A backpackers guide to clubbing in India

India is a land of intrigue for many. A hodgepodge of languages, cultures and religions, of exotic foods and exotic animals, of gold-plated temples and slums built from cardboard, of cliches and surprises. Simply wandering through chaotic urban alleyways or dusty rural roads is a mind blowing, enriching, confronting enough experience. But being the whisky-swilling, beat-loving club rat that I am, I want a little more. I want to see India party. Follow me on my odyssey from the jungles of Goa to cosmopolitan Delhi, as I mingle with the dance music faithful, and search for the best nights out India has to offer.

Goa

I begin my search in Goa, the tiny ex-Portuguese colony on India’s west coast, famed for its beach parties and psytrance. Seems like a pretty logical starting point.

Problem is, it’s off season in Goa. Blame the torrential summer monsoon; there’s not much on at this time of year. I do meet a few Indian dance music devotees in my hostel though. Mayank hails from Delhi, via Manchester, where he works as an agent for go-go dancers, in partnership with festivals such as Electric Daisy Carnival. He finds a beach party on Friday night, and tries to call me to give me directions. Unfortunately his phone can’t hold reception, so it’s beers at the hostel for me tonight.

The following day, I meet a Goa local called Nu. She promises to take me to a club where I can see the “real Goa”, the one that only appears in the off season when the tourists disappear. Sounds good to me.

We slurp a few cans of Bira (a hugely popular local beer made with Belgian wheat and Himalayan hops) and drive out to Cafe Cotinga, in between the village of Vagator and the famous Anjuna Beach. Which brings me to the first major issue plaguing Indian nightlife: drink driving is rampant. Goa is a very remote state, a collection of villages with little connecting infrastructure. The locals know they shouldn’t drink drive, but they do it anyway.

Cotinga oozes class, with an airy socialite vibe reminiscent of Pike’s Hotel in Ibiza. A sprawling outdoor dining area features a small stage and a bar, populated by Goa’s young and beautiful, with a smattering of eccentric expats. The drink prices are steep; I pay 750 rupees for a whisky (about £7.50). Despite this, everyone is wasted. Nu has simply walked in with her can of Bira, and regularly returns to her car to grab another. No-one says anything about it.

I was promised techno music. Instead, there’s a 2 piece rock band on the stage; a bass guitarist and a singer with a voice that sounds uncannily like Jim Morrison of the Doors. He also plays chords on a heavily distorted electric keyboard. When they finish, another rock band – a more conventional 3 piece this time – plays for a couple of hours on another stage in a room inside.

Rock music was my first great love, and I dance and have an enjoyable time. But it’s not exactly what I was searching for. Proceedings wrap up just after midnight, and after a terrifying, drunken ride back to my hostel, I write Goa off as a miss, and look ahead to what Mumbai can offer me next weekend.

Mumbai

India’s largest city, still referred to by its former colonial name of Bombay by many Indian nationals, is the definition of sensory overload. Home to the world’s largest film industry, the world’s most expensive private dwelling, as well as the world’s third largest slum, where nearly a million residents are crammed into an area smaller than London’s Square Mile. Glamorous apartment buildings rise up from streets piled with rotting garbage. Vendors peddle pungent fly-blown food, right outside diamond showrooms. You get the idea.

Fellow Decoded Magazine writer Priya Sen links me up with promoter Vinay Khilnani. Vinay is hosting a night at Kitty Su, in the affluent suburb of Andheri. A rickshaw drops me to the front gate of the very swanky LaLit hotel just after 11pm. There’s a small slum out the front of the hotel. Kitty Su is on the side of the building, its facade dressed in rusted sheets of iron, lending it the appearance of a slum building itself. I’m not entirely sure that it’s a very tasteful look given the surroundings, but I’m here for partying, not politics.

Inside, Kitty Su is possibly the glitziest club I’ve ever set foot in. LED displays adorn the wall behind the DJ and also on the front of the booth. There’s a great laser show. To the right is a VIP section with leather bound booths. Over on the left, the bar flaunts bottles of Dom Perignon and Grey Goose. A calming herbal fragrance hangs in the air, possibly coming from the Antarctic-grade air conditioning. The smooth tiled dance floor is still pretty empty, so I saunter over to the bar for a drink. The prices are eye watering, with house spirits priced from 800-1000 rupees (£8-10). I settle for a bottle of Kingfisher, the ubiquitous local beer.

Local DJ Hans Seance is opening up proceedings, laying down some smooth deep house as the punters slowly filter in. Just like in Goa, this is a very glamorous and affluent crowd; gorgeous women and sharp dressed men, a kaleidoscope of big personalities and big bank accounts. These aren’t the everyday people you see strolling the streets of Mumbai, or anywhere else in India for that matter.

The sound system in Kitty Su is absolutely sublime. The thundering bass is powerful enough to vibrate your rib cage, yet it doesn’t detract from the clean, crisp delivery of the mids and trebles. It’s loud, but the delivery is so precise that you can have a conversation without raising your voice, simply by speaking at a pitch that the music isn’t occupying. That’s a sign of first rate sound engineering, and it shames several more famous European clubs that I’ve been to.

I meet Vinay and we have a brief chat about the state of the scene here in Mumbai. He informs me that it’s largely fed by locals who have visited or studied in Europe, and want to be able to have the same experiences when they return home. I comment on the stark contrast between what’s happening inside the walls of the club, compared to the goings on outside. “The disconnect between the middle classes and the poor is something that everyone in India is painfully aware of”, says Vinay. He has other people to see, but tells me not to leave when the party “finishes” at 3am.

Hans Seance hands over to another local DJ, Bombay Karma, who leads us through the next hour or so, slowly building the tension in the room, teasing with a few techno tracks in between the deep house selections. The crowd exude youthful enthusiasm. With every drop, hands fly into the air and ecstatic cheers fill the room.

Headlining tonight’s proceedings is Eelke Kleijn, visiting from Rotterdam. He takes control at 12:45, the crowd having been warmed up masterfully by Bombay Karma, and delivers a relentless stream of anthemic, good vibes techno. He plays for 2.5 hours, and every mouth in the room is grinning, the luxurious air conditioning not enough to prevent the sweaty storm brewing on the dance floor.

It’s soon 3.15am and Eelke Kleijn finishes up. I spy Vinay standing next to a door behind the DJ booth. As instructed, I stay where I am, and once the crowd has thinned a little, Vinay opens up the door and starts ushering the more conscientious party heads inside.

This “secret” room in the back is just as lavish as the front room, and yet it feels just like a grimy afterparty joint in London. Heavily crowded, tired ravers slouching on couches in the corner, a DJ tucked into a tiny booth in the corner, the techno tunes rolling on, deep into the morning.

By 5am, I’ve had enough overpriced tequila shots that my legs aren’t going to hold me up for much longer, let alone be able to do any dancing, so I make for the door. As I wait for a cab out the front, a friendly group of club heads invite me back to their apartment for an after party. It’s an offer too good to refuse, so I tag along and find myself in a 20th story apartment drinking whisky and listening to Goa trance until well after the sun has risen. Eventually the “What do you do?” conversation comes up, and I find out that these party animals are lawyers and business executives. Which is a little different to what I’m used to, but not entirely surprising considering my night out just cost me as much as many working class Indians earn in a week.

Walking through the slums and the traffic and the filth to ride home the overcrowded metro is not easy at 10am after a big night out. But it was a cracking night, the best I ended up having in India, so it was well worth the struggle. Bombay knows how to party.

Delhi

Three weeks later, I find myself sitting at a rooftop restaurant called Auro, in the nightlife oriented suburb of Hauz Khas, in Delhi’s south. It’s a Thursday evening. I’m joined by my friend Pippi Ciez, a British DJ and producer who I met in Birmingham last year, where he was performing as one half of live act Walking With Kings. Pippi has since migrated to India, to teach music production at I Love Music Academy in the outskirts of Delhi.

One of the factors that convinced Pippi that India was where he needed to be, he says, was his students’ enthusiasm for underground electronic music; particularly the melodic sound that he peddles with Walking With Kings. As well as providing him fulfilment in the workplace, they also keep their finger on the pulse of Delhi’s nightlife, giving him (and by extension, me) recommendations on where to find the best music.

In this particular instance, it’s not too difficult. I Love Music Academy’s owner, Arjun Vagale, is DJing at Auro tonight. As I sit on the terrace, ripping into a pulled jackfruit fajita and taking hefty slugs from a bottle of Bira, Arjun is blasting big, big techno beats inside the air conditioned restaurant, largely cleared of its furniture to create a makeshift dance floor. Restaurants moonlighting as clubs is par for the norm in Delhi, Pippi informs me.

With dinner finished, I wander inside for a little stomp session. The small but dedicated crowd are just as enthusiastic as in Mumbai, lapping up the big drops with the same rabid cheering and hands thrown in the air every time. Arjun’s tunes are a little heavier than I would generally gravitate towards; generous with the kick drums, sparing with the melody, sitting at or just above 130bpm. It only takes just over an hour to wear out my tired backpacker legs.

In the end, that’s not an issue anyway, because the ugly lights are on shortly after, at the ungodly hour of 1am. Pippi bemoans the early curfews as a blight on an otherwise thriving scene, and I’m inclined to agree. I’ve barely finished dinner and it’s all over. For tonight, though, I’m tired and could use an early night, so I don’t bother sniffing around for an afterparty.

The following afternoon, Pippi messages me, telling me that Summer House is the place to be tonight. It’s another restaurant, right next door to Auro. I head there around 10pm with a few friends I’ve met in my hostel. Space is very tight at Summer House, and they don’t clear the restaurant, which leads to the rather clumsy situation of people dancing right next to people sitting down eating.

Once again, we eat on the terrace and enjoy a beer before wandering inside. The well dressed crowd is grooving to “Solaris” by Frankey & Sandrino, and my face immediately breaks into an irrepressible grin. This is my sound, the sound I’ve been told that so many Indians love, and the sound I’ve been searching for. The group of Brits and Indians I’ve brought along with me are impressed as well.

We boogie joyfully as Murthovic, the silver haired DJ from Hyderabad, dishes out a delectable selection of driving progressive house tunes. Again, the locals in the crowd are absolutely in their element, dancing up a whirlpool of sweat in spite of the aggressive air conditioning. More than a few girls stumble and fall into me as they try to move past; enough to make me wonder if they’re too drunk to be here or if it’s some kind of weird flirting ritual. Maybe both.

We pop outside for a cigarette and notice a rooftop with a lot of people coming and going, so we wander up to check it out. There’s a bigger crowd up here and the DJ is playing “In The End” by Linkin Park, just 24 hours after their lead singer Chester Bennington was found dead in LA. Everyone here is singing along passionately, but when it’s followed up by “Hot In Herre” by Nelly, it’s mercifully time to finish the cigarettes and go back inside.

Just like last night, the fun is all over by 1am, but this time I’m definitely in the mood to kick on. As the crowd spills out onto the street, we loiter around, chatting with people, hunting for tips on where to go. We find one group of lads who are keen to keep the candle burning, and they ask us what kind of music we’re into. “House or techno preferably. No pop music.” They tell us they know a place that’s open until 5am and plays psytrance. That sounds good to everyone, so we all bundle into someone’s car – 4 in the back seat and I can’t be sure if the driver is sober or not. This is India, after all.

We drive for 15 minutes down deserted suburban highways and pull up outside a nondescript building. If it has a name, I don’t know what it is, because there’s no sign. Things have to be kept pretty hush hush after 1am in Delhi. A bouncer lets us into what is, behind the tough exterior, another very fancy venue. Upstairs is a lounge bar with candles and lots of leather. The club room is in the basement, replete with suited and booted bartenders and a very respectable cocktail menu.

As for the music, well we walk into Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”. Oh dear. A quick look at the grinding girls and leering guys confirms my worst fear; we’ve stumbled into a generic, sleazy pick-up joint. As I wait at the bar to order a whisky which will hopefully make the pop music a little less soul destroying, a stranger comes up to me and says “Bro, with that beard you can get any girl in this place.” “Uh, cool.”

As much as I find it mildly refreshing that this kind of generic, mainstream, “normal” clubbing scene exists in India (after all, the underground and the mainstream need each other), it’s not the psytrance I was promised and it’s certainly not anything I want to sacrifice sleep for, so I make my exit.The allure of late night clubbing nirvana in Delhi has eluded me this time around. Oh well.

Takeaways

Obviously 4 nights out in 3 locations doesn’t exactly make me an expert on the clubbing scene in India, but nonetheless I’ve definitely gained a feel for how it aligns with Indian culture at large.

There is undoubtedly a percentage of the population here that have an appetite for getting wasted and partying the night away. However, unlike in Europe or other parts of the world, clubbing in India is very much the domain of the well heeled upper middle class. There is a very clear disconnect between the people you meet in a club and the people you meet exploring the streets of Mumbai or Delhi. The fact remains that for many Indians, worrying about where their next meal is coming from is a far more pertinent concern than engaging in hedonistic pastimes. Not to mention that in a country dominated by the faiths of Hinduism and Islam, alcohol consumption is still frowned upon by many, even if that disapproval doesn’t extend as far as legal prohibition.

But even a tiny percentage of India’s population is still a huge market. Every clubber, DJ and promoter I met was enthusiastic and excited about the direction the scene is taking. The calibre of the local DJs I experienced was very high, and there were plenty of genuine electronic music fans (from locally and abroad) populating the clubs. Much like India’s position in global economic affairs, India’s position in the world of dance music is continuing to rise, and it’s only a matter of time before some of the brimming local talent pool gains serious attention from abroad, helping to grow the scene’s profile even more.

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About the author

Hailing from Sydney, in 2011 Donovan Murphy decided to embark on the great Australian tradition of going walkabout. He's been wandering the earth, searching for great music, wild parties and near-death experiences ever since. Donovan loves techno and tequila almost as much as he loves traveling

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