The Coldplay concert takeaway: India invests in pop culture

The debut edition of the Global Citizen Festival will see British rock band Coldplay's first-ever performance in India. Photograph:( AFP )

WION New Delhi, Delhi, India Sep 13, 2016, 10.26 AM (IST) Nishtha Gautam
Somebody seems to have held the Indian Prime Minister to his promise of 'ease of doing business'.  As per reports, the much awaited Coldplay concert, now happening in November this year, has been made possible by Narendra Modi's intervention. What more, belying the earlier rumours about exorbitantly priced tickets, Global Citizen has confirmed that the concert will be free. The fans will need to earn the tickets by pledging their support and working for Global Citizen's campaign programmes in India. Free tickets for free labour? Global Citizen's CEO Hugh Evans and Coldplay's Chris Martin have met Modi in the past year and a half. 

Not everyone is as lucky as them. 

It is no secret that organising a world-class concert or a gig in any of the Indian cities is nothing short of a nightmare for the organisers and artists. Mumbai, for instance, has earned a nasty reputation for cancelling some high profile gigs in the recent times including the standup comedy act of Seinfeld. Not only are there infrastructural hassles and bureaucratic labyrinths, over-the-top politicking plays a great role in causing fans great disappointment. In 2013 there was a huge furore over Zubin Mehta's concert in Jammu and Kashmir. The naysayers alleged that it was an exercise in obfuscation of troubled reality of the region on the part of the Indian government. There have been routine protests against the Pakistani artistes, including the ghazal maestro Ghulam Ali whose concerts in Mumbai and Delhi were called off more than once. 
Dealing with traffic woes, waterlogging, sanitation issues and lack of basic amenities, none of the Indian cities seems smart enough to deal with performances that draw large crowds. The onus is usually on the organisers to ensure that the event concludes without any untoward incidents.

The lack of state of art venues in most Indian cities makes the task of artists and organisers even more difficult since technical support also needs to be arranged by them. 

Requesting to remain anonymous, a Delhi Based event organiser shares that it is far more difficult to obtain permissions for a music gig than a religious congregation. Norms are relaxed for the latter. While loudspeakers can go on well past the permitted time at weddings and religious functions, police are way tougher on law enforcement when it comes to gigs. One set of rules for entertainment-related events and another for religious-spiritual ones. On condition of anonymity, another organiser reveals how black money involved in this line makes it prohibitively expensive for most people to undertake such 'a painful journey.'

Sounds a bit unfair? Wait till Vijay Nair, the founder of Mumbai-based entertainment company OML, speaks about the licensing process. “Unlike any other industry, the licence is issued on the day of the show. All the investment has been made, the artists are waiting but there's no show! This system encourages graft because on the day of the show if the licence does not come through organisers may try to obtain it by way of bribes,” shares Nair. He adds, “What is allowed and what is not is subjective and open to interpretation. If there were clearly defined parameters, like in other countries, the organisers would work within them and avoid last minute surprises.” On the upcoming Coldplay show, Nair says, “It has become a lot easier to put together a show of this scale because the government has become an organising partner. In the absence of such a partnership, a standalone organiser will always find it a lot more difficult.”  
Unlike any other industry, the licence is issued on the day of the show. All the investment has been made, the artists are waiting but there's no show! This system encourages graft because on the day of the show if the licence does not come through organisers may try to obtain it by way of bribes

In a terror attack-prone country like India, security is a serious issue. However, organisers rue that it is often used as an alibi to deny permissions. In the case of New Delhi, where the police do not report to the state government, there is an added layer of procedural woes. Responding to the question on delays and extortions in the name of out-of-turn permissions, Madhur Verma , DCP North Delhi District says that it is not possible to grant permission for a cultural event when it clashes with a law and order deployment or a traditional religious ceremony. He adds that it is not just a matter of clearing a file. The police have to ensure safety and deployments need to be made accordingly. A heavily overburdened police force needs to prioritise. On the issue of relaxation for religious events, Verma clarifies that only traditional events and processions are allowed. He also shared how most organisers apply for permissions very close to the date when ideally they should do it one month in advance in the case of ticketed events. 

Mumbai-based stand up comic and writer Varun Grover says that bureaucratic hassles in organising live performances put the artists under duress. “A performer should be worrying only about polishing his act and not whether the gig will come through at all. You don't want to bother yourself about such things. In the event of delays and cancellations there are financial consequences too,” states Grover. Talking of comic performances he flags another problem which is specific to Mumbai: the censorship law. For any theatre performance, the script needs to be submitted for approval. “Even though stand-up comedy is not theatre, we need to submit and stick to the script and we can be prosecuted should we deviate!”   

While it is admirable that the government has shown interest in cultivating pop culture through active participation, how many events can the government co-host? Or should it co-host at all? In addition to the intangible gains, encouraging cultural festivals and performances of all hues and colours makes good business sense. Investing in infrastructure and streamlining the processes shall go a longer way in reaping the recurring benefits.