Chal Ravens meets the community of DJs and promoters pushing electronic music in Delhi and beyond.
Here in India, that eclecticism sounds slightly different. Well-worn crowd-pleasers feel fresh again, while some of his own tracks are barely recognised. Under a two-storey projection of jaw-dropping 3D visuals—and a sinister low-flying drone, capturing video above us—we barrel towards a crescendo, as Daphni, real name Dan Snaith, unleashes his edit of "Saat Samundar Paar," a song from the Bollywood thriller Vishwatma. If the courtyard had a roof, it would have come off. The crowd holler every word, hands flick upwards, LED hearts flash red.
It's an easy win for Snaith; decades of global crate-digging have led him to this perfect moment. The joy is palpable. But I'm curious about exactly how this track sounds to this audience, here at a festival offering international DJs—Bicep, Midland, DJ Seinfeld—alongside jazz, synth-pop, downtempo grooves and roots reggae. We're about as far away from Bollywood as you get in India. Which is to say, not so far at all.
Magnetic Fields happens every December in Alsisar, a dusty village on the edge of the battle-hardened desert. It's not a difficult journey from New Delhi, just long: stop-start and smoggy for the first few hours, increasingly picturesque in the final stretch as the Rajasthan countryside opens out. After several stops for roadside parathas and popcorn, we arrive late in the night, seven bum-numbing hours after leaving the airport. This is how most people arrive at Magnetic Fields, travelling from all over India—mostly from the megacities of Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore—to spend a weekend dancing in palatial surroundings. There are several reasons why the festival has become such an important date in the calendar for India's rave faithful, but the opportunity to go all night long—in a country where curfews typically shut down the party around 1 AM—is fundamental.
As well as megacity dwellers, the people I meet over the weekend include several Indians living in Dubai, who love Magnetic Fields so much they've flown home for the occasion, a British journalist working in Delhi, another Brit who's moved over to launch a solar energy start-up, several European backpackers in cotton trousers and bindis, and a few Burner types in onesies and mirrored hats. The crowd is fashionable, young-ish and mostly straight; almost everyone is speaking English. Taking it all in one morning while ploughing through a breakfast roti, it's obvious why Magnetic Fields is so popular. The music is great, the atmosphere is relaxed, the swank surroundings make for the perfect Instagram backdrop, and it's obviously a badge of cool to be seen here. Throw in all the kaftans and little round sunglasses, and it's a bit like the Coachella of India, on a boutique scale.
The daytime lineup is eclectic, featuring plenty of Indian musicians who are new to me—reggae crew Delhi Sultanate playing the midday wake-up set in the dunes, homegrown indie band Peter Cat Recording Co., who curate a whole evening of music on one stage, and house producers like Mumbai's Dreamstates and Bangalore's Unnayanaa. At night, the big slots belong to international artists: De School resident Carista, dBridge creating a drum & bass moshpit, and back-to-backs from Shanti Celeste and Daphni as well as Leon Vynehall and Moxie. But as a wide-eyed tourist—and someone who's seen Daphni plenty of times—I start to think that the whole scenario is missing something. I'd come to India hoping to discover a new generation of exciting electronic artists—and if I was going to find Indian-made dance music anywhere, surely it would be here? But despite the efforts of Magnetic Fields and the many DJs, promoters, radio entrepreneurs, booking agents and fans who I meet on this trip, this niche remains tiny: a community of a few thousand in a country of 1.3 billion people.
Even before the global EDM explosion of the early 2010s, India was mooted as a huge potential market for dance music. That's "market" in the most straightforward sense: corporate extravaganzas where billboard branding and laser light shows pulsate to the likes of Hardwell and Martin Garrix. In 2018, India had dozens of them—festivals like NH7 Weekender, Vh1 Supersonic and, in particular, Sunburn: the biggest music festival in Asia and the third biggest in the world, behind Tomorrowland and Ultra. When Magnetic Fields came along in 2013, it was the first of its kind: a small, intimate dance festival offering breathtaking surroundings and a focus on independent artists. A boutique festival in every sense. In the first year just a few hundred people were in attendance, with a lineup including European acts like Robot Koch, V.I.V.E.K and Perera Elsewhere alongside Indian artists like Sandunes and accidental acid pioneer Charanjit Singh. It remains one of the only underground alternatives to India's EDM extravaganzas.
Sunburn attracts a mind-boggling 350,000 ravers every year. "You can go to any smaller town or city in India and ask a young person and they will have heard of Sunburn," said Magnetic Fields organiser Sarah Chawla, a British-Iranian who moved to India in 2011. "It's a brand that's in colleges. It goes to alcohol-free states [there are four 'dry states' in India]. I've only been once and it's huge. Between the stage and the back of the crowd there aren't any screens—you just see this pair of white hands [on stage] at the end. I didn't think anyone would know any of this random EDM music, but I looked around and every single person was singing along."
Yet for all its success, Sunburn hasn't had a trickle-down effect. These huge EDM audiences aren't branching out into house, techno, bass and other underground sounds. Sarah finds it baffling. "The music that's part of [Magnetic Fields'] niche community is not that weird, so why doesn't it have a bigger audience? It's something we question all the time."
As with most of what counts for popular music around the world, Indian pop is already synonymous with the concept of "electronic dance music." The charts here are dominated by songs from Bollywood, and the success of a movie tends to hinge on the popularity of its soundtrack—secure a hit before the release date and packed cinemas will follow. Musical trends come and go, whether it's Sheeran-esque cod-reggaeton or, more recently, chatterbox hip-hop inspired by the success of Gully Boy, Bollywood's answer to 8 Mile. Bollywood composers have long been early adopters of new technology, quick to experiment with cutting-edge synthesizers during the disco era and always keeping up with trends. And at their core, contemporary Bollywood hits are the very definition of EDM—with the same pumping basslines and build-and-drop structures as their western equivalents, they're literally engineered for communal dancing, as seen in countless movie scenes.
For India's ballooning middle class, music runs like tap water. One in four Indians own a smartphone, usually running a streaming app like JioSaavn—India's rival to Spotify, with a catalogue of over 40 million tracks. Munbir Chawla, who runs Magnetic Fields with his wife Sarah, points out that India is actually "skipping broadband and going straight to 4G." JioSaavn streams at a paltry 96kbps, but even with low-quality audio it's the most popular streaming platform in India "because it's Bollywood to the masses," explained Munbir. "And the one thing that reigns supreme in India is Bollywood. It's untouchable. No other thing links the entire nation. Except cricket, maybe!"
Against the hegemonic power of Bollywood, alternative music scenes are inevitably going to struggle for attention. Even in the biggest cities (usually referred to as "Tier One" cities) like Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore, the audience for club music like house, techno, drum & bass and garage is minuscule. When it comes to parties, said Munbir, "our radar is pretty small. On any given weekend we're only really talking about two to three thousand people. In a country like India, that's nuts."
So who exactly are these people? They're from the big cities, he explained. They're middle class, between 25 and 35—a slightly older crowd—and among the tier of wealthier Indians who speak English as their primary language. (English is the common-denominator in India, a country with 23 official languages; increasingly it's taking over as the standard argot for young people.) "A lot of these people have either studied abroad, lived abroad or were born abroad—places like the US, London, Australia—and they've come back with a new taste of culture," he continued. "It's people that are able to travel, people that have the budget to be able to go to Sónar for a weekend." As it stands, this crowd simply isn't big enough to support more parties and festivals. "We've hit the cool kids, we've hit the scenesters, we've hit the heads, and all their friends of friends," said Munbir. "We've got to the point where everyone who should know about us does—but how do we break into a college audience that doesn't know about us but is ready for it? How do we break into this massive number of middle class 18 to 25 year olds? That is the ultimate question."
This barrier is just one indication of a deeper, uglier truth. India is a stratified society from top to bottom, and one of the most unequal economies in the world. In 2017, the top one percent of the population took home 73 percent of that year's income, while the poorer half of the population—670 million people—saw their wealth increase by only one percent. Tickets for Magnetic Fields start at 6000 rupees (just over £60) and go up to 12,000 rupees. The average daily wage for a male city worker is 470 rupees (just over £5); rural workers and women earn much less. Even for those who'd consider themselves well-off in India, nightlife is a major expense.
The week after Magnetic Fields, I paid a visit to the office of The Wild City, the events company and blog run by Munbir and Sarah from a small, bright room at the end of a quiet street in South Delhi. Tucked away behind a maze of fabric shops and cute bakeries, it's a leafy refuge from Delhi's smoggy roadways. The Chawlas came here from London with the idea of applying their experience in events and nightlife to Delhi's music scene—they could see that there was plenty of talent, but little infrastructure. "We had a light bulb moment," remembered Sarah. "There's clearly stuff going on, why don't we start documenting what's happening? It was better to start an online platform and really get underneath what was happening locally, rather than struggle trying to do events not knowing anyone. It was to start building up a community."
After first launching as a blog, The Wild City grew into an agency and—unexpectedly—a festival. Sarah grew up in a tiny hamlet in Somerset, in the west of England, with festivals and free parties as a constant backdrop, along with her Iranian family's convivial gatherings. But having seen one of their British promoter friends lose huge amounts of money on a festival, the couple were wary of starting their own. "The condition of us moving here was actually that we wouldn't start a music festival," she laughed. But India is "the birthplace of the festival. Especially in northern India and Punjabi culture, every event is essentially a festival, and they're all done so well—every street corner can get turned into a stage. We felt there was a big inconsistency with how that was being transformed into [music festivals]. We wanted to create a platform that really showcased that, while placing India in an international dialogue about contemporary music culture."
In the past ten years, this festival culture has grown, with punters seeking out more intimate experiences. But it's hard to predict what will be popular. "Trends catch on like wildfire, and sometimes you don't understand why something has become so big so quickly," she said. "You're watching gentrification happen in the space of six months rather than 20 years."
Magnetic Fields is the scene's most visible success so far, already a bucket list destination for European ravers who've seen the sand dunes and sunsets on their favourite DJ's Instagram. There's also Far Out Left Festival in Mumbai, a smaller proposition with more techno-focused bookings; Aurora Halal and DJ Nobu both played the 2018 edition. Mumbai and Bangalore both have their own scenes for house, techno and other underground dance music, but Delhi's is currently the busiest, and the best bookings can be found at two venues: Auro and Summer House, located next door to each other in Hauz Khas, a buzzy neighbourhood full of bars and restaurants. In fact, both venues are primarily restaurants—I'd recommend the beetroot fritters at Auro—but their dance floors also host international DJs. Regular parties include bass night Krunk, which has booked US club DJs like Sinjin Hawke and Zora Jones, and Milkman, which brought Helena Hauff and DJ Stingray to India's megacities last year. Summer House is also home to Boxout Wednesdays, a weekly party organised by Boxout.FM, an internet radio station that's become a crucial locus for homegrown talent since its launch in 2017. That, however, is about it for proper venues.
Despite the energy, persistence and expertise of the thousand-or-so people who make up this musical community, they have some big hurdles to clear if India is going to develop a strong underground scene of its own. First, there's the lack of audience. Delhi is enormous—with over 20 million inhabitants in the larger metro area, it's the second most populous city in the world, and growing fast. Even if nightlife is only accessible to the wealthiest ten percent of city-dwellers, those numbers could still fill dozens of clubs every weekend. Second, there's the lack of venues, which is partly a reflection of the limited audience.
But there are local issues too. Both Auro and Summer House turn a profit because they are restaurants, primarily—a purpose-built nightclub wouldn't be financially viable. And there are the curfews. In Delhi, clubs close at 1 AM unless the promoters have paid off the police in advance; in other cities it can be even earlier. The tight curfews reflect India's conservative attitudes towards alcohol (the legal drinking age varies across the country from 18 to 25) and sex; even being out late at night is seen by many as morally dubious. Consequently, there's also a lack of technical expertise and equipment. Finding a set of working CDJs to practice on isn't easy, and there are precious few sound engineers with the appropriate knowledge. One of the reasons Magnetic Fields tickets are so expensive is that the festival production team has to be hired in from across the country and speakers trucked over from Mumbai, over 1000 km away.
When I first arrived in Delhi, I had a particular question on my mind: I wanted to know how Indian women were carving out their own place in the scene as DJs and producers, and what obstacles there might be to getting involved in music in a conservative—if highly pluralistic—country. As it turns out, promoting gender balance is one area in which Delhi's music community, at least, is making huge strides. The city's aspiring women DJs and producers are doing something strikingly familiar: they've formed a collective.
Sarah had thought long ago that bringing more women into the scene could be transformative. "We thought, if we want to have a thriving music business, what needs to change? Number one, the music industry has to be better for women—in terms of female artists, female engagement in the music business and female patrons. We thought, if it's better for women, it's going to be better for everyone. We can move towards more inclusive spaces. To get the ball rolling, she put out a survey for women in the scene, asking what they wanted to learn and what would encourage them to get more involved in music. In two weeks she had over 300 responses, and the biggest demand was for production skills, specifically Ableton. With funding from the British Council, Sarah launched a series of skill-sharing workshops in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Kolkata, where participants got hands-on instruction in DJing, production and engineering from artists like Hyperdub's Cooly G and Glasgow DJ and producer Nightwave.
"It was a really beautiful sharing circle," said Nightwave, real name Maya Medvesek. "We discussed confidence, anxieties and issues we face in this industry. It quickly became clear we've all experienced similar struggles with controlling men—misogyny, entitlement, gatekeepers, online abuse. But it was also nice to hear how many supportive men there are, and I met so many during my stay in India."
After the first round of workshops, the participants got together to form India's first women's DJ collective: Coven Code, who soon after were given a weekly club residency with Boxout Wednesdays. "[Coven Code] is having a really transformative effect, I think, on Delhi's nightlife scene," said Sarah. "Women attract women, and there are more women going out to their residency on Wednesdays, there are more women realising that DJing is something they can do. So I think there's a lot more awareness and aspiration. There are so many women I've spoken to at the workshops who really look up to this female collective. I think a lot of barriers have been smashed because of that."
Coven Code is a broad church, to say the least, with the DJs repping everything from house, techno and hip-hop to psytrance, reggae and electro-swing. Coven Code member Prabhjit Yo moved here from London in 2016 to work for the BBC in Delhi. After her arrival she started DJing under the name House Of Nari and took part in the first round of Sarah's workshops.
Joining us in The Wild City office, she explained that the collective wasn't formed just for self-promotion. On top of the sexism they face within scene, Coven members are constantly navigating issues with personal agency and safety. Women can't always rely on venue staff and security to have their back if they're in a dangerous situation. Student venues, in particular, are "the kind of place where if something happens, you're on your own." So Coven Code introduced safety representatives at their gigs, who can offer assistance if a woman finds herself in an uncomfortable situation. Prabhjit also worries that a generation of Indian youth are experimenting with drugs for the first time and finding themselves at risk. "Drug taking has to evolve. People don't know how to go about behaving—there's a lot of new users. The rules of engagement can go out the window. What I'm trying to grapple with is how to make people aware, so they don't have the excuse, 'Oh, I didn't know this was wrong.'"
When she first moved to Delhi, she quickly realised that simply getting to and from a venue can be challenging for women. Uber is reasonably safe, she said, "but you wouldn't trust it. The best way is if you have a driver who's going to drive you there, stay there and pick you up when you're done." Public transport is too risky. "The metro closes down around midnight and buses are just... no. You wouldn't go in the day, let alone at night. You could get touched up, people could follow you home. The most notorious gang rape case was on a bus. So that's out of the question."
That horrific case still looms over discussions of women's safety in India. In 2012, a Delhi woman named Jyoti Singh Pandey was beaten and gang-raped on a bus while travelling home from the cinema with her friend; she later died of her injuries. The rape became a flashpoint for Indian feminism, sparking nationwide protests and violent clashes with police. As part of the government's response, rape became a capital offence; the perpetrators are currently on death row having exhausted all avenues of appeal. In the years since the Delhi case, numerous other incidents of rape, assault and harassment have brought women onto the streets as India confronts its reputation as the world's most dangerous country for sexual violence against women.
One such case affected Varnika Kundu, a young woman from the northern city of Chandigarh who, as Miracle Drugg, is one of India's most established female DJs. Standing on the terrace outside Auro one night, she recounted to me the bizarre and upsetting incident that thrust her into the headlines. One night in 2017, Varnika was driving home when two men in another car—one of them the son of a senior politician—began to follow her and, she recalled, attempted to abduct her. By the time they tried to open the door of her car, the police had arrived. Both men were charged with stalking and attempted abduction, but the trial is still ongoing after repeated delays. But a week after the incident, more than 500 women took to the streets of Chandigarh under the banner, 'Meri raat meri sadak' (My night, my street), while further protests sprang up in Delhi, Jaipur and Panchkula.
Despite sluggish progress in the courts, Varnika believes that her case actually helped to restore faith in the system. "There have been a lot of cases where the judge has tried to morally police the victims, but in my case that didn't happen," she said. "My biggest fear was that they were going to be super invasive in the cross-examination. People from the defence tried to shame me online by sharing pictures of me with my guy friends, and a picture of me with two glasses of alcohol, saying that I'm already a 'loose woman.' I was out alone late at night, which a lot of people tried to question. A politician actually asked on national TV, 'What was a girl doing out late at night?' To which I responded, on TV, 'I was minding my own business! Why doesn't anyone ask what those guys were doing?' But the amount of support I got—hundreds, maybe thousands of messages—that is something I feel might not have happened a few years ago. She continued: "People are finally opening up to the idea that women can allowed to be independent individuals and have their own opinions and lives and freedoms. Which sounds ridiculous! But, you know, that's how it is."
The attempt to smear Varnika simply for being out alone at night speaks to a general suspicion of nightlife. Would-be promoters struggle to get permission from the authorities to put on parties and festivals, "because it's nightlife, it's music, it's people partying—so of course there's drugs, alcohol, all sorts of 'immoral' behaviour," noted Varnika. Young Indians rarely have the physical freedom of their Western counterparts. The majority live with their parents until they get married, unless they move out of town for study or work. There's a feeling of being constantly monitored. Though her own parents were supportive of her DJing, Varnika said she knows "so many people who would have to lie to their families to just be able to go out at night."
On the second night of Magnetic Fields, I wandered down to the Jameson Underground stage. Formerly the palace's tack room, the low-ceilinged basement venue had been decorated with heavy ironwork that gave it a vaguely BDSM dungeon vibe, though the alcohol branding obviously diluted the impact. The night's lineup was made up of DJs from Boxout.FM, including Oslo-born, London-based SUCHI, born Suchi Ahuja, who played a set of pumping '90s house and raggedy acid. Her family moved to Norway from India before she was born, but she spent several years living in Delhi as a child. Having returned to India as a DJ, she's adamant that playing here is "no different" to being in London.
"If anything, I would say people are more respectful in India when it comes to women and DJing. The crowd is respectful—they're there for the music, they're not there to pick up chicks or whatever, or be patronising." Magnetic Fields is surprisingly well-behaved. "Like, it's 8 AM and I haven't seen anyone passed out drunk in a ditch yet, which is quite interesting compared to British festivals."
I met Suchi again back in London, where we got talking about the supposed core values of club culture—ideas like inclusivity and acceptance. If those principles are entwined with clubbing precisely because of dance music's origins within communities of black, Latinx, gay and trans people, what happens when dance music is imported into a different musical culture by a group of mostly privileged people? Can those much-celebrated values be imported too?
"I don't think people look into it that much, in terms of where [the music] comes from and why—unless they're super into it," said Suchi. "It's more, 'I like what I'm hearing, this is new, this is interesting.' Their association with [dance music] is that it's new." Chatting to strangers at Magnetic Fields, I felt I was meeting a very particular segment of Indian society—fashionable and well-travelled, a kind of hipster jet-set not unlike the crowd at Coachella. "Exactly," laughed Suchi. "They're well travelled, they're kind of cool kids. It's interesting, because where it's come from is so different to how it's being perceived now in India."
The origins of house and techno in America's oppressed communities remains a kind of foundational mythos for many of those involved in the music, and one that underpins our ideas of club culture even as the music has commercialised and proliferated. Certain values are repeatedly invoked by DJs, organisers and journalists: inclusivity, community, the idea of the dance floor as a refuge; "peace, love, unity, respect." And in the UK, where dance music rapidly infiltrated the mainstream, an anti-establishment animus still defined the early years of acid house and hardcore, culminating in a government crackdown through the Criminal Justice Act. That spirit may have worn away in places, but there's still a sense in this loose, global community that club culture should encapsulate progressive values. But would Delhi's "underground" dance community see themselves as anti-establishment?
I put the question to Munbir, as someone who spent years throwing parties in London before coming to Delhi. "I don't think we're opposing anything, specifically. I struggle with what to call the clubbing culture here," he said, emphasising that social divisions prevent any kind of joined-up underground culture from emerging. "It might be interesting for an RA reader to know about about what a seedy bar in a non-top tier city is like on a Friday night, but I would never go to a place like that. And that's the thing—the divide is so huge."
At Magnetic Fields, the divide was certainly stark. The festival is a gated community—literally a palace surrounded by high walls, closed off to the villagers of Alsisar. Spotting an opportunity, locals got involved anyway, setting up makeshift shops and cafes along the public backstreet that connected the palace to the camping grounds. Pungent curries and omelettes sizzled on hot plates, next to melting chocolate bars and bottles of unfamiliar booze. In the dunes of the desert, which crept right to the edge of the palace grounds, large white tents were arranged in tidy rows, each containing wooden beds, a washstand and even a flushing toilet. It was true glamping. As if to underscore the chasm of wealth that separated the festivalgoers from the villagers, several valuable items went missing from our tent on the first night of the festival. I was sorry to see my Minirig go, but the fact I could shrug off the loss only underlined the drastic difference between the people inside the festival and the villagers outside the gates.
The lineup attempted to be inclusive even if the festival itself couldn't be. On the opening night, a crowd gathered on the palace rooftop to hear a group of Rajasthani musicians play folk music on traditional instruments. The sunsets over the desert were spectacular even on a dusty day; as the temperature plummeted, the horizon slowly disappeared in a blue haze as we watched an intense duel between two master percussionists which left the techno heads in the crowd reeling in awe. The performance was compèred by the palace's prince, who in his military jacket, beret and loose cotton trousers had the air of a 20th-century autocrat, swanning about as if he owned the place—which, of course, he did, along with several other grand old buildings that formed his hotel chain.
A different attempt at inclusivity shaped the final night of the festival, as Midland closed the weekend with a set of pumping house and unexpected R&B inside the Peacock Club, a cabaret-style stage in the dunes. The setup was loosely inspired by Glastonbury's NYC Downlow stage, with three impeccably styled drag queens from Delhi setting the tone for a flamboyant polysexual party. To underscore the point, Midland wore a t-shirt emblazoned with "Make House Music Gay Again." The drag performers joining him on stage are usually to be found at Kitty Su, a nightclub based inside The LaLit, a five-star hotel in Delhi. The nightclub is part of a chain run by Keshav Suri, the son of a hotel magnate and one of the few openly gay public figures in India, where homosexuality was illegal until September 2018; Suri even debuted his first drag performance last December.
Kitty Su has become a focal point for India's gay and trans community (including, notably, acid burn survivors), but it's an audience that's rarely integrated with the clubbers attending Magnetic Fields. "This is what we're trying to do with the Peacock Club," said Munbir. "What Suri has managed to do is make a completely safe space for that culture, and we really respect that. Musically, I think the club is still getting there. They're big spaces and expensive to run, so there's a lot of cheese and commercial and tech house." The Wild City has since been working on more parties that bring the crowds together, including two dates at Kitty Su this April where Jayda G and American drag queen Violet Chachki shared a bill with local performers.
Very few LGBT Indians can live as openly as Suri does. As Prabhjit explained, "You need to have some clout in order to be out and proud in the current political climate," which is why Kitty Su is able to exist in a society largely hostile to gay spaces. With its luxury backdrop and VIP table service, the club is nothing if not exclusive. Cover charges start at 1,000 rupees (around £10).
"It's an oasis for queer communities, but only those that can afford it," she noted. In contrast, Prabhjit had recently attended a free event at a community centre for people living with HIV and AIDS, where she encountered a completely different demographic getting involved with singing and performing. "Young boys from [cities like] Agra—second-tier cities—came on the train for four to five hours because these spaces don't exist for them in their cities. It was a very different vibe altogether. Are those places driving club culture in India? No. But are they championing queer culture, and trying to even just survive, and put on those things? Yes. And there needs to be so much more. Trying to find non-commercial spaces to host them is really difficult."