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The true story of how India partied through Covid-19

Few countries have been as devastated by Covid-19 as India, with recent studies estimating that the death toll has likely exceeded three million, more than 10 times the Indian government’s figures. While European DJs have been criticised for playing there, what’s been missed is that the Indian dance music industry has largely continued to operate throughout the pandemic, with events often booked, run and played by Indians. Dhruva Balram speaks to major promoters and artists to find out the true story of raving in India during Covid-19

As countries across the Global North vaccinate their populations against Covid-19 and exit pandemic-related restrictions, the dance music industry is entering a moral and ethical quagmire. Many want to claw back a sense of normalcy, which includes attending clubs and festivals. Yet while the majority have stayed at home for the last 18 months, a minority have continued to party — and it’s divided the industry.

Often named “plague raves”, in-person events have been the subject of heated online discussions. Governments have been criticised for putting attendees and local populations at risk, and DJs have been criticised for travelling to perform. Artists and promoters have been framed as legitimising potentially dangerous gatherings, particularly in countries with low vaccination rates and poor healthcare infrastructure.

As vaccine programmes roll out across the Global North and stall in the Global South, what responsibilities do those from vaccine-rich countries have when booking, performing at, and travelling to in-person events in vaccine-poor countries? Now, with borders functioning like steel doors, the dance music industry, with its reliance on international tourism, needs to ask itself how it will operate in pandemic times — and in few places are these questions more pertinent than in India.

Much of the exasperation around in-person events in India has been directed towards a handful of European DJs who have played there legally. Charlotte de Witte and Sven Väth have drawn criticism for their early 2021 bookings at tourist- centric venues in Goa like Hilltop and Sunburn. What has been missed in the discussion, though, is that these parties are not a rare few. Since October 2020, the Indian dance music industry has largely continued to operate as normal, with events led almost entirely by Indian artists and promoters.

When the pandemic forced India into the world’s strictest lockdown, 63.1% of live event companies reported up to £90,000 in losses due to cancellations. When restrictions were lifted in October 2020, bookers and artists attempted to make up for lost time. Major cities like Mumbai, Kolkata, Bengaluru and New Delhi held limited-capacity events. By the new year, India’s winter party season was in full swing, with international DJs announced for multi-city tours.

Throughout all of this, there was little to no specific legal guidance from the Indian government around hosting in-person music events, apart from the universal sanitisation and social distancing rules. National and state governments have offered no grants or income support schemes. According to a recent study by the Centre for Global Development, the number of people in India who have died due to the pandemic is likely to have exceeded three million, nearly 10 times the Indian government’s official death toll.

With the data supplied by the New York Times and other organisations, this could mean that just over half a billion people in India were infected with Covid-19 by 25th May 2021. If this population were a country, it would be the third most populated in the world, after China and India. One of the study’s authors, a former chief economic adviser to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, said, “True deaths are likely to be in the several millions, not hundreds of thousands, making this arguably India’s worst human tragedy.”

Magnetic Fields Nomads and Cymbal Rotations 

For Munbir Chawla, co-founder of Magnetic Fields Festival, there have been no easy answers. For eight months, he and his team debated whether or not to host their new event, Magnetic Fields Nomads, as the country reopened. Unlike their larger, internationally- renowned event at the palace-turned- hotel Alsisar Mahal in Rajasthan, Nomads was designed to be a “smaller arts and culture festival”, with a limited capacity of 400 people; held on 19th-21st March 2021, in Ranthambore, Rajasthan.

Many Indian festivals operate out of hotels, with guests and artists staying in private rooms. For Nomads, the team enforced a bubble within the hotel grounds, with all staff staying on site. “I want to stress that when we did Nomads, it felt safe,” Chawla says. “We weren’t trying to make money back. It felt right, because in the months preceding Nomads, there were between 2,000 and 5,000 people dancing on beaches in Goa. 

“Everything was open. It’s insane to  think about now, but the numbers were low,” he continues. “We carefully considered our capacity and venue before going ahead, but based on what we were seeing and our intended implementation of best practises, it felt  right and that everything was ready for reopening.

During the first wave, official case numbers in a seven-day national average peaked at 93,323, and then dramatically dipped throughout the winter. Six weeks before Nomads, the rolling seven-day average of new cases was 11,857 per day — which, for a country of 1.5 billion people, is remarkably low. In hindsight, these statistics could be a “gross understatement”, according to several experts.

As official case numbers remained low during winter, many were keen to recoup losses. Nakul Mehan and Aaryaman Scindia are co-founders of Cymbal, a new festival whose second edition was set for 20th-21st March 2020, before being cancelled. In December 2020, they launched Cymbal Rotations, a new “rotating event series merging exploration of India with music”. The first event was held in the Thar Desert of Jaisalmer, with an all-Indian line-up. The second, in February 2021, was held in the Jaigarh Fort, Jaipur.

“We felt tired of sitting in our homes and not being allowed to go anywhere,” Scindia says. “Cases started lowering, so we thought, ‘Okay, maybe this is an opening for us’.” Mehan agrees: “We expected a certain income from the festival, which would have covered operational expenses for the future. That did not happen. We were then looking for opportunities for hosting events.”

Given the infamous lack of government oversight in India, should promoters have taken on more responsibility for safety regulations? Mehan and Scindia hosted the February 2021 event in a gargantuan fort, which allowed “people to have space”. Covid-19 negative tests were required for entry, staff numbers were kept to an operational minimum and capacities were limited: 150 people attended the first event, 200 people attended the second.

Mehan and Scindia felt that they ticked all the necessary boxes. “You can’t feel any sense of guilt,” Scindia says. “Nakul and I had multiple conversations on whether we should go ahead. We came up with as much of a foolproof plan as we could.”

Nomads also implemented their own regulations, which were shared in advance on their website. “We made it very clear that we were going over and above government advice,” Chawla says. “I don’t think people expected how much emphasis was going to be put on the tests.” Nomads had a mask mandate for buying drinks, ordering food and being indoors, and had “bubble-enforced outdoor dancefloor spaces” to make sure that groups didn’t mix. 

The quickest way to test for Covid-19 in India is through a RT-PCR Test. Many Indian laboratories provide QR codes to guarantee the test’s legitimacy. The codes, according to Chawla, allowed the Magnetic Fields Nomads team to “link the name of the person on the test with their official URL, verifying it and making sure it’s real.”

The Nomads attendees test results were cross-referenced throughout the first day. It became an arduous process: some of the tests didn’t have QR codes, and had to be manually verified by calling the labs. This scrutiny ensured the safety of everyone. “We eventually ended up escorting a couple of attendees off site whose tests we couldn't verify,” Chawla says. 

Sunburn

Scindia and Mehan are critical of other, less safety-focused promoters: particularly those in Goa, who flew in DJs from outside of India. A historic party destination, Goa relies heavily on Indian and international tourism. The island state imposed comparatively loose restrictions to the rest of India; locals and foreigners flocked to Goa’s parties during the winter of 2020 as an escape from city life.

“A lot of the events that took place in Goa, I don’t think any regulations were being stuck to,” says Mehan. “There were, as far as I know, 3,000 to 5,000 people without masks at various parties.” Scindia agrees: “It was definitely an irresponsible decision. It’s the fault of the promoter and the artists playing. The government too, for all that was going on.”

Pre-pandemic, EDM festival Sunburn would host up to 600,000 people, generating close to 250m INR (£2.5m) in revenue for the state. For their 2020 edition, Sunburn announced that they would operate at 20% capacity, which is 60,000 attendees. Curiously, Goa’s tourism minister Manohar Ajgaonkar told Times of India, “We don’t want to hold it at a very large scale this year, it would be restricted to around 12,000 people.” 

After fierce criticism from multiple media outlets, Sunburn cancelled the three-day December event. “We invested about 15m INR (£145,000) in the business,” says Myron Mohit, CEO of Sunburn Beachclub, the subsidiary company of Sunburn Festival. Mohit, who oversees eight venues across multiple Indian cities, was seemingly concerned about the welfare of his employees.

“The pandemic hit and a lot of the employment we created for people went for a toss. We still had to take care of a lot of people while things were really uncertain.”

After the cancellation of Sunburn Festival, the beach club toured Innervisions boss Dixon in December for a four-stage event with an “art market”. A few weeks later, Agents Of Time and Stephan Bodzin performed at separate events, while Sven Väth and Patrice Baumel played later in multiple cities. All of these performances were booked pre-pandemic.

“To fill big spaces, you need bigger international acts,” Mohit argues. Sunburn — across all their venues — made Covid-19 negative tests and masks mandatory, while hand sanitisation bottles were handed out. For Mohit, the rest comes down to the attendee.

“The mentality of the Indian crowd is that if you force them [to follow rules], they will probably come and fight you,” Mohit says. “Event organisers can only communicate that you cannot enter without a mask and [that we will] provide masks, at an added cost to us, but it’s also on the people to be responsible enough to ensure that they are taking care of themselves.”

Arjun Vagale

Many venues re-opened during the winter of 2020 due to the official case numbers. With a lack of state and government guidance, some venues approached artists directly, to see how they could work together. Arjun Vagale, India’s biggest techno DJ, has played multiple shows in Goa, New Delhi and Bengaluru throughout the pandemic, and helped shape how some venues operate. Initially, Vagale felt uncomfortable playing at many of the venues that approached him, despite receiving “a ton of requests”.

“After the first wave, when the government started opening things up slowly, they gave permission to venues to open, and a couple got in touch with me,” he says. “The W Hotel in Goa asked, ‘Can you come up with a plan of how we will open?’, and I said, ‘Yes absolutely, let’s do it’, because this needs to be done in a very thought-out manner.”

The W Hotel and Vagale initially created 50-person seated events where no one was allowed to dance. Masks were mandatory, but Covid-19 negative tests were not. The parties were “private, invite-only, word of mouth”, where they wanted to “play it extremely safe and figure out how to restart”. Soon, their 50-person parties grew to “80 people, then 200, and eventually, we did one in December which was about 450 people,” Vagale says. “It was a long, drawn-out process where we wanted to figure out what are the best practices,” Vagale says.

Despite these rules, according to Vagale, an increase in attendees may have turned heads. “The problem is that, in India, the minute one person does something and the other crew finds out, they want to flex,” Vagale says. “One person does a 50-person gig, so another does a 100-person gig. The third guy does a 500-person gig, so another decides to do a 2,000-person gig — and that’s when shit hits the fan.”

Vagale believes that this one- upmanship among promoters, along with an increasingly lax attitude to testing, created a dangerous ripple effect. “In hindsight, I think I shouldn’t have done maybe one or two of my gigs,” he says. “I knew what was happening in Goa; seeing the craziness of people getting fake negative Covid certifications and then taking flights. I was like, ‘This is a disaster waiting to happen’.”

Hilltop

In January and February 2021, India saw international DJs such as Charlotte de Witte, Sven Väth, Patrice Baumel, Innelea and Oliver Huntemann tour different cities over successive weekends. With the exception of Väth, all of these bookings went through one individual: Prateek Pandey, and his promotional agency slick!.

“All of them, bar one, played outdoor shows,” Pandey says. “We had a really good time with Patrice Baumel, who was the first one to come. After the first wave, things were improving. The winter months were really good. Cases were super low.”

Pandey booked Charlotte de Witte for the 10th anniversary of slick! at Hilltop, Goa’s 10,000-person capacity outdoor venue. (For de Witte’s gig, there were a reported 1,600 people.) Located in the mountains of Vagator, Goa, Hilltop is a tourist destination known for its trance parties. Barring government- mandated lockdowns, Hilltop has remained open throughout the pandemic. So far this year, it’s hosted Sven Väth, Charlotte de Witte, Karsh Kale and dozens of other international DJs.

Pandey dismisses the idea that de Witte played at a “plague rave”. “It’s an easy target,” he says. “If a girl makes it to the world number one, then it’s easy to point fingers at her.I would not call it a plague rave at all. We did our bit, we did everything as per the law. We didn’t run it past scheduled timings, and we didn’t exceed the capacity.

“We discussed where she would feel most comfortable playing the show with her team, and she didn’t want to play in other cities or closed venues,” Pandey continues. “She only wanted to play open air shows. And she wanted to play in Goa, which is why we chose a really big venue, Hilltop. In a city, it’s impossible to find that kind of space.”

Surprisingly, given his role in booking multiple events on the island, Pandey agrees with much of the criticism from the Indian dance music industry about Goa’s winter season. “I didn’t see masks or much social distancing happening in Goa,” he admits. “At that time, you didn’t even need a negative Covid-19 test to get into Goa from anywhere in the country. They just wanted to make money. We did a lot of events in Goa: we were just watching from afar, and we tried our best to ensure that people wore masks, but it’s impossible to enforce.

“In hindsight, we probably should not have done the events then, and saved it for later,” he says, but insists that “the clubs and festivals are not the sole factor for the second wave. There are bigger issues; here, in Mumbai, we have trains where people are packed like sardines. It’s much easier to point the finger at nightlife.”

Six months after the peak of the catastrophic second wave, the Indian dance music industry is starting to look, again, to its winter season. With only 7% of its population vaccinated, how can Indian artists, promoters and venues navigate another reopening?

For Munbir Chawla of Magnetic Fields, “the global image of India has been shot over the last year. It’s not just down to how the pandemic was handled, the sickness and the death – it’s the politics, it’s everything,” he insists. “This idealistic vision of going to India to tour may change. But we haven’t given touring much thought. It’s just not a priority right now.” Magnetic Fields have postponed all events until at least early 2022. “It just doesn’t feel right to do anything now. If Nomads had been slated for just a couple of weeks later, we would have cancelled,” he says. 

Currently based in the UK, Chawla is watching how the Indian industry will navigate the coming months. He believes insisting on double vaccination or a negative test for entry is the only way forward. Beyond that, “there are many best practices that need to be seriously considered,” he says.

“To talk about our future, we have to think of all these things for our budgeting and production,” he says. “Do we need more toilets and check-in counters, so there’s no overcrowding? Do we need more bars? Larger backstage areas? Apart from the testing and sanitation, what else can we do?” he asks, searchingly.

After the first lockdown, artists were excited to tour India again. But the horror of the second wave has shifted mindsets. The industry has entered a spiritual slump. “I’m taking it one day at a time,” Vagale says. “I’m not making any decisions. I think it’s too premature to even think about playing more events, because the numbers are fluctuating every day.” Mehan and Scindia have no plans for Cymbal, either. “It’s very irresponsible for all of us to start posting more events in the backdrop of what happened in the second wave,” Mehan says. “We don’t see any hope in terms of things getting better anytime soon.”

Others worry about the practicalities of reopening. BLOT!, one of India’s biggest DJs, says, “India is not a welfare state, and protocols, while mandatory, have no way of being enforced. If you go to a party, you’re responsible when you go home and have breakfast with your folks and your domestic help. It’s learning to be cognisant of those cultural connotations, of what it is to live in India; it’s a very deep, complex web.”

“With the margins that these clubs have, too, you cannot discuss this without taking the economics of scale into consideration,” BLOT! continues. “I doubt even 50% of a venue’s capacity is going to do anything for anyone, because the artists probably won’t get paid their full fee and the people will have an underwhelming time. It’s a very utopian concept which sounds good on paper, but will be very difficult to enforce.”

Another Winter Season

For others, reopening isn’t a mirage on a horizon. It’s in clear view. Sunburn has been helping young people get vaccinated by turning their clubs into vaccination centres. “We teamed up with hospitals to increase the vaccination,” Mohit says. “We converted Sunburn Superclub in Hyderabad into a vaccination centre, and had doctors and nurses there giving out vaccines. This encourages young people, it excites them: ‘Come to your favourite club, you don’t need to go to the hospital’.”

“I think we want to start touring from September onwards,” Pandey says. “Adhering to social distancing is not going to happen in a club — it’s impossible — so I think the safest way to prevent a third wave, or prevent any kind of fallout from the reopening, is to ensure that only vaccinated people are allowed to enter clubs or events.”

Pressed on the matter, Pandey says, “Very few people in our age group [18-35 years old] are double vaccinated in India. We will definitely be looking at people who are either vaccinated with at least a single shot... or able to provide a negative RT-PCR test 48 hours prior to the event.”

For Mohit, there is a real possibility that Sunburn Festival could be cancelled for a second year running, but they could still run events through the subsidiary company and venues. “It’s mandatory for attendees to have the negative test,” he says, as Sunburn looks to announce winter events. “You will need to show the vaccine certificates to enter the club. It’s mandatory in all our clubs. If you don’t have it, you don’t enter.”

Hilltop has already announced a series of winter events, including a New Year’s Eve party with local trance DJs Astrix, Arjuna, Starling and a dozen other artists. So far, the venue has not shared any mandatory vaccination or Covid-19-related safety measures for entry. Despite multiple attempts, Hilltop was not available for comment. “We need to learn to live with the virus,” Pandey says, “because it’s not going to go away, ever. It’s going to keep mutating and coming back. We just have to live with it and keep adapting.”

“You can’t stop your business,” Mohit says, “but, of course, you have to ensure it’s under the safety measures by the government. They know best when to open India again. And if attendees don’t understand the hard work of the community to create an environment for them, then somewhere down the line, it is the responsibility of people who are attending these festivals.”

At the time of writing, India has reported another 41,831 cases per day. The active cases registered have increased for the sixth consecutive day. With eight states showing a rise in the R-factor, the government has, at the time of writing, said it is a “significant problem”. The second wave may, alarmingly, still be occurring.

Dhruva Balram is a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter @dhruvabalram