With bands like Indian Ocean, music festival in Ladakh seeks to celebrate our soldiers

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In the 1962 war against China, 114 brave Indian soldiers sacrificed their lives fighting up to 1300 Chinese soldiers at Rezang La, a mountain road near Ladakh, against all odds in a memorable last stand. According to legend, a Ladakhi shepherd went there a few months later and found their bodies speared in the snow, still holding their weapons. “I was mesmerized by the story,” says singer/songwriter Joi Barua. “If that doesn’t move me, I’m not an artist.”

Today, Rezang La is the site of a war memorial commemorating fallen heroes. It will host the final of the first Ladakh International Music Festival (LIMF) from April 30 to May 2, organized in collaboration between the Indian army and Picturetime, an inflatable theater company, with the support of Sky2Ocean, a group led by veterans. Well-known artists including Indian Ocean, the Tetseo Sisters, Barua and Parashara will perform at the four-day event, first at the Col stadium. Sonam Wangchuk in Leh, then at the war memorial. Army bands and local artists from Ladakhi, such as Da-Shugs and Faisal Ashoor, among others, are also expected to take the stage each day.

Major General Akash Kaushik, Chief of Staff of the Fire & Fury Corps, himself a big fan of rock music and someone who plays the guitar, tells me how the festival was born. “We felt that Ladakhi children had not had the chance to attend a rock festival, especially in the past two years. I see that the children of Ladakh are very modern in their vision, their fashion. But there’s no big band gig, no record [discotheque], in Ladakh. And we wanted to show the talent here to the rest of the country. We thought, ‘How can we link these two together?’ That’s how the idea germinated. Conversations with Sushil Chaudhary, founder and CEO of Picturetime, with whom they had worked for a film festival, led to plans for an initial three-year run. “This all happened in the last 45 days,” says Chaudhary. “We wanted to involve the locals. We watch 3-5,000 people every day – locals, soldiers, tourists.

Sushil Chaudhary; Photo by Kabita

The military will provide logistical support, with Picturetime handling the technical side of concert production. It’s a challenge, given that Rezang La sits at an elevation of around 17,000 feet, with diminishing oxygen, dropping temperatures, and fickle winds. “The wind doesn’t know which way to blow! So we prepare a square stage, with the top of the mountain as a backdrop, which we can adjust according to the wind,” says Chaudhary.

Joi Barua, also program director of LIMF, traveled to Ladakh with Chaudhary ahead of the festival, and the inspiring stories he heard about the soldiers led to the idea for a patriotic anthem, a musical tribute to the soldiers of Rezang La, which will be premiered at the festival. It was conceptualized and composed by Barua – whom Chaudhary considers a unique storyteller – with lyrics by longtime collaborator Ibson Lal Baruah. When thinking of the ’62 war, the mind often goes to “Aye Mere Watan Ke Logo”, written by Kavi Pradeep to commemorate Indian soldiers. This new song, rooted in rock music and still untitled, is an attempt to understand the psychology of the soldier, to present the soldier as a real human being of great resilience and commitment.

Barua, who grew up in Assam with the music of Bhupen Hazarika and John Lennon, is someone who seeks to speak the truth – of real struggles, protests, battlefields, conflict zones – through his music. “I wanted to pay homage to them where the conflict happened. I understand life here is different. When there’s a lone man with a gun at 17,000 feet, over potentially hostile borders, who doesn’t never met me but who is willing to take a bullet for me. I wanted to celebrate the spirit of this soldier,” he said.

The Indian Army’s rich tradition of military band music is widely celebrated, but what is less well known is a deep love for musical traditions around the world. “You would be surprised,” says Major-General Kaushik. “Many army officers are avid rock music fans. They form their own groups locally. To combat boredom in remote and isolated spaces, many of us take musical instruments. And there are performances by “jazz bands”, perhaps a colloquial misnomer carried over from a bygone era – bands that play English or Bollywood music today – at “Bada Khanas”, gatherings communities around collective meals, for entertainment. A few of these bands are also set to perform at the festival, along with a “ghost band show”, where the band will take the stage at night in Rezang La lit by LED lights, performing in front of a crowd of soldiers.

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