Ziro Festival of Music held in Arunachal Pradesh is lauded as much for its eclectic lineup as it is for preserving local culture and the environment. On its ninth edition, Travel+Leisure India & South Asia’s contributor walks the festival grounds to review the sustainability initiatives.
As the sun goes down the horizon and casts purple shadows on the sprawling paddy fields, the bamboo lights of the stalls glitter like fireflies, and music reverberates all across the ground. People of all ages lounge on the grassy slopes, some hold bamboo mugs of the local brew apong, others sway to music and feast on plates of tribal fare.
Welcome to the Ziro Festival of Music
I am at the ninth edition of the Ziro Festival of Music, considered one of the most eco-conscious music festivals in the country. The festival is being held after a hiatus of two years, and the excitement is palpable. It features independent musicians and bands from different genres—classical and rock to folk music.
The setting of the festival is unique in itself—against the backdrop of burnished golden paddy fields. Around the grounds are the rolling hills of Eastern Himalayas, bamboo groves, pine forests, and small villages that are home to the Apatani tribe, one of the last pagan societies in the world. The Apatanis have always existed in harmony with their unique environment, cultivating rice in the valley and worshipping nature.
The festival starts with the traditional welcome called Daminda performed by 400 Apatani women in traditional clothes. I see the emphasis on local food and drinks with stalls selling everything from locally brewed millet beer called apong in bamboo mugs to grilled pork, rice cooked in bamboo stems, local salads like singju, and home brewed wines and beers.
There is an emphasis on sustainability and eco-friendly practices, and single use plastic is discouraged. The music is eclectic—from Japanese high energy rock band Pinky Doodle Poodle to Manipur’s diva Mangka who both sings and plays the pena, to the French group Yelli Yelli, and the emotionally charged music of Rehmat e Nusrat, a band of musicians from Uttarakhand who reinvent the qawwali.
I talk to the co-founder and creative producer of the festival, Anup Kutty, about the evolution of the festival. “My partner Bobby is from here and we just came here to relax and holiday; that’s when we hit upon this idea of starting a music festival to encourage and collaborate with independent musicians from across the North East as well as other parts of India,” he reminisces. “We never imagined that it would grow into this huge festival visited by people from all over the country. When we started, Ziro had very little infrastructure or concrete buildings and all we could see were paddy fields and the hills around us. But as the festival grew, so did the town,” he adds.
“The essence of the festival was always sustainability, as the Apatanis have always lived close to nature; we have just added more design elements. We also noticed that the festival was generating a lot of waste, we put in corrective action and banned plastic and made sure that we do not litter. The festival is getting bigger every year and we hope, better managed,” Kutty says.
Sustainability has been built into the festival at every level, from the bamboo and pine wood used in construction, the upcycled cloth bunting, to utensils made from local leaves, banana stems, and bamboo. I talk to Udit Mittal and his partner Kirti Jalan from QX Design, who conceptualised and built the festive space this year and worked extensively with the local Apatani people. Locally sourced bamboo is used along with some bamboo from Assam and timber and pinewood to build the two main stages called Sun and Moon, the stalls, and the central food court. Even flattened bamboo from previous editions has been reused.
Scrap material like bamboo and ropes have been used to fashion the rustic lights in the stalls. The central food hall, which used interlocking bamboo poles is an architectural marvel that looks magical at night. “We started our work from July with a visit to understand the site and what would work here. We have now been living here for more than 45 days at a stretch making sure everything is constructed and put up. We trust the locals and their indigenous knowledge and if they say a bridge or a stage is strong enough, we know it will be,” says Mittal.
Takar Nabam is an Itanagar based singer who fuses folk music with vocals and guitar music and has been performing at the festival since 2014. “When I first came, there were no proper roads and it used to take us a long time to come from Itanagar. We have better infrastructure now, and can travel in less time. Initially, not many people were aware of the festival but now there is a large niche audience that appreciates the independent music lineup and is willing to travel long distances for the unique experience,” says Nabam.
Dhristi Kumar, a young advertising professional from Mumbai, has been coming to the festival for over four editions and says that the festival is coming in to its own and getting better every year. “I also like that they think seriously about sustainability and good design besides good music,” she opines.
Leena and Pratik, a couple from Bengaluru, are staying at a local homestay while attending the music festival. “The lineup of music has been amazing and eclectic and completely different from any other festival. There is so much local talent that we are not aware of, and that has been the highlight for us,” they say.
I attend an interesting bartending masterclass organised by Diageo’s Signature brand that has partnered with the festival this year. Mixologist Yangdup Lama (whose bar in Delhi, Sidecar has been placed in the Top 50 bars in the world), uses local ingredients like bay leaf, palm candy sugar syrup, and Himalayan pink salt to create unique cocktails including one using the local millet beer apong. There are also plogging runs to keep the festival grounds clean and free of garbage. Ruchira Jaitly, vice president and portfolio head of Diageo India, says, “Our ethos of reconnecting with nature and discovering joy in the process matches the philosophy of the festival. It was also beautiful for us to watch how every participant took charge of one’s waste, thus standing up to the overall commitment of leaving only positive footprints behind.”
Getting to Ziro
IndiGo operates flights from New Delhi and Kolkata to Jorhat Airport in Assam. From there, Ziro Valley, where the festival is held, is a seven-hour drive.
Hotel Ziro View is the ideal option to stay in town. Tented accommodations as well as homestays are also available.
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