On finishing her stint in the Israeli army last year. 25-year-old Shirley Hashoah set her sights on accomplishing two things — getting a masters degree in Psychology, and travelling to Shantiniketan for Rabindranath Tagore’s 150th birth-year celebrations. “When I was researching if there were any events for that, I came across all these other literary festivals like the ones in Kolkata and Jaipur,” says Hashoah, “I didn’t even know India had so many book festivals!”
When we caught up with Hashoah at the Hornbill Festival in Nagaland, she was already two months and two festivals into her journey, with close friend Isa Sakal. “We landed in Delhi in October and immediately left for Jodhpur for the Rajasthan International Folk Festival,” points out Sakal. Travelling eastward from there, the duo followed the road all the way to Sikkim where they met fellow Israeli national and amateur photographer Yasim Peled. When Peled mentioned his plans to visit Hornbill, Hashoah and Sakal were fascinated enough to follow him to Kohima. “I had my reservations about Nagaland because of the restricted area status, but the Naga people have been so generous,” points out Sakal. Hashoah and Sakal travelled to Kolkata to spend time at Shantiniketan, and for the Apeejay Lit fest in January before they head back to Rajasthan for the Jaipur Lit Fest, while Peled — who reached Hornbill after attending NH7 Weekender in Pune — is heading down to Goa for Sunburn and finally to Delhi for a week before heading back home.
“Festival tourism is event-based tourism centered around art, music, literature and even film festivals” says Dr Sudheeshna Babu S, of the Indian Institute of Tourism and Travel Management. Whether it is music tourism in places like Glastonbury, or Cologne or the Film festival in Vancouver, the carnival in Brazil or the Frankfurt book fair, event-based tourism gathers its importance from multiple factors, according to Dr Babu. “First, it helps travellers soak in a lot more culture than they otherwise would. Moreover, festival tourism is great for local businesses, since it brings in a lot of tourists to places that might not otherwise be on the traveller’s map,” he adds. Till recently, most Indian festivals that attracted the average tourist’s attention have been centred around religion, and showcasing the diverse cultural pulse of the country instead of promoting the intellectual arts. It is this unique character of festivals like the Pushkar Camel Fair, the Hemis Festival in Leh and the Kumbh Mela that has garnered a lot of interest from tourists in the past. One can only wait and watch if the literary, film, art and music festivals can sustain this growing interest and boost local economies, as they promise to. According to Dr Babu, what the Indian festival tourism circuit needs is consistency. “There are so many new literary and music festivals starting almost every year in many places. They get small audiences in the first few years that are mostly local, and soon fade away because of that,” Babu points out. “Festival organisers need to build brands and look at the long run if they want to bring in international tourists, or even a consistent crowd of Indian tourists,” he adds.
“A lot of travellers plan their long vacations around festivals across the globe,” says Beatrice Ranch, a French tourist we caught up with at the NH7 Weekender in Pune. “I came down to Bombay to visit friends who work there with an intention to spend New Years in Goa, but my plans have drastically changed since I landed there,” she says, with only a hint of disbelief in her voice. “When I heard about NH7, I was quite surprised. I had to visit to check out the music scene,” Ranch adds. Ranch caught up with friends she’s made on the road at the India International Film Fest in Goa before travelling further down the Konkan coast, till she heads to the Jaipur Literary fest and back to Bombay just in time for Kala Ghoda in February.
Having worked extensively with record labels and artists in the US, Tej Brar, who has recently moved to Delhi to work in the independent music circuit, is keen to help develop a music festival circuit for tourists in India. Travelling with the dubstep crew to NH7 and managing the dubstation stage, he’s thoroughly impressed by the way independent music festivals have evolved here. “The Indian cultural festival circuit has been very different till now. Music, especially the non-traditional kind, isn’t really a big attraction on the tourism map yet, but it has the potential to be,” says Brar.
Much like Hashoah, a lot of tourists are unaware of India’s rapidly growing cultural festival circuit. There are still some who choose to follow the rabbit down the hole, and chase a cultural thrill through unfamiliar territories, and even go the extra mile for a restricted area permit, or brave travel sharks and uncharted waters.