What the Global Citizen Festival looked like from the cheap seats.
This was billed as a day of hope - a celebration of optimism, and empathy, and concern.
The idea was simple - noble, even: use Coldplay’s star power to encourage their fans to become more conscientious, considerate citizens. Combine the forces of celebrity, music, and corporate responsibility to change this country for the better.
But despite all the excitement and goodwill around the event, the reality on ground was something else entirely. It was a classic Indian scene. Up front: the haves, enjoying a luxury experience.
Can you see anything...except me?
And far behind them, barricaded half a world away: the have-nots. It was almost as if there were two events happening simultaneously: one in which a lucky minority got to experience a music festival; and another, in which thousands more watched, from a neighbouring postcode, as their peers enjoyed themselves.
Coldplay fans, standing in an adjacent zipcode
Most of the audience, presumably gathered here to witness their heroes in the flesh, could see nothing. The performers on stage were pinpricks on the horizon, visible only rarely through the endless throngs. The only way to see anything was to gaze at a screen: but really, why brave the heat and the crowds to look at a screen? Why wasn’t the stage elevated high enough so that everyone could see?
The line for food. Good luck
The same problem that has plagued Mumbai’s festival scene for years was again evident here: the majority of the audience was simply underserved, forced to wait in endless lines for food and water. Sadly, even here, at an event that trumpeted importance of cleanliness, the trash piles grew ever larger.
So much for cleanliness
Ordinary people, the volunteers and music fans who couldn’t afford Rs. 50,000 seats were taken for granted. They were only there so that the aerial footage of the event, broadcast online and on television, looked spectacular. They weren’t global citizens: they were marginalized citizens; extras in this great charade.
A few minutes into Jay-Z’s performance, I’d had enough. Hot and bothered and utterly fed up, I hailed a rickshaw, and sped home, as fast as I could. Maybe I was too frustrated by the whole thing, but I couldn’t bear the idea of hearing ‘Paradise’ live for the first time in a dusty BKC parking lot.
The producers of the event, so adept at pulling in sponsors to monetize the show, were equally content to scrimp on the experience, using ancient, rusted scaffolding, and bamboo lane barriers. Where was the ‘festival’ experience that had been promised? What is the point of bringing world-class acts to India if we’re going to subject ordinary people to a third-class experience? Had alcohol been served, there would have been crowd trouble, guaranteed.
Spot the performer...if you can
It was much easier to enjoy the show while sitting at home, watching on television. I switched on my TV just in time to catch the Prime Minister, initially scheduled to appear in person, make an 11-minute speech via video conference.
As the crowd chanted Modi! Modi! the scene briefly took on a semi-dystopian tone. What had been marketed as an evening of apolitical, socially beneficial entertainment was now distinctly political. The face on screen, flanked by flags, was that of our all-knowing, all-seeing Big Brother Prime Minister, here in his benevolent avatar, offering words of comfort and inspiration to thousands of young voters.
Some viewed Modi’s absence as a disappointment — to them, he was just another celebrity on the bill — perhaps the biggest of them all. Modi! they chanted, and laughed at his jokes, perhaps unaware that they were being seduced.
“I congratulate Gowri Ishwaran, Poonam Mahajan, and the many others who have worked hard to put this together,” the Prime Minister said. “To make public policy cool is no mean task.”
“Thank you guys for having me over. It was smart in only asking me to address the gathering, and not sing, or I’m pretty sure your audience would ask for its money back. That too,” he added, “in hundred rupee notes,” as the crowd laughed.
“My dear young friends, on the whole, I’m convinced that we can and we will, do a Swacch Bharat, free of all forms of filth, within one generation.”
Mr. Modi then went on to quote lyrics from Bob Dylan and Coldplay in his speech.
He was followed by Coldplay’s performance: spectacular and magical, with Chris Martin masterful at the centre of it all, full of irrepressible nice-guy charm, and relentless optimism.
Why pay to watch Amitabh on a screen
As the crowd clung to his words, and sung together, it was impossible not to be moved, despite the political theatre that had come before it. Seventy thousand people: eyes closed, singing together, united by song. Full of optimism and hope, temporarily buoyed with kindness and empathy.
Martin was irresistibly charismatic, and boundlessly energetic: filled, it seemed, with a burning desire to come across as the sweetest man on Planet Earth.
But when the last note faded, and the lights switched off, the fundamental question remained unanswered. Had this been a truly non-governmental exercise, organised by and for independent, free-thinking citizens? Or was it yet another attempt, in these increasingly uncertain times, to ensure that everything — not even music, or charity, will ever be free of politics and propaganda?
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101India.com.
By Kunal Bambawale
Photographs by Kunal Bambawale