Not Just Another Beach Bash

Why the organisers of a ‘charity’ music festival were ejected from a World Heritage Site on their ear

The ‘Ujaan: Festival for the Sunderbans’, stands postponed until further notice. WWW.UJAANFESTIVAL.ORG
01 April, 2011

A THREE-DAY ROCK CONCERT, Ujaan, conceived by a bunch of youngsters with their headquarters in Kolkata, aimed to bring together “artists, musicians, thinkers, activists and organizations” from around the globe in an attempt to draw attention to the impending crisis in the Sunderbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Repeatedly devastated by cyclonic storms, the last of which, a severe tropical cyclone named Aila, tore the region apart in 2009, leaving over a million people homeless, the Sunderban delta also faces the grave threat of obliteration due to rising sea levels. Ujaan, primarily focused on music, hoped to raise considerable funds to help and support ‘developmental projects’ in the area.

The first instalment of the festival, announced on Facebook late last year, was supposed to take place from 10-12 March 2011 in Frasergunj, a sleepy fishing village a stone’s throw from the forests of the Sunderbans. The exact reason for settling on this spot was unclear, and somewhat fashionably whimsical. On their website, detailing the journey that led to the conceptualisation of the show, the Ujaan team emphasised the unsullied beauty of the beaches and the welcoming warmth of the locals as crucial influences on their decision. “Lined with casuarina trees, the 7 km beach stretching from Bakkhali to Frasergunj is the location we have fixed upon the site for the festival pleasantly gushes like a mother about her newborn. Here the sea is calm, the beach is clean and the people are beautiful,” the site read.

As the word about Ujaan got around, echoing wildly through the corridors of the Internet, the festival of fantasies soon got bigger, leaping within days from a flickering flame into a forest fire. Interest poured in from all quarters, hefty sponsorships smoothed over any remaining obstacles, and potential spectators posted appreciative comment after comment on the festival’s interactive forums. Countless postcard photographs of Frasergunj locals, duly attached with description notes egging us on to “look at them smile, see how they fly”, and “meet them at workshops and training sessions in their schools, community and spaces”, swarmed our Facebook homepages. As the frenzy peaked, tickets, priced at an immodest `2,000, trickled out steadily.

And then, just as the excited ticketholders prepared to pack their bags for the festival, a spanner suddenly appeared in the works: a few individuals let it be known that international organisations like Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund, which had been advertised as associates of the festival, were, in fact, not involved.

All hell broke loose, and even staunch allies of the project turned circumspect. Outpours of a different kind, from people not so thrilled about a three-day musical expedition to pristine beaches populated by ‘beautiful’ fisherfolk, also surfaced unceremoniously. The issues raised by this community were pertinent and concerned matters which had hitherto been shockingly ignored. What was the ecological viability of organising a sizeable music festival in an area as ecosensitive as the Sunderban region? Why was the event catering to an elite urban audience, unabashedly excluding the locals, while being held at Frasergunj for the latter’s great cause? “We do not wish to hold a concert for the locals, but for an urban, educated audience...that will be able to influence the changes required at the very top,” said the festival note.

Questions followed questions until what began as an online query and descended into a virtual squabble soon snowballed into a full-fledged catfight between ‘us’ and ‘them’.

As of today, ‘Ujaan: Festival for the Sunderbans’, stands “postponed” until further notice, ostensibly due to a sudden rescheduling of the Madhyamik Exams in West Bengal. The use of loudspeakers of any kind is prohibited during state board examinations.

The larger issue here is not the unintended, and potentially damaging, mistakes of a group of undoubtedly hardworking, eager youth. Rather, this fiasco underscores a trend that has come to stealthily influence our everyday liberal, urban motivations. One of the accepted universal axioms to which we abide is that ‘charity equals noble intentions’. And yet, contrary to altruistic preaching, charity is and has always been a ferociously economic phenomenon. In recent years, the international economy has attempted to merge good old consumption with the more noble notion of ‘doing something good’ and ‘giving back to the society’ with seamless precision. Barely a day goes by, therefore, when we do not in some way ‘contribute’ to society. Even buying daily necessities such as washing powder and shampoo helps us help the ‘underprivileged’ at no extra cost. Today you can help save a child’s life by clicking a button on Twitter; stop child prostitution and child pornography by buying a hand cream; buy a bar of chocolate and help build a better future for children in Africa; or attend a hip, wannabe Woodstock-like carnival and help save the Sunderbans.

In 1985, with the ‘Live Aid’ concert, Bob Geldof established the blueprint for the archetypal charity music show. Organised to raise funds for the Ethiopian famine, Live Aid proved hugely successful, raising more than $80 million for famine relief. Geldof enjoyed another success in 2005 with Live 8, a series of concerts dedicated to raising awareness about poverty in Africa, but came under fire when it was revealed that almost no African musicians had been included in the original concert lineup.

Surprisingly, Ujaan elicits similar suspicions—surprising because the Ujaan festival wasn’t an intercontinental affair and hardly parallelled the disparate and complex geopolitical equations between the developed world and the developing world that impelled Live Aid.

But perhaps what binds these two concerts—one legendary, the other a nonstarter—is the keen notion of ‘difference’ that characterised the organisers of both events. If the Eurocentrism of the Live Aid/Live 8 mega-bashes resembles the familiar guilt of the ‘white man’s burden’, the motives of the young Ujaan team seem compromised by a blatant ‘saviour syndrome’. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Ujaan’s list of ‘developmental projects’. Their rather unfeasible (if not downright ridiculous) ideas include providing the Frasergunj locals with everything from educational institutions to waste-management solution programmes and advanced medical facilities. Finally, what Ujaan says it aims to ‘help’ the locals to do is “sustain both themselves and their environment”.

So much for so little—just a regular, run-of-the-mill beach party.