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A desert fantasyland

Magnetic Fields showcases the best of the urban Indian creative community

Peter Cat Recording Co playing at the Peacock Club stage. Photo: Polina Schapova
Peter Cat Recording Co playing at the Peacock Club stage. Photo: Polina Schapova

When Munbir and Sarah Elizabeth Chawla moved to New Delhi from London in 2011 to work in the nascent but fast-growing Indian electronica scene with their music blog and events company Wild City, they were adamant that the one thing they would never do was start a music festival. They’d already seen in the UK how financially risky it could be. Two years later, it is only a little ironic that they co-founded Magnetic Fields, a boutique electronica-focused music festival held in a majestic palace in Rajasthan’s Alsisar. Now Magnetic Fields—which wrapped up a successful sixth edition on 16 December—has earned a reputation as one of India’s most off-beat festival experiences.

“We went to a couple of music festivals here, and realized that at the time, festivals here weren’t really about the spirit of building a community," says Munbir, over the phone from Delhi. “It was very much led by music and booze—big stages, big acts, big bars and it kind of ended there. For us, festivals have always had other alternative content alongside the music. So we decided to create Magnetic Fields as a place where this modern Indian creative community could come together and showcase their stuff, everyone from fashion, music, art, design, even food."

Since its inception in 2013, the festival has grown from 400 attendees in the first year to approximately 4,000 this year, despite ticket prices that start at 12,000 and go up to over a lakh. Part of the appeal comes from its singular location, which offers attendees the opportunity to explore a luxurious heritage palace in the middle of the desert, hunt down art installations and participate in secret parties in hidden rooms, rooftops and even a dungeon. But what keeps people coming back year after year is the Chawlas’ impeccable curation. Whether it’s the musical acts, the installations, the spoken word sessions, or the chill-out areas—every aspect of the festival is a testament to the team’s excellent taste and painstaking attention to detail.

The 2018 edition of the festival was their most ambitious so far, and a particular highlight was three shows specially commissioned for the festival. Natural Selection was a unique collaboration between classical pianist Sahil Vasudeva and veteran electronica producer Gaurav Malaker (both from Delhi), while Mumbai synth-pop producer Aqua Dominatrix launched his new album Flesh with a special audio-visual set in collaboration with visual artist Moebius, both at the Budx South Stage. The third was by Delhi alt-rock band Peter Cat Recording Co, who took over the Peacock Club stage one night for a special noir-themed performance. “We thought it would be an interesting idea to commission shows that are exclusive to us, while also giving back to domestic talent," says Munbir. “It’s one thing to book someone who’s big and popular, but it’s way more exciting to produce something that’s completely new."

The commissioned sets are part of Munbir’s vision for the next step in Magnetic Fields’ evolution. He wants to keep the festival small—with a maximum of 5,000 attendees—so it doesn’t lose its spirit. Munbir is now looking at other ways to expand the brand and position themselves as curators for the creative community they’ve built. They’re exploring the possibility of holding an artist residency next year, as well as getting into the label business and doing more stage shows across the country.

The writer was at Magnetic Fields at the invitation of festival partner Budweiser Experiences.

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