Inadvertent Equality

Five Ways in which the Ziro Festival of Music got Feminism Right!

Discussions on gender diversity are now mainstream  - most of us have attended a diversity seminar, inclusion workshop or gender sensitization trainings. In fact the feminist label is no longer limited to women. And that’s great. But what’s even better, is to stumble upon feminist heaven in an unexpected context – one that was not even aiming for these lofty goals. Enter – the Ziro Festival of Music. 

I had the absolute pleasure of attending this festival for the first time this year, and while I’ve been raving about the scenic setting, the magical music and the amazing attendees – it dawned upon me that another unexpected by-product of being at the festival was me not getting angry about gendered norms for a solid 3-4 days! A hard-to-come-by pleasure, that! And here are five ways in which ZFM accomplished that:

The people who attended it 

About 4000 people attended this festival, set in the scenic Ziro Valley in Arunachal Pradesh, of which a good 50% were women, according to the organizers. It’s not an easy place to reach – it takes most people a trip (by plane mostly, judging by where everyone came from – Bangalore, Mumbai, Chennai mostly) to Guwahati, an Inner Line Permit to enter Arunachal, an overnight train journey from Guwahati, and then a bumpy 5-hour road trip on a shared Sumo to get to Ziro, and a further walk or ride to get to your specific place of stay. So many solo travellers and small groups of women and men became big groups of friends over these few days – travel hardships bond strangers like few other things

The vendors

ZFM did a marvellous job of organizing local vendors to put up their food and drinks for sale. 80% of these stalls were ‘manned’ by women! Not to mention the activities behind the scenes. We stayed at a homestay run by a woman, who also supplied a lot of the plum wine sold at the festival. Oh yeah – that got your attention, didn’t it? Women making and selling all kinds of interesting alcoholic beverages – rice beer, millet beer, kiwi wine, plum wine – sweet, potent and all local!

Women rocking it out on stage

Some of the most memorable bands at the fest (by any standards) featured women. My personal favourite was Soulmate, the blues band from Shillong fronted by the incomparable Rudy Wallang and the powerful Mama “Tips” – Tipriti Kharbangar. Her presence on stage lit the place up the first night of the festival. Similarly, the powerful vocals of Arenla, the lead vocalist of Nagaland’s folk-fusion band Abiogenesis really wowed the crowds, even if the band’s lyrics left something to be desired (“Wah Taj”? Really?!) And the day stage saw some class acts in the form of emerging bluegrass band (yes, bluegrass in India!) “No Strings Attached” featuring lead singer Nobonita’s honeyed voice, and rapper activist Sofia Ashraf from Chennai. 


Imagine the longest ‘snake’ formation you ever saw at a party. Now imagine something longer and prettier, against a really scenic backdrop, and you’ve got “Daminda”. Over 700 local Apatani women formed a long ‘snake’ line and encouraged all of us to join in, in the most ridiculously simple dance ever – and we navigated the festival venue to the peaceful tunes of “Daminda”, the harvest dance. 

Danyi Pillo

I was very taken with the names of the stages at the festival – “Danyi” was the day stage and “Pillo” was the night stage. Later, I found out that Danyi Pillo (meaning ‘sun’ and ‘moon’ respectively) was the name of the local religion. The local Apatani tribe is animistic and they worship nature, primarily Danyi and Pillo! No wonder then, that the place was so brimming with respect for nature, for each other and seemed clean and oh-so-green. Learning about the marriage rituals and other titbits (as much as ‘tourists’ can afford to, without being immersed in the culture), it seemed that ‘bride price’ was common at weddings (where the bridegroom’s family paid a price to the bride’s family, in other words – not dowry!) and that there was an emphasis on equality and consent from both parties and none of the sycophantic ‘pleasing of the ladke waale’ apparent in other patriarchal cultures. What a wonderful idea – w orship nature, respect each other and call it good. That’s a religion I could get behind.

So – there you have it then, a different side of ZFM. The music still is the primary reason to go, of course – but the culture, the people and the setting all blend in to make the festival a one-of-a-kind experience, one brimming with inadvertent equality and joy. 

Dr. Aarti Shyamsunder is an I-O psychologist and has an independent consulting practice based in Bangalore, India. She obtained her Ph.D. and started her career in the U.S., on employee selection and assessment. In 2010, Aarti returned to India, where she led the Infosys Leadership Institute’s efforts to assess and develop its global high-potential leaders. She then worked as Director for Research at Catalyst (India) for three years, conducting and disseminating research on gender diversity and inclusion. In addition to co-authoring book chapters and presenting research at international conferences in the United States, Europe, and India, Aarti has published in peer-reviewed journals and books. She was recognized as one of India’s Future Emerging HR Leaders at the The Are You In The List 2013 Awards.