Rising from undulating red sands dotted with Kherji trees, the small town of Alsisar in the Shekhawati region of Rajasthan emerges like an oasis in the desert, the domed peaks of its 17th-century palace declaring the end to a journey that began earlier that day in India’s smog-choked capital and marking the beginning of a weekend like no other. Home to just over 5,000 inhabitants, for three days in December the population of Alsisar swells to almost double when revellers from all corners of India and beyond make the pilgrimage to Magentic Fields, one of the sub-continent’s most boundary-pushing music and arts events.
The palace, Alsisar Mahal, takes centre stage at Magnetic Fields, providing not only the backdrop but the beating heart of the festival. Pointed arches and Indo-Islamic silhouettes recall Rajasthan’s rich and royal history, while cool marble floors and kaleidoscopic interiors – decorated according to the traditions of the region’s hand-painted havelis – seduce the senses. I am one of a privileged few who is able to call a palace room home for the few days I am there, and the irrefutable luxury of the sumptuous surrounds, sense of space and sizzling hot shower is not lost on me, particularly when compared to regular festival digs.
The sun is setting by the time my friends and I emerge from our stately refuge, snatching any warmth from the crisp, cloudless sky as it descends beneath the distant desert horizon. We make our way onto the roof of the palace, where Abhimanyu Alsisar, the Raja of Khetri, owner of the palace and co-organizer of the festival – or, simply, “the Prince” – introduces traditional Indian folk musicians. Illuminated only by the sunset’s pastel afterglow, each performer takes a turn to showcase their instrument, from single-stringed lutes to the mashak or bagpipe, and the rhythmic, mesmeric sounds they produce hypnotize the audience huddled cross-legged on carpets before them.
Instilled with a profound sense of calm I would not have thought possible when departing New Delhi that morning, we venture off to feast upon gobi paratha and wood-fired pizza, and not for the last time that weekend. Whether plant-based or allergic to clean eating, Magnetic Fields caters to all tastes, and this generosity of spirit is as true of libations as it is of eats, with cocktails made to order in the palace’s dungeon bar and a not-so-secret pop-up featuring generous pours of Monkey 47 gin mixed by Arijit Bose, alum of one of the best bars in the world, Singapore’s 28 Hongkong Street.
On the first evening, we center our bacchanalia within the palace grounds, bouncing from live acts on the Bira 91 South Stage to DJ sets at the Red Bull Music Academy North Stage, located within a grand courtyard that becomes part of the performances as meticulously planned projections pick out architectural details with mind-melting precision and fluidity. Jayda G’s beatific good vibes and an unexpected but infectious UK garage set at the Bira 91 Freeflow Garden keep us going and warm until bed beckons in the early hours.
The following days are spent at a leisurely pace: finding common ground with new friends, soaking in the sun and grazing on organic Turkish fare, while never getting used to the breathtaking panoramic vistas from the palace roof. Nourishment for the soul comes courtesy of the festival’s spoken word program, Magnetic Words, as well as wellness offerings at Magnetic Sanctuary, where attendees are able to recharge and relax through yoga, aromatherapy, massage and more.
Later in the afternoons we venture into the desert, roaming the vast yet ephemeral bedouin village where most of the festival-goers lay their heads, or finding ourselves in the silky confines of the jazz bar, The Golden Peacock, but always returning to the roof to watch the sun sink into the sands.
Musically the highlights are many and multi-faceted, perhaps eclipsed by the audiovisual composition that is Different Trains 47 – a collaborative effort from Actress, Jack Barnett from These New Puritans, Indian producer Sandunes, percussionist Jivraj Singh and vocalist Priya Purushothaman, as well as artist-filmmakers Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard. The resulting piece is visceral and moving, delving into the events surrounding the partition of India through archive footage and abstract soundscapes spliced with audio interviews of those who lived through the events of 1947, all with reverence, respect and artistry.
At once arresting and beautiful, it embodies all that is attractive about Magnetic Fields. It is considered, intelligent and gracious, a space – both figurative and literal – in which thousands gather and are united by a common cause. And while the palace might be its beating heart, the hard work of the organizers and the singular spirit of the crowd are what keep it dancing throughout the star-splashed night.