July 24, 2021
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Folk And The Forest: Commercialisation Of Tribal Art And Its Consequences

Mixing music and nature may seem like the perfect cocktail of goodness, but it is time to take a hard look at the toxic consequences of music festivals in the forest

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Folk And The Forest: Commercialisation Of Tribal Art And Its Consequences
Folk And The Forest: Commercialisation Of Tribal Art And Its Consequences

As 2019 drew to a close, India reverberated with chants of ‘Azaadi’ and ‘Inquilaab’. Elsewhere, event managers clocked in superhuman hours to put together New Year events. Celebrations would, after all, carry on alongside revolutions. One such end-of-the-year event was the Ranthambhore Music and Wildlife Festival 2019 that took place at the majestic Nahargarh Palace between 27 and 29 December. With an eclectic line-up of artists that was both Indian and international; traditional and contemporary, the festival promised its visitors an experience that was not only musically diverse, but also sensorially. The palace, the crafts, and most importantly, the tiger reserve within the Ranthambhore National Park would offer plenty of fodder for recreation and thought.

Alt fest

The Ranthambhore Music and Wildlife Festival follows in the tradition of many Western cultural properties that were construed as alternative festivals, where counter cultures could be celebrated. The 60s and 70s saw the emergence of many music and arts festivals in the West, such as the Glastonbury, Hyde Park and Isle of Wright Festivals in the UK, and Monterey and Woodstock in the US. These festivals represented stereotypes such as hippy attendees and free flowing drugs. But that also implied a concomitant degree of eco awareness and friendliness. Their choice of location in the green countryside and forest fringes were reflections of such ideologies.

Newer and bigger festivals, like Coachella and Burning Man, have retained the hippy look without upholding the green ethic. However, there are some genuinely transformational festivals such the Timber Music Festival in the UK whose organisers plant a tree for every ticket sold or the Geo Paradise Festival of Panama, where participants work with tribes, helping build infrastructure for local communities.

Their Indian counterparts, such Fireflies (Bangalore, Karnataka), Ziro (Ziro Valley, Arunachal Pradesh) and Hornbill (Kohima & Dimapur, Nagaland) have followed suit in creating festivals that celebrate the musical arts, craft traditions and nature. Most of these festivals feature predominantly EDM and indie music following the international paradigm, but they are also uniquely Indian in according platforms to some folk artists. Like at the Ranthambhore Festival, the popular rapper Naezy rubbed shoulders with renowned Rajasthani folk singer, Mame Khan. Getting to experience folk melodies emanating from the forest makes events like these popular.

Folk and the forest

The folk of the forests – call them Vanavasis, Adivasis or tribals – have a rich repertory of music. Whatever the geographical context, the music of the indigenous people forms an important substratum of the larger culture of that area. Tribal arts are often the richest form of anthropological record. These incorporate folklore & legend, zoological and botanical knowledge, shamanic wisdom, myth & superstition, organic craft, and even lessons on ecological conservation.

The acknowledgement of these forms of art – especially music – by genres like contemporary world music is like coming a full circle. For decades after modern instruments and technology created new sounds and pushed the boundaries of auditory imagination, there has been a gradual return to the roots. Whether it is rediscovering forgotten instruments or salvaging lyrics from dying languages, young artists the world over are trying to keep that bridge between the past and the present from collapsing. Music festivals situated in or at the fringes of forests, then, become important platforms to showcase and remind us of these ‘forest arts’.

To root or not to root?

But as with everything, there is a flip side to this story too. Authors of a 2005 study [Gibson and Connell (2005: 242)] found that though often well-intentioned in terms of being eco-conscious, many festivals that claimed to “increase environmental awareness... unintentionally threaten(ed) the very nature that they sought to celebrate, as environmental damage is caused by large numbers of people living, dancing and performing in a small area for several days.” An Oxford University study (Guardian 2010) stated, for example, that in just one year, 500 festivals in the UK generated 84,000 tonnes of CO2 by way of transport. Further, it has been reported that “at Glastonbury alone, 54 tonnes of cans a plastic bottles, 9.12 tonnes of glass, 11.2 tonnes of tents and 193 tonnes of compostable material including food and paper cups were left behind” [Maung, 2010 (as quoted by Paton)].

Apart from the obscene amounts of waste generated in a short time, there is also the matter of causing trauma to the resident wildlife. More and more researchers are now seeking to understand the impacts on anthropogenic noise on wildlife. It is known that “chronic and frequent noise interferes with animals' abilities to detect important sounds, whereas intermittent and unpredictable noise is often perceived as a threat” [Francis and Barber, 2013].  Other studies have recorded disturbances in breeding patterns among birds and some mammals, owing to proximity with festival sites. It is not hard to imagine the tigers of Ranthambhore getting disturbed by the high decibel performances at the nearby Nahargarh Palace for three straight days.

And the final question to raise is about the commercialisation of tribal art. Whatever the nature and intent of commercialisation, the native artiste always runs the risks of being exploited on the one hand and having his art plagiarised and/or diluted on the other.

As we exercise our privileges to celebrate our cultural inventions in the domain of another, it may be useful to remember the existence of a different kind of music – that of the forest and the forest folk. That innate and constant music that has existed long before we pitched our tents and blasted our amps. That which will continue long after the festival is over, we’ve declared it a success on our social media pages and left the venue. As English novelist, Mary Webb once wrote: “Nature's music is never over; her silences are pauses, not conclusions.”

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