving at that point, I’m sure if I wasn’t partying hard, I would’ve been tearing up (hahahhaha). Thinking about that moment gives me goosebumps.”
Goosebumps are an accurate way to describe the Magnetic Fields experience and organizer Abhimanyu Alsisar, the owner of Alsisar Mahal, sums up the festival’s evolution in his characteristically understated manner: “The people who came back after the first year thought ‘this is like heaven. How could they make it prettier?’ You wait,” Abhimanyu responded, “come for the third year, and you’ll realize what I do.” The addition of his dungeon marked year three, and though the plans are currently under wraps, it’s hard to get the young nobleman to stop when he begins to speak about his plans for expansion in the years to come.
Festival organizer Munbir Chawla is also looking forward to that future, cautiously eager and aware of the work that has yet to be done: “We’ve been lucky that we’ve been able to grow whilst keeping the intimacy and vibe intact. That’s very important to us. And almost every year, we leave worried about how we’ll top it the following year. Every year, we manage to surprise ourselves. It’s been an incredible journey, but this was the year we put everything out on the table. Make or break as they say. And by all counts it seems to have worked. We couldn’t be happier.”
written by Kerry Harwin
all images by Artfoto Studios