When the Magnetic Fields community learnt of the first-ever “Magnetic Fields Nomads Festival” — a version of the event adapted for the COVID-19 era — taking place in Ranthambore, Rajasthan, in March 2021, the news was met with delight and disbelief. While the past year has stripped audiences of the opportunities to enjoy live events, festivals such as Magnetic Fields are trying new approaches that might serve as blueprints for others.

Let’s go back to the start

It was in 2013 that a group of friends came together with an idea that had been on their minds for a while. Sarah Chawla, one of the founders of Wild City and Magnetic Fields, describes it as a feeling that the festival music scene in India at the time did not reflect or harness the incredible creative energy being witnessed in the sectors of music, events and design. Sarah’s definition of a music festival — “a playground where we get to immerse ourselves in friendship, music, discovery, adventure and surprise” — is just what Magnetic Fields came to be, arising out of discussions between Wild City, THOT Media, Kunal Lodhia, Smita Singh and Abhimanyu Alsisar, whose ancestral home became the event’s iconic venue. The heritage architecture and traditional hospitality of Alisar Mahal juxtaposed with the contemporary and cutting edge in the Indian (and international) music scene, would come to encapsulate the quintessential Magnetic Fields experience.

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Above: Daytime view of Nahargarh Ranthambore property. All photos © Polina Schapova.

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Nash performing at the Ray-Ban Studios Den.

“There was a gap in the market left by other festivals at the time, which were mainly commercial, focused entirely on music, and held in huge open spaces. We wanted to create a more intimate and immersive festival experience, which would focus on all kinds of other creative aspects, not only on the music, adding experiences such as interactive art installations, dinner parties, wellness workshops and so on,” says Kunal Lodhia, co-founder and creative director of Magnetic Fields. Eight years on, what started tentatively in 2013 with 350 attendees grew into India’s premier boutique festival; the 2019 edition of the festival saw 5,000 attendees over three days.

Niharika Jain, a Delhi-based graphic designer who has attended every edition of the Magnetic Fields festival from 2014 onwards, observed that live performances by global artists such as Four Tet, Teebs, Ratatat, Marabou State, Mala, Daisuke Tanabe was educational for Indian music lovers. DJ MoCity, a Delhi-based DJ, radio host, promoter and label owner who has played at every edition of Magnetic Fields from 2014 onwards, as well as at this year’s Nomads festival says that as “the first location-driven festival in India, it became a gateway for Indian audiences to discover and explore the alternative electronic music scene, with its multidimensional music programming”. “As the festival expanded over the years, it continued to attract new people, opening up access to this privileged scene, inspiring other promoters and paving the way for other festivals to spring up,” MoCity notes.

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Seen here: Peacock Club entrance.

The COVID-19 conundrum, and beyond

The coronavirus pandemic has devastated the live events industry around the world. A year on, with many countries facing multiple waves of the pandemic and rolling out vaccination programmes at varying speeds, we are finally starting to see the first tentative steps being taken towards a resurgence of live events.

In Europe, as part of a research project looking into the viability of hosting COVID-secure live events with mass attendance, two pilot events were recently held: a two-day music festival in Biddinghuizen near Amsterdam, attended by 1,500 people; and a one-night only concert in Barcelona attended by 5,000 people — one of the largest mass gatherings in Europe in over a year. Both events were closely monitored and required a COVID negative test to enter. The Barcelona event involved same-day rapid testing, while in the Dutch event, attendees were equipped with motion sensors in order to allow researchers to study group dynamics. All attendees were made aware of the risks of participating in the experiment and agreed that they would be tested in the days and weeks after the event to ascertain whether or not cases of COVID-19 were being spread as a result of festival attendance. If it is established that COVID cases did not rise as a result, these pilot events could be used as models to pave the way forward for the resurgence of other COVID-safe live events around the world.

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Sunset view of the Nomads festival venue.

While vaccinations may be the only viable way to attend mass events, let’s take a quick look at the status of major music festivals: In the US, Coachella and Stage Coach have cancelled their 2021 editions; in the UK, where nearly 50 percent of the population has received the first dose, several festivals are on course to open their doors this summer, albeit with COVID precautions in place. The Creamfields, Leeds, Reading, Isle of White and Wireless festivals are all still on course for their 2021 editions. Glastonbury, which was originally cancelled for this year, recently announced that a shorter, two-day edition might be considered in September.

Most festivals are at this stage considering a combined approach of allowing entry to anyone who can show a COVID negative test, prove that they have been vaccinated, or show proof that they have recently had COVID and therefore, have antibodies. Timed and staggered entries of attendees; contactless ticketing and payment; effective contact tracing; and reminders for mask wearing, sanitiser use and social distancing, are all measures that could be used.

As with any new problem, novel solutions are required. Often it is smaller scale festivals, like Magnetic Fields, that are able to try out such innovative approaches to the problem to see what works.

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In this image: Artist Sachin Samson sketching Kaleekarma during her set at the Jameson Sundowner Stage.

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A wellness workshop taught by Shalini Sarena in progress.

Nomadic transformation

After cancelling the 2020 edition of Magnetic Fields due to the pandemic, the organisers announced the first-ever Nomads (because it’s a ‘nomadic’ version of the original) festival for March 2021: a more intimate iteration that moves from one venue to another, cherrypicks the best of Magnetic Fields but on a much smaller scale and setting, to ensure a COVID-safe festival experience. The new location was the Nahargarh Ranthambore, and the number of people (including attendees, staff, crew and artists) was capped at 400. Everyone was to stay onsite through the festival’s three days, and produce a negative COVID PCR test report taken a maximum of 48 hours before entering the venue. Test reports were validated by festival staff, and if this could not be successfully carried out, attendees would be turned away.

So what was the Nomads experience actually like? It was more relaxed and less hectic than its bigger cousin; a more sustainable way of partying, suitable for an audience which has grown up along with Magnetic Fields over its eight-year journey.

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Seen here: Shantanu Pandit performing at the Peacock Club.

Rahul Chhabb, an audio artist who is part of the electronic music outfit Regenerate (among the performers at this year’s festival), felt Nomads showed that small scale festivals can — and do — work.

The effort put into making the festival COVID-safe was evident: Digital wrist band payment systems replaced the previous festival currency; COVID safety awareness, guidelines and protocol were communicated via the website, social media, and communicated personally to all attendees; and the festival welcome kit for attendees included reusable masks and hand sanitiser.

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Above: Peacock Club’s famous disco ball.

Elizabeth Puranam, a journalist and first-time Magnetic Fields attendee, said, “At no time did I feel like I was in a crowd of people, or in any way unsafe, especially since all activities took place within the festival bubble.” She added that Nomads’ approach towards festival COVID safety could be used as a model for future events.

A report by UK Music expressed confidence that health risks can be managed at future festivals, but demanded that the UK government introduce and underwrite COVID cancellation insurance in order to provide a safety net of sorts for event organisers and inject a much-needed boost of confidence into the struggling live events industry. Australian events companies are lobbying for a similar government underwritten insurance scheme. Whether or not governments step up remains to be seen; in the meantime, festivals across the world — like Magnetic Fields — will continue to find the safest paths forward.

— Banner image: Peter Cat Recording Co performing at the Peacock Club.

Polina Schapova is a Mumbai-based Russian-British photographer. Follow her work on Instagram or on her website.