The long drive from Guwahati to Ziro is a tiring one at the best of times.
The long drive from Guwahati to Ziro is a tiring one at the best of times.And the roads in Arunachal, especially after months of heavy showers, weren’t really at their best. However, to wake up to a misty world with all 22 shades of green did take the breath away. When I reached early on the second day of the annual Ziro Festival of Music, I should have been knackered, sleep deprived and hurting in a dozen places. And I was, too. It’s just that the sight of the valley — golden paddy fields framed by undulating forested hills — and the rain-washed smell of the earth had left me feeling strangely rejuvenated.
I made my way past pools of mud to a little rise where a small tent village had sprung up. Across a bamboo bridge and past bright little pennants fluttering in the breeze, I met Anshul, one of the guys in charge of the tents. Two old Apatani women, incredibly neat, were moving about the tents, selling small cups of tea to the dishevelled urban denizens emerging groggily from their tents.
Anshul led me to my tent, actually a tent-house with three separate two-man tentlets around an enclosed courtyard. The remains of an all-night party were strewn about: half-closed bags, shoes, some clothes. There was a young couple fast asleep, half outside their tent. I unpacked as silently as I could and headed out for a quick bath. It was a gorgeous day, and I was in no mood for the confines of a tent.
The venue was a small hillock overlooking the wide valley of paddy fields yellowing in the sun. All around, fringing the valley, rose ridge after pine-clad ridge. The fields were punctuated by lone, low Apatani houses. Ziro town lay a good ten kilometres away, along with a gaggle of small villages that made up the greater Ziro area.
It had rained the previous night, and much of the ground was covered in thick, slippery mud. As a result, there were quite a few people walking around in impossibly bright gumboots (I later learned that shopkeepers in Ziro have been building up a fairly lucrative gumboot business in the past three years of the festival’s existence). Not for nothing has Ziro been garnering a reputation for being India’s Glastonbury, smaller perhaps, but far prettier.
It was an overcast day, and Ziro was bathed in a beautiful aquatic light. The Superfuzz from Delhi were doing their soundcheck when I left to find friends of mine who’d travelled from Kolkata for the festival. It was a happy reunion, and some of us trudged off to Ziro town to look for gumboots. We walked off the forested hillock where the festival was located and onto the straightest road I’ve ever seen. Stretching for a kilometre through the fields, it’s the kind of road that forces you to take photographs that will never convey any real sense of its awesomeness. So we took photographs of the road, of the fields, of the muscular stream running through the valley, had unintelligible conversations with a couple of bemused Apatani farmers, and marvelled at the wide vistas and the low cloud flotillas floating across the sky. Even the scarecrows dotting the fields had a touch of otherness about them — bamboo sticks with two ‘eyes’ made up of what looked like eggs — more totem than scarecrow. If I was still coming to terms with my twenty-hour journey from Delhi to Ziro, any connection with the outside world was firmly severed when I saw a sign sternly warning people against disorderly conduct. The punishment for doing so was to forfeit either a ‘full matured cow or a mithun.’
Our search for gumboots led us to a charming covered market in the main chowk. Apatani matrons were sitting beside ordered piles of fresh vegetables and mounds of wriggling silkworms. The Apatani, like many of the other Arunachali tribes, are famous for their culinary habits, so I asked one woman how the silkworms were meant to be eaten. She smiled sweetly and said, “fry, eat.” The silkworm pile wriggled in agreement.
It was turning out to be a fine, sunny day. A fairly large crowd had gathered at the natural amphitheatre which held the Danyii (Apatani for sun) Stage reserved for folk artists. The vibe was youthful, and stylish. A hungry crowd was attacking the food and drink stalls.
Although the official drinks partner was Godfather beer (they were, along with Vodafone, the only corporate sponsors around, a very welcome change from the usual over-branding at festivals), everyone was making a beeline for the rice and millet beers. I tried some millet beer, but settled on the apong (rice beer). I’m glad I did, because it’s probably the only drink that gets you properly drunk without the worry of hangovers the next day. Pork of all kinds was on offer — barbecued, steamed, in a curry, on a stick. And all of them were delicious. On the other side of the field, the merchandise stalls were doing brisk business, with Ziro bags and T-shirts, as well as stuff from many of the bands, especially those with new albums out. There was a distinct air of DIY, with bands travelling with their own merch, and often selling them directly to newly converted fans.
I became a fan of not one, but three bands that evening. Mizoram’s Freddy’s Nightmare, Meghalaya’s Street Stories and Arunachal’s Yesterdrive delivered blistering sets high on excellent songs laden with hooks, great chops and fun banter at the Pillo (Apatani for moon) Stage. Yesterdrive were veterans at Ziro, having made their debut appearance the previous year. They released their eponymous debut just before their gig, and then ran through a breakneck set of hugely catchy songs. Pezo, the guitar player and vocalist of Street Stories riffed on the fact that people expected gritty songs from them, given the name of the band. “But inside, we’re just little girls. We love love songs,” he said, drawing a huge roar from the massive crowd, high on apong and good vibes.
The next day dawned bright and sunny. My tent mate couple were passed out again. Apong didn’t result in a hangover, but it did make me hungry. So I hopped over for breakfast to a neighbouring Apatani house. This household had tied up with the tent people, Shoes on Loose, to provide free breakfast to the hungry hordes. Unfailingly polite and doting Apatani women served us with puri-sabzi and multiple cups of tea. Thus fortified, I went for a walk around the hillock, through bamboo avenues and past some really spooky graves, before hitting the venue.
The Punjabi girl pop of the Sajda Sisters was rocking the Danyii Stage. Accompanied by a dholak and a pretty weak acoustic guitar, the sisters nonetheless produced a stellar performance. They were followed by the Tetseo Sisters from Nagaland. Mercy and Kuku brought the house down with their gorgeous harmonies and re-fashioned Li (traditional Naga songs). They’d been my busmates on the drive from Guwahati, and Mercy had enthused about how beautiful Ziro could be on a sunny day, so to hear them sing on a sunny day in Ziro was truly special. Congratulating them on their performance, I went in search of some pork.
On an adjoining hillock, a large straw installation had been set up. Rumour had it that it would be burnt on the final day of the festival. Rohan, guitarist with The Supersonics, and I headed up to investigate. We found that it was an archery target where a worthy from the Arunachal tourism department was busy practising his skills. Of more interest was Adam, a friend of Rohan’s. Dressed in a military jacket and beret, he had been flying a drone with a GoPro camera attached to it over the crowds all morning. As we watched, he manoeuvered the drone out across the paddy fields. It soared high above the venue, and then swooped down over the heads of the audience, drawing big cheers.
That evening it did rain, finally. I joined a crowd of people taking shelter under the Danyii Stage and waiting for the storm to pass. I could hear the Mumbai band, Laxmi Bomb, raging through the storm on the Pillo Stage, and judging from the roar of the crowd, the rain didn’t seem to be getting in the way.
The rain stopped as soon as Laxmi Bomb finished playing, and as rapper Feyago took the stage, us rain-shy people ambled over. A mild-mannered Bengali boy from Kolkata, he transformed into a hip-hop badass with some alacrity, belting out Eminem tributes with great aplomb, even climbing off the stage at one point to dance in the mud.
This set the scene for The Ganesh Talkies. This young Kolkata band has a penchant for dressing up in some naff technicolour Bollywood costumes, but their supercharged set, all melody and power and menace, set the stage alight. On a song called ‘Fight Club’, the band’s vocalist Suyasha was even inciting fraternal violence, but thankfully all it elicited was some good-natured crowd surfing. After all this drama, The Ska Vengers’ ska grooves seemed a little tame.
While waiting for the afterparty to begin, Rohan, Ananda (also of The Supersonics), Your Chin’s Raxit Tiwary and I had a mini afterparty of our own, singing along to Oasis and Rolling Stones songs on a boombox with some apong for company. Raxit, who had performed earlier that day, was supposed to play a DJ set at the party, but I can’t say how it went, as I ducked in for an early night.
And so, the final day of the festival was upon us. Drunk couple, check. Apatani breakfast, check. It was another gloriously sunny day, and I spent most of it snoozing in the lovely sun, under an umbrella. The crowd had thinned a little as many people had departed in order to get back to colleges and offices on the following Monday. However, quite a few remained, and the ones that did were determined to party. Come night I would be on a bus bouncing my way to Guwahati, so I tried to get as much sleep as possible. Performances had already begun at the Danyii Stage, though with the exception of Rewben Mashangva’s gruff and seedy folk blues, it was quite underwhelming stuff. Through the day, the real drama belonged to the scenery. Although the sun continued to shine in the valley, the mountains all around were covered with heavy clouds, creating an ever-shifting canvas of light and shade on the impossibly gorgeous pine-covered ridges. I was a bit sad that I didn’t have the time to hike in the surrounding mountains.
Bags packed and ready, I made my way to the front of the crowd for the evening’s performances at the Pillo Stage. Manipur’s legendary Imphal Talkies turned in a typically incendiary and politically charged set around sunset, which had the crowd bopping and cheering with gusto. A little later, multi-instrumentalist Tajdar Junaid took to the stage, setting the venue alight with the cinematic soundscapes of his debut album. If his weeping guitar had the audience transfixed, We The Giants’ taut rock‘n’roll recreated the heady energy of the second day. The Supersonics took to the stage soon after and decided to keep up the momentum with a set of ferocious rock‘n’roll songs, while we danced out front. The songs kept coming, the frenzy grew, girls screamed and grown men cried. In the middle of the frenzied ‘Strawberry’, I heard a familiar hum. Adam’s drone, now glowing with UFO colours, was hovering over my head. Everyone screamed some more. But all things must pass, and after three days of lazy fun, the end to the festival was quick. As soon as The Supersonics finished their set, the buses back to Guwahati began to line up. I rushed to my tent and picked up my rucksack. We hugged and promised to meet next year, stuffed the buses with luggage and gear, and were off. As that famous song tells us, all goodbyes should be sudden.
The Ziro Festival of Music 2014 (zirofestival.com) was the third in a row. It began in 2012, as the brainchild of Anup Kutty of the band Menwhopause and Bobby Hano, an Itanagar-based event manager. Over the years it has grown exponentially, although the remoteness of Ziro has managed to keep the festival fun and inclusive. This year, over 2,000 people attended the festival to watch over 30 acts play, and the festival also received major support from the state tourism department and the North East Collective.
Ziro lies about 450km from Guwahati via Tezpur, and the road journey takes over 13 hours in good conditions. The festival organisers arranged for pick-up and drops to Guwahati as part of a package deal (three-day festival pass including transport for Rs 6,500 per person, three-day festival pass for Rs 2,500 per person and day passes for Rs 1,000). The first day of the festival was free.
Where to stay
Over the years, a fair number of hotels and homestays have sprung up all over Ziro. The main ones are Biiri Resort (from Rs 2,000 doubles including free breakfast; Koj Hassang 9856910173), Hotel Valley View (Jiban Saikia 9402031058) and Arunachal Guest House (Ram Nivash 8794668775). This year Shoes On Loose (four-day two-man tents for Rs 2,400 per person including free breakfast; shoesonloose.com) were the official camping partners, and they did a great job with a clean campsite, well-run portaloos and bathing tents. The premises were safe and well looked after.