Sharmila Chauhan mulls over her first foray into the UK’s summer festival scene

British summer time: and that means festival season. And, if I wasn’t Asian – I’d be pitching up my tent in the rain, ankle deep in mud, Hunters at hand.

Yet I’ve never ever been to one. Ever.

It’s not that festivals haven’t interested me – simply that I’ve always been a little afraid of them.

There are around 225 festivals in the UK each summer. Recently there’s been some coverage in the mainstream media about (lack of) inclusivity in terms of race and gender particularly at music festivals. We all know that most headline acts are white and male and that the people who go to festivals are pretty much all from the dominant culture. Even when festivals such as WOMAD and Boomtown are based around artists of colour – there is a massive disparity between who’s on stage and who’s watching.

Historically, festivals have always attracted the outsiders of society – but with the commercialisation of the circuit, it’s money and not culture that’s behind many festivals these days. Remember this summer’s Fyre Festival? Designed to be exclusive, it ended up going bankrupt after charging between 4,000 and 12,000 USD for tickets. There is clearly a class and cultural divide at play.

When I talk to my peers, they’re reluctant too: there are worries around exposing themselves to the cool British summer, the lack of ‘decent’ music, showers and the communal toilets. But the reasons why many people of colour don’t go festivaling aren’t limited to the representation of music acts, or fear of camping. From my parents’ generation there was an unsaid set of rules that says ‘we’ don’t go ‘there’: and for most of my life: I’ve just accepted that this is a thing ‘we’ don’t do.

Despite my apprehension, I do yearn for nature – for its embrace, for its capacity to regenerate. I want to feel communal energy, the community connection. But growing up in the city, I have always felt that the countryside is a scary place – not for its dark woodlands and mourning moors, but because it is not a place that I belong to. And, let’s be honest, I have enough to contend with in London where we’re not even a collective minority.

Then last summer a close friend E. – a fellow artsy, alternative woman of colour, mentioned to me that she’d just come back from the Green Gathering and that I would love it. ‘Totally alternative and more radical than middle class’ was her description. She told me her partner – a Green Party, Rasta-Muslim had given a talk at the festival about the Black Panthers! I told her that a festival feels a little like a football match – just with a more hipster crowd: with lots of people, possibly very drunk – a sip away from some racist slip up. I know that’s not being completely fair. It’s genuinely how I felt.

The website said:  ‘A festival beyond hedonism, powered by wind, sun and people.’ I trusted my friend, we share views on most things: food, child rearing and sex – so I figured she had a handle on what I might like or not. And what might make me feel threatened.

I was ready to get out my wellies and invest in a tent, but my partner yet to be convinced. A British Caribbean guy, he’s a bit resistant to the whole camping thing – rain and he don’t really mix. So we agreed on a compromise – festival by day, hotel by night. As usual – stepping between two worlds.

The forecast said sun. Our son, age 8 and daughter age 2 were in high spirits – this being their first ever festival.  I set off with optimistic. Three hours drive later and we arrive at Chepstow – it is pouring (at one point I swear there were hailstones) and I’m glad I’ve packed the waterproofs.

The minibus takes us up a windy, muddy path, into the hills. En route we learn that everyone working at the festival is a volunteer and that they give their time and expertise in exchange for admission. I’m reassured by this sense of community.

When we arrive people help each other unload camping equipment, food, children and buggies. We descend from our urban space and plant ourselves. The view is breathtaking – clouds low and wide, the curving hills green and soft, tents in yellow and blue shine under sunlight. People, majority white, mill around, chatting, hanging. Though we get a few subtle looks, they are not unkind.

The kids are everywhere – often in groups, roaming the land – barefoot and unattended. They are free and suddenly so are we. Our son finds his friend – and the two disappear into the fields.

We take a tour – there’s a nude sauna, mini golf for the kids, magic mushrooms, craft tents, poetry, talks, and live music. My favourite discovery is the Healing Fields where treatments are available by donation: there’s Ayurveda massage, Alexander technique and Shamanism. There are also tantric discussions, bhajans (South Asian singing sessions) and Taoism. Despite this, there are only two therapists of colour; it feels a little odd.

Of the concerns around visiting festivals – one of biggest is cultural appropriation. Festival-goers are not averse to getting into the spirit by dressing in Native American clothes, black-face and bindis. I was relieved to see that, this space was not a free-fall into ‘ethnic’ caricatures and such appropriation. People seemed much more interested in creating a communal spirit than what they were wearing.

The space is stunning, green for miles: admiring haze where grass and sky meet, I realise I can’t remember the last time I was out of an urban space. Spending so much time in the city it can feel like the countryside is another world – but more deeply, that it doesn’t belong to us. We have no claim on those trees, ponds and lakes. They do not belong to our forefathers or us. The English land itself – away from the concrete and cultural spaces we have shaped ourselves into – can seem more foreign than the people themselves. When I go to India, my feet plant firmly into the soil – that land, the very dust of it – is somewhere, somehow mine. But here, the greenery feels distant. I felt more exposed, less British and suddenly more Indian.

Our friends have a tent – something small and perhaps a little inadequate for the weather. But I’m impressed. They’re cold at night and the rain’s leaked in. Nonetheless, they’re cheerful and it isn’t long before we’ve sketched out a loose plan – healing fields, visit to the red tent for menstruating and pregnant women (we have two eligible in our group), drink at the bar – organic elderflower beer anyone?

I turn to spot old friends from London, who we haven’t seen in at least a year or so. They’re regular festival-goers: they’ve come in a crew with camper vans and have set up a little spot on the other side of the festival where it’s quieter.  They’ve been trying to get us to go with them for years. Our crew, all of us of colour and theirs mostly white, congregate and chat. All the kids run off to play: to them it’s all the same thing. But for me, I know this is something new.

Nightfall and the festival takes light, there’s a large communal fire and storytelling about the Native American tribe: the Hopi people. Then the usual: all night music, alcohol, mushrooms and weed. None of it crazy and overwhelming, just part of the process. The kids are exhausted. So as our friends take to their tents and campervans we get back in the car.

All the hotels are booked up, but I finally found a spot in a former palace (yes, I’m shameless) – ten minutes’ drive from the festival. It is divinely comfortable. The next morning, a hot shower and breakfast – we return. Our friends – have had a bad night: the music went on until about 4am and people were walking through the campsite at all hours – it had also been wet and very, very cold. At this point, I must admit – I felt a little less guilty about our nocturnal getaway.

The day continues and time slows to treacle – I suddenly realise that for the first time in a very long while: I’m present. Not in a focusing, ‘trying to be mindful’ kind of way – but just in the doing, in the breathing of clear space, in the observing of things – I’m here right now. I haven’t checked my phone in hours and I don’t miss it. We get some treatments, I check into Amma’s (the Hindu saint or Hugging Guru as she’s known) tent and listen to bhajans. The mix of the devotional songs, kids playing, and the sun on my back – gives me a sense rightness: all is well – just right now, in this moment.

We check out the eateries; vegan breakfasts, avo-toast, home made Chelsea buns, vegan lemon cake, coffee, and chai. And the best food? A dosa place of course! A twinge of concern again: the people cooking were South Asian, but the people selling were not.

Amongst the crowds we are an obvious minority. There were moments where we are stared at or even straight up disrespected. But we’re old hands at that type of thing. Speaking to Shane Collin (Green Gathering’s director) about diversity – he was very clear:

All nations are welcome and all nations are needed. Our planet is the one lifeboat in our universe and we are all in it together…

Of the people of colour I see, many are in white-mixed relationships, I wonder if this makes it easier for them to enter the space. There is a crew of Black British people who are helping out as staff: who like the minibus driver and other volunteers, get free entry in return for their time.

We try to get back to the old idea of a festival of participation and involvement as opposed to consumption and payment, so so not having the £100 ticket fee is simply an invitation to be part of thousands of people who make the Green Gathering happen each year by giving your most precious resource – your time and skills.

This ethos does open the festival out to a different demographic, but I wonder whether it might create divisions between those that paid and those that don’t. Short of making festival tickets free or providing bursaries though, it seems a positive step.

Looking at the line-up I noted a pretty mixed selection of genres. Yet there were few music acts and performances by artists of colour: including the aptly named Indian Man and poet Salena Godden. Talks focused mostly on environmental and political topics, with a couple of presentations looking at racism and culture. I appreciated the possibility of engaging with topics that affect all humanity, but I would like to see a broader balance of speakers in future.

Overall there is a feeling of communal kinship, of people trying to help each other and at the very least be peaceful. There was a sense of attendees wanting to be more than the sum of what they are.

As this summer closes, I remember how I good I felt at the festival. That as I left, I felt steadier in the soil and in my heart. Finding spaces where we can meet others and mingle, but also consider larger issues collectively, is now more important than ever.

So as I yearn for a land, a land I can belong to, I wonder if maybe, for now, this is it.

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Sharmila Chauhan is a screenwriter, playwright and prose writer: Her work is often a transgressive meditation on love, sex and an exploration of the diasporic experience. She is particularly interested in the intersection of sex, power and gender. Find more of her work at sharmilathewriter.com

Featured image from greengathering.org.uk


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