Festival Review: Into The Void, Rann of Kutch
Everything that happened over a full-moon weekend when 25 badass bands played on a stage in the middle of nowhere
Can a music festival create ‘good vibes’ even amidst repugnant porta potties and an unbelievably ludicrous MC? Apparently, yes. For the 300 or so people, including artists, who came for lnto The Void, the three-day festival at the Rann of Kutch proved to be quite the adventure. And not just because it was ridiculously hot in the day and nipple-freezing cold by night. Or because you won geographical brownie points crossing the Tropic of Cancer en route the venue. The festival was such a heady mix of talent and occasional tragicomedy that sometimes you had to tell yourself that it was all really happening. (More details on the mass exodus to the Great White Desert at 2A.M. later).
Even in its homespun first edition, Into The Void triumphantly trumped major festivals on several unique points: free entry, an all-‘live’ band lineup (no EDM or EM!), breathtaking destination venue, desert-side camping and healthy food options (rajma-chawal, anyone?). Not to mention the unparalleled, cheap thrill of enjoying alcohol in a dry state.
Knowing looks can be everything, the folks at the festival had shared some spectacular images from the venue on social media a couple of weeks prior to the event —artsy installations and all— triggering hashtagged speculation on whether it was going to be India’s answer to Burning Man. Well, if you count first-time headbangers headbanging to Susmit Sen’s “Kandisa” the desi equivalent of Burners’ commitment to self-expression, maybe it was an answer after all.
No FOMO in Dhordo!
The first day of the festival might not have been the smoothest, what with delayed sets, miscalculated logistics and sound issues, but the experience of catching some of India’s most kickass acts performing in the middle of nowhere was absolutely incredible. The venue was the super flat, arid village of Dhordo, just off the White Rann of Kutch, one of the largest seasonal salt deserts in the world. Most attendees camped either in the tents pitched on the venue or the plusher Swiss tents in the Tent City nearby. A few chose the more luxurious resorts in the vicinity.
The festival décor was minimal but strikingly beautiful (courtesy the Mumbai-based arts collective Arthat Studio), reminiscent of the debut edition of Ragasthan, the desert music festival held in Kanoi dunes in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan in 2012. The larger-than-life installation of a guitar carved out of cane mesh was a popular selfie point, as were the two humongous cane spheres on either side of the campsite.
Small sets, big gigs on day one
Let’s say the best thing about Into The Void was that it was a one-stage set-up, thus taming the otherwise FOMO reflexes that multi-stage festivals are known to cause in revelers. If New Delhi singer-songwriter Dhruv Visvanath set the mood with his percussive guitar playing on songs from his stupendous debut album Orion, Bengaluru alt rock act Blushing Satellite projected from the stage the many emotions hanging in air around that time of day–hope, anticipation and ‘who’s-got-alcohol?’–with their lusciously layered melodies.
The party truly began when the Mumbai rock/blues trio The Family Cheese came up and treated everyone with the chops and showmanship they’d been hiding all this while. Guitarist Apurv Isaac aka Lala was on fire as he paced about the huge stage delivering delicious licks and riffs (especially on the song about a “psychedelic auto ride” titled after him). Although, frontman Yohan Marshall did overdo his trademark oft-repeated introduction between songs that goes something like, “Ladies and gentlemen, we are The Family Cheese, and we love our breakfast.” Fortunately for him, the scanty crowd couldn’t care less. Unfortunately for the band, their set was cut short like many other acts that day, but they did manage to bring smiles to people’s faces with their latest slapstick single, “The Bawa Rap.”
The F16s, who came up next, found an adequately warmed-up crowd waiting for more kicks. The Chennai alt rockers brought their glitzy guitars game on, playing their 2013 songs “Avalanche” and “My Shallow Lover” and more recent material from their latest album Triggerpunkte, such as the potent “Plastic Like Skin.” For a band that has been touted as the next big thing in Indian indie music, The F16s might still need to work on their (pre) headlining game; as much their set was a delightful package of reverie-meets-rage, it failed to arrest us throughout. Maybe it was the set list?
The evening’s headliners, veteran Chennai rock&rollers Junkyard Groove led by frontman Ameeth Thomas, had to shorten their set too, but they more than made up for it by being, well, their usual madcap selves onstage. The band played a bunch of old and new tracks amidst wild cheers from the audience even as a perplexed Thomas, not sure if they had run their time (nobody but the organizers knew!), asked on two occasions if they should go on. “Okay, good night and thank you… Wait, can we try one more? Yeah? This is getting better and better.”
If a music festival’s first, and obvious, commitment is to its attendees, Into The Void went beyond that and ensured that the artist community had a ball too. Most bands were hosted in one mammoth cluster of Swiss tents, and going by the inter-band bonhomie and generous exchange of beer and doobies every night outside the tents, everyone had a great time.
When the saints went marching in on day two
How many people does it take to convince an entire festival audience to walk four kilometers (one way!) on a long, straight road through a spooky desert to get to a certain white, glowing land? None. On day two, when festival founder Mehul Mittra came onto the stage after the end of the last set and announced that everyone must get onto to the buses parked outside the venue to “have an awesome afterparty under the full moon” at the Great White Desert, he didn’t mention the walking part. But as luck would have it, the half-dozen buses ferrying the 300-odd people weren’t permitted beyond a certain BSF checkpoint. Alas, the wonderland lay a few kilometers away! But because the collective resolve of a suitably high mob can be tough to question logically, off we marched into the desert at two in the morning. By the time the exodus about-turned, it was almost sunrise. Perhaps the day deserved the intrepid culmination.
Earlier that evening, Mumbai rockers Daira brought the house down with their brilliant set. Frontman Piyush Kapoor slammed it on every song with his pitch-perfect vocals—his trademark wails have never sounded better—and raised the bar of showmanship too. The band played crowd favorites like “Maaya” and “Hisaab” from their eponymous debut album, and by the time they ended their set, they had successfully infected the entire festival with some sort of untamable spirit; groups of young women were headbanging hysterically long after the music went out and a certain European camper had begun making, in a strangely robotic, unstoppable way, cryptic loopy signs on the sand using a stick.
Ahmedabad/Mumbai/Pune post-rockers Aswekeepsearching started tepidly but by the third song, managed to retain the suddenly hungry audience making their way to the foodcourt. Programming the ambient rock group between two highly electric acts might have been an oversight (Chennai rockers Skrat were next) but Aswekeepsearching got the crowd up and swaying to their material towards the end, especially when they played the vengeful “B-303” from their 2015 album Khwaab.
When South bands slayed it
Skrat, like always, had the crowd eating out of their hand from the moment they wired up till the very end, playing all of their gig staples. It is now certain that Sriram T.T. is the frontman indie music had been deprived of for so long, and not just because of his flamboyantly irreverent moves, disarming smile, and overall rock star-ness. His guitar chops are down pat, and together with bassist Jhanu Chanthar and drummer Tapass Naresh, they make an enviable rock trio.
The next band on stage were Motherjane, who we saw after what seemed like a lifetime. The Kochi rock veterans offered some much-needed nostalgic nourishment with their all-time hits such as “Mindstreet,” “Fields of Sound,” and “Chasing the Sun.” The 21-year-old band might have undergone more than their fair share of lineup changes in the last six years, but they’re holding their own remarkably, proving why they are truly iconic when it comes to carving an original ‘Indian’ rock sound.
The day’s headlining act was another iconic band formed in 1996—Thermal and a Quarter. Comprising vocalist/guitarist Bruce Lee Mani, bassist Leslie Charles, drummer Rajeev Rajagopal (and additional guitarist Michael Dias from Bengaluru rock band Mad Orange Fireworks), TAAQ that night were just the way even their oldest fans would remember them as: effortlessly cool like the legendary Steely Dan, offering licks-laden lyrical gems that have no better label than ‘Bangalore rock.’ They opened their set with the lingering “Dangerous Mind” from their 2012 magnum opus 3 Wheels 9 Lives, and played everything from the relatively newer tracks like “Solstice” and “Like Me” to the sardonic “The Scene” about the indie music scene. (“Our story’s been the same since 1996/Selling sushi in an idli shop for you/With rock and blues and jazz and rolls on the menu,” sang Mani, causing everyone to fall in love with TAAQ all over again.) Two days later at the Bhuj airport, Motherjane guitarist Nikhil Vijayanath and Susmit Sen would lament and laugh at how the midnight chill froze their fingers on stage, and marvel at how Mani, who was killing it on the guitar, seemed absolutely unfazed.
Fresh acts ruled the roost on day three
Although the crowd by and large dipped on day three, the festival witnessed many walk-ins, especially large groups of curious families who were camping in the Tent City for the annual cultural festival Rann Utsav that was going on concurrently.
If the previous day was a bit of a blast from the past, today saw some of the freshest, most exciting acts proving their mettle. Bengaluru singer-songwriter Mahesh Raghunandan, who played an impressive show with Blushing Satellite on day one, performed his own lovely, emotive set today, pulling in wandering attendees towards the main stage. New Delhi’s newest jazz/funk/soul act Kitchen Sink, led by singer-songwriter Smiti Malik (of the city-based acoustic duo Chayan & Smiti), raised the overall musicianship on display that day with their nuanced compositions. Malik’s luscious vocals on songs like “Four Walled,” “Silence” (“Inspired by a desert setting just like this,” she said) and the Fifty Shades of Grey-provoked “Paper Thin” were superlative, as were the arrangements on them. The next band on stage, Frisky Pints, might have suffered the misfortune of being introduced as a hilarious version of their name by the bumbling MC, throwing their manager into a tizzy, but the pop-rock trio let no awkwardness seep into their smashing gig. Their highly infectious rock&roll and songs about things like vowels and “a musician’s life” (“Goose Chase”) were lapped up by the audience. A delicious cover of Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk” sealed the deal. Way to go, Frisky Pints.
Kolkata’s The Ganesh Talkies had their own battles to face on stage. The pop-rock band encountered a series of sound glitches that just wouldn’t end, and after over 15 long minutes of fixing-refixing, they finally kicked off their set with “Brother From Another Mother (they had to ditch opening song “Dancing Dancing” because the guitar amp went kaput). The band went on to play an enjoyable set filled with fun tunes like “Dendrite” and “Triangle.” On their flagship track “Item Song,” vocalist Suyasha SenGupta came off stage and mingled with the audience, matching dance steps with an enthusiastic bunch of revelers and more than making up for the time lost at the start, as she’d promised.
The next band that came on stage that chilly evening is probably going to be the next big thing in indie music. When the unassuming duo act Namit Das & Anurag Shanker, featuring the vocalist/actor and guitarist, respectively, introduced their band, little did we know that one song later, theirs would be our most favorite performance in the entire festival. Keeping all frills aside, the duo married poetry with plaintive rock in the most beautiful fashion—while Das sang verses written by him (and those by legends like Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Amir Khusrau), Shanker provided a comfortable bed of strings for them, teasing with a solo here and there ever so slightly.
Mumbai singer-songwriter Ankur Tewari carried the sentiment forward with his own standard set of catchy, poetic ditties. It was only fitting that he dedicated his first song to “Mr. Technical Fuckups because it has been a day of glitches,” and the sprightly “Chand Chahiye” to the stunning full moon. The finale saw Susmit Sen Chronicles revving up some more nostalgia with their folk-fusion fare. The six-member outfit played material from Sen’s 2012 album Depths of the Ocean as well as familiar tunes like “Kandisa” and “Maa Rewa,” to what was by now a remarkably excitable audience that let go of the band only after extracting two encores.
Into The Void might have scored low on many production aspects, but if you looked beyond the unpleasant loos and tardy transport, you saw a festival that made an earnest effort to not only get a badass bunch of performers together but also promise an experience of a lifetime to everyone who came, and for free! We hope their next edition in May, in Silvassa (Dadra and Nagar Haveli), offers similar thrills.