Too Little, Too Late

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The NH7 music festival arrived in concert-starved Delhi just last year, but it already feels stale, feeding the city’s appetite for appearances more than its love of music
In 2011, when news broke that a Metallica performance was to kick off the first ever Indian Grand Prix in Noida, it seemed almost too good to be true. Until then, Delhi had often been denied opportunities to see international artists perform live, as bands frequently skipped the National Capital Region (NCR) altogether, choosing instead to perform in Mumbai and Bangalore, citing bigger fan bases, better venues and a more enthusiastic underground music culture. With Metallica, Delhi hoped for change. But in the end, the concert didn’t happen.

Organisers had misjudged musical preferences and failed to anticipate the huge crowds the band would draw. It was more than a letdown; it was an embarrassment. Especially since Metallica flew to Bangalore the next day and gave a stellar performance to an equally enthusiastic crowd. Metallica fans in Delhi felt cheated, again losing hope of ever seeing a big international act play live in the capital.

The cancellation seemed especially unfair because Delhi has in recent years raised enough bands and artistes of its own to boast a healthy underground rock, alternative and EDM scene. By 2011, several standalone music festivals like Holi Cow, South Asian Bands Festival and Dog Day Afternoon had sprung up, and things had begun moving at a slow yet steady pace.

Last year, the NH7 Weekender music festival, which originated in Pune in 2010 and has since spread to four cities, made its debut in the capital. Immediately after its first edition in Pune, NH7 had been labelled the best music festival in India. Its USP was always its round-up of indie musicians with strong niche followings. It was the place to go and see a band before it made it big. Its eclectic line-up of local and international music acts attracted music pilgrims from other cities too. It became a conference of cool.

Naturally, when the festival came to Delhi, everybody wanted in. The first year was overwhelmingly applauded by the capital’s music enthusiasts, who had all but given up on big shows after the Metallica debacle. But it was the second year that really stole the show, delivering three of the biggest international acts on the festival’s roster: Meshuggah, Mutemath and Killparis.

The three acts corresponded perfectly with three types of music enthusiasts in the city: metal heads, alternative rockers and EDM kids—they may not be mutually exclusive, but these are the broad categories that Delhi’s music fans may be sliced and slotted into.

There are also, of course, the Bollywood types and wannabe hangers-on who can be seen at every music festival and who ring the death knell for any kind of musical discovery. So it was no surprise that the so-called national indie acts performing at the festival were the usual suspects: The Skavengers, Nischay Parekh, Rajasthan Roots, Kailasa, Noori , Lucky Ali—who, by the way, can’t perform live to save his life—and a very drunk Monica Dogra failing miserably at belting a song without autotune support.

There were solid indie artists like Nucleya, Scribe and Shiva Soundsystem, but they were nothing you hadn’t heard before, as Delhi has enough venues and gigs throughout the year to accommodate almost all local acts on the list. It was a bittersweet experience to attend the second NH7 Weekender in Delhi and find that the festival was no longer about musical discoveries, but about going to see a familiar artiste of your preference; that it had become a commercial, watered-down version of its original self, something of a sell-out.

If there was one thing that was evident at the festival, it was the foreignness of the whole thing. For the majority of attendees, it was all about an idea—a chance to live out your very own Americanised fantasy of what a music festival is. From the red plastic frat-party cups for drinks, the beer bongs and buckets, to the crazy hair and accents, it was clear that Delhi was trying awfully hard to make NH7 its very own Coachella, which was both a little ridiculous and a bit desperate. The city’s phony cultural identity was never more starkly visible.

But all this paled in comparison with the joy of seeing a favourite band perform live. Mutemath is the first band that I have ever had the opportunity to see live while actually still into its music. Most of the international acts that perform in the capital do so long after they’ve lost their relevance, almost as an afterthought, a quick pit stop before retirement. Case in point: Backstreet Boys, Bryan Adams and even Snoop Dogg. Usually, one attends these shows purely out of nostalgia. Not so with me and Mutemath.

To be part of something that doesn’t involve foraging through one’s memory to come up with a connection is indescribable. For that reason and that reason alone, I will credit NH7 for giving me one of my most memorable moments of 2013.