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A guide to making music festivals more accessible

An increasing number of music festivals in India are adding a layer of inclusivity by making them accessible for the differently-abled. While there’s a long way to go, at least this is a start

Under the guidance of Siddhant Shah of Access for ALL, music festivals are going an extra mile to make the venues more inclusive and accessible

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When the Bacardi NH7 Weekender—rated as one of the biggest platforms for independent music—opens this weekend in Pune’s Mahalaxmi Lawns, it will boast not just of an eclectic lineup of over 40 artists but also of its inclusivity and accessibility. For in its 13th edition, the conversation on accessibility reached a whole new level when “ardent fans sent emails requesting to bring their differently abled friends on wheelchairs to the festival”, states Akshat Rathee, co-founder and managing director, NODWIN Gaming, which owns the IP, or intellectual property, for the music festival.

While the organisers have addressed such issues earlier through accessible parking, wheelchairs on site, special decks with elevated views, separate entry points for the differently abled, this year, under the guidance of Siddhant Shah, the festival is going an extra mile.

Shah is a heritage architect, an access consultant and founder, Access for All, which aims to push the boundaries of physical, intellectual and social access through innovative, indigenous design and advocacy. His team has introduced pre-recorded videos of a selection of songs that will be sung at the festival by various bands in sign language. These have already been uploaded on the social media handles and will ultimately be screened on the projector during it. Additionally, a special booth for the differently abled has been conceptualised, along with designated areas to allow people with disabilities, both physical and mental, to feel more comfortable. Then there will be separate queues for fast-tracked entry for differently abled fans, accessible ramps, clear signage, and continuous wireless communication should someone need assistance.

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Shah, who he has been associated with the NH7 Weekender since last year, says that he has been working on this edition for three-four months. “Accessibility,” says Shah, “is not something you think of belatedly, especially when you are looking at music events that have big crowds. The conversation has to be integrated right from the start.” Through Access For All, he hopes to foster an inclusive experiential culture in not just public spaces, such as museums and heritage monuments, but also in private art galleries, art fairs, and venues dedicated to the performance arts. While he is associated with government bodies like? focusing on the cultural realm, it is heartening to see more and more private organisers approaching him for contemporary events in the performing arts space, including music festivals.

It is heartening to see more and more private organisers think about accessibility for contemporary events in the performing arts space, including music festivals.
It is heartening to see more and more private organisers think about accessibility for contemporary events in the performing arts space, including music festivals.

Given that the coming months will see a host of music, Shah is happy that many are already connecting the accessibility dots to enhance the overall musical experience. “It’s not just about people affected by physical disability but also those who have intellectual disability, along with those affected by age-related issues that need to be given attention, especially during music festivals.”

In Delhi, Tanvi Singh Bhatia and Anubhav Jain, co- founders and curators of IBTIDA-Ek Mehfil, which started in 2019 with the vision of bringing back the tradition of mehfils and baithaks, are working overtime. Their event on 11 December, Jhoom, will see India’s biggest baithak of sorts, hosting 600-700 for a “sit-down” concert by singer Harshdeep Kaur.

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While special ramps and lanes are getting designed and integrated as part of the décor for the event to be held in 1AQ—one of Delhi’s cultural hubs—high-quality, lightweight and foldable wheelchairs are being organised at the venue. Additionally, the team and other staff are being sensitised to the needs of the elderly, given the large numbers expected at the event. For instance, how to hold an elderly person’s hand without squeezing it too hard becomes an important component of the accessibility vocabulary.

At IBTIDA mehfils, it’s not unusual, then, to see chairs being rearranged quietly but seamlessly mid-concert for a lady in her 80s, a warm cup of chai quickly reaching her, even as someone from the team drapes a shawl around her to keep the octogenarian cosy on a cold night.

“Ours is the only IP that sees senior citizens attending events so we learnt very early on to be sensitised to the needs of those who were physically disabled or suffering from physical ailments or even battling mental illnesses, for that matter,” explains Bhatia. She adds, “Having worked closely with people who have psychological and mental illnesses, I have always believed in the healing power of music and that’s why our baithaks and mehfils have seen inclusion from the very start.”

Clearly, each time we feel we are sensitised, we need to add even more depth to our understanding of accessibility. While having access to the stage is important, says Shah, one needs to take care of seating those with disabilities near areas where access to washrooms and exit points is easier. He cites the example of “quiet rooms” in the West wherein, during music festivals, those prone to panic attacks or people with autism can take refuge if triggered by the sounds and loud music. “It’s all about the right disability etiquette,” he says, citing an example wherein you need to know the right “touch”, for instance, “while ushering a visually disabled person to a music concert stage from the main gate”.

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Shah strongly feels that the “normalising of conversation is important and that has to begin way before the music festival is actually held. The stakeholders have to come together.” This means that artists, audiences, organisers, all should know about an accessible-for-all music festival beforehand so websites, social media platforms should offer all these details. “The website design in itself needs to undergo a change with respect to colour, font, etc.,” says Shah, adding that the physical invites should be tactile. He offers the example of a music evening that he helped curate in Mumbai some years ago where special music sheets and lyrics were printed in Braille to allow people to sing along. Additionally, he says, the representation of artists has to include those who are disabled.

In Jaipur, Vinod Joshi, one of the leading experts in organising regional music festivals in Rajasthan, inclusion of artists who are disabled is extremely important. Having been associated with over 40 music and art festivals in Rajasthan, including the Jaipur Virasat Foundation (JVF), Jodhpur Rajasthan International Folk Festival (RIFF) and Jajam Foundation, Joshi can’t stress enough on the representation of disabled artists.

In his role as a cultural investigator for music and arts, Joshi has identified over 5,000 such artists in over two decades. “Each time, I found artistes who were disabled physically but very talented in taking their folk music forward,” he says. At the recently concluded Momasar Utsav, or Momasar Music Festival, that he founded, the visually challenged artist Punmaram Meghwal regaled audiences with devotional songs that have been passed down in the oral tradition. Joshi also brought to the world the magic of Rukma Bai, one of the very few female Manganiyars, who lost both her legs to polio.

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This year, the Serendipity Arts Festival (15-22 December), one of the largest multi-disciplinary arts initiatives in the South Asian region, will have a performance by One Hundred and Eleven (111), a duet between a ballet dancer (Eve Mutso from Estonia) and a paraplegic dancer (Joel Brown from Scotland), which will explore the different strengths and vulnerabilities of the two artists.

Sharon Genevive, creative producer, ex-consultant, Jodhpur Rajasthan International Folk Festival and World Sacred Spirit Festival, says that for music festivals to become more inclusive, the public spaces where they are held need to become accessible in the first place. While prestigious music festivals in Rajasthan attract people from all over the world, Jodhpur’s annual RIFF and World Sufi Spirit festival, with the iconic Mehrangarh as the backdrop, allows for an experience that is accessed by everyone. This is because under the aegis of the late Karni Singh, former director of the Mehrangarh Museum Trust, architects and consultants specialising in disability access worked on changes to the fort structure. Shah, who has worked closely with the trust, agrees that the Jodhpur experience of music festivals from the accessibility point of view is a journey in the right direction.

What, then, is the ultimate template of designing a music festival that’s accessible to all? Shah has one word of advice for festival organisers: “Think of an airport— there’s an elevator, escalator, and stairs. The organisers have to offer everything, the audience member attending the music festival has the right to have access to all and choose.”

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What music festivals should keep in mind:

# Have sign language music videos

# Infrastructural accessibility with wheelchair access, ramps, separate parking facilities, separate viewing decks where stage lights aren’t too harsh

# Distribute lyrics and music sheets in Braille

# Encourage interactive sessions of disabled participants and audience members with artists, ideally before the performance

# Quiet rooms for those who might be triggered by sounds

# Tactile signage for the disabled at every important area in the venue

# Cover the accessibility conversation on social media widely

# Have proud representation by musicians and artists who are disabled

Abhilasha Ojha is a Delhi-based writer.

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