The following is an open letter that was sent to T5E in response to A Different Take on Saarang. It was written by Ravi ‘MnM’ Musti, who was Cul-Sec (Arts), 2012-2013, with inputs from every single member of the Core team, Saarang 2013. It has been published as received by T5E, and has not been edited in any way.
A recently published article on T5E questioned Saarang’s motives in publicizing Proshows more than events. It spoke about the ‘good old days’ of Mardi Gras and how things changed over time. It, also, berated the organizing teams of yesteryear for their abysmal treatment of events, with respect to prize money. The author recognized, in a note, that their opinion was ‘perhaps impractical and uninformed to some extent’. This article is an attempt to discuss the practicality of certain suggestions (?) made. It is also an attempt at informing the student community on what goes on the inside so that they can form their own opinions on what the festival has become today and where it is going in future.
But before I get into the organizational and operational point of view, I’d like to talk about what Saarang currently is, in the words of a well-loved Events Core.
Events and Proshows have always had a love-hate relationship. A delay in booking tickets for a 17-member band of Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy can lead to a 30,000 cut in the overall prize money of Saarang, because the only account money can be deducted from is PPM. The only variable, constantly varied, in the Saarang budget.
But then again, a chunk of sponsorship comes in because of the SEL show. Likewise, the Rock Show, not only generates sponsorship, but also influences Decibels participation to a huge extent.
Many often complain about the lack of students’ opinion in deciding shows. Clearly, a majority of the Institute doesn’t know the goings-on of the festival and the organizing team has a major role to play there. The core team maintains a certain degree of secrecy, especially when it comes to the Proshows, and especially so, when it comes to the Rock Show. A lot of information is disseminated on a need-to-know basis. An anecdote would probably help the reader understand why. Let’s go back to the winter of 2009, when the Saarang 2010 team was desperately trying to convince Porcupine Tree to play at IIT Madras. After over a month of negotiations, and when everything looked steady, the deal fell through. The deal fell through because Mood Indigo got wind of PTree willing to play in India and convinced them to play in Bombay rather than in Madras which, considering the fat pocket of MI and the glamour of Bombay, wasn’t very hard to do.
Notwithstanding this need to keep potential shows secret, there is another very important reason as to why students are not asked for their opinions. Students not part of the organizing team are not privy to the financial stability (or lack thereof) of Saarang. Given a chance, every student would love to have Linkin Park and AC/DC play at Saarang. I can’t disclose the quotes we receive from artistes, but rest assured that, the likes of Linkin Park aside, mainstream rock and roll bands potentially cost anywhere from two to ten times Saarang’s annual budget. But the cold, hard fact is that our budget is meager and within this budget we scope for artistes all year long, artistes with free tour schedules in January, artistes willing to play in India for a potentially small crowd, and finally decide upon an artiste. This is not something that starts on a Sunday and finishes on the Friday. Many hundreds of man-hours are spent solely debating the Rock Show. The opinion is second-guessed thousands of times and eventually the MoU is signed.
Now, I can almost hear the questions ringing in from the reader: “Is this effort worth it?”, “Why not an Indian band?”, “Don’t you make a loss?”
The effort is definitely worth it, because two of Saarang’s stalwart events, Decibels and Powerchords, depend on the Rock Show. The quality of participation they draw is very high. The prize money they win is a small gain compared to the long-term incentive; that they opened for XYZ at OAT, IIT Madras. Saarang is creating a platform for ‘Indian’ bands. If XYZ is an Indian band too, the effect is curtailed. The importance of this incentive, much more valued than the money they win, is brought down to a great degree. The foreign-band-Rock-Show is a necessary evil, bent more towards the necessary side of the phrase.
The effort is worth it, because Saarang prides itself in being inclusive, with something for everyone. Yes, Saarang incurs a loss for the show in terms of costs incurred against revenue generated from ticket sales but if money was all that mattered, if diversity and catering to everyone wasn’t very important, Saarang would go ahead and have three LMs, because hey, the students love them, right? And we make a ton of money to boot! Sarcasm aside, that would end up depleting Decibels and Powerchords which would no longer be the biggest stages for semi-pro and amateur bands to showcase their talents. That would also decisively convert Saarang into a moneymaking entertainment company. It would cease to be a student cultural festival.
Are Events being sidelined at Saarang? Well, the Event Cores exist to prevent this from happening. The Cores don’t just work for these events. They fight for them. They make sure that the Proshow Cores don’t screw up the SAC schedules for their WCSs. They make sure that Panache, DJukebox and Dance Workshops are given good time slots at SAC. They make sure that they pain the Finance Cores enough to ensure that PPM doesn’t suffer. They make sure that Saarang has new events every year for the changing crowd. Events like Just Duet and DJukebox are brought into the mix, even if it leads to the reduction of the number of Dance Workshops or PPM cuts elsewhere. Though these are just a few events mentioned, Just Duet and DJukebox are results of very efficient brainstorming sessions conducted within, and by, the Events team, and were they successful or what!
One realizes only after entering the professional world that money isn’t as important as the experience itself. Winning 5,000 at a quizzing event in Saarang is quite different from winning 10,000 in Amalgam. I don’t need to defend that statement. The difference in prize money is probably because Amalgam has better Sponsorship Coords than Saarang. Or maybe it’s because they don’t have to host four Proshows. Whatever be the reasons, the cash is a value-add to the pocket and nothing else. One doesn’t mention the stipend of their internships on their resumes. It’s the company they’ve worked for that receives special attention, followed by the work they did. The experience on the other hand stays with the participant for the rest of their life.
Every year, numerous efforts are made to increase the prize money. The sheer number of events, coupled with the fact that Saarang offers 1st, 2nd and 3rd prizes in many categories means that allocating money becomes an issue. There was a lot of grumbling about quizzers not getting their due. The biggest collegiate-dance competition in the country has a paltry amount of INR 20,000 for the winners. Something Saarang has always looked to do is add value to event prizes, by adding non-monetary benefits as well – mentoring or musical instruments – to cite a couple of examples. One of the fine arts participants, for instance, impressed a judge so much, that the judge offered to mentor the participant in his future endeavours. For us in the organizing team, events at Saarang are not just about dispersing prize money; it’s about giving something back to the participants that really recognizes their talents, the hard work they’ve put in and the immense potential they all possess.
Again, there are many misconceptions with respect to the way money is spent. Budgets are not presented to the student community but if they’re making ignorant comments it’s high time they know.
Let’s talk numbers. Sponsorship amount generated by Proshows is about 75% of the total amount that we rake in and yet, almost all of this money goes towards funding other areas of Saarang. This is the reason Saarang sells tickets to its students. Proshow ticket sales are modeled to ensure that, given an average turnout for each show, they fund themselves. Of course, they do end up making a small loss and a bit of the sponsorship money goes into covering this. It’s also important to note that, contrary to popular perception, the biggest contributor to this loss, more often than not, is not the Rock Show but the Classical Night, a free show.
Where does the rest of the money go? Consider this. About 50% of the sponsorship amount goes into the facilities account. This includes the chairs, the numerous stalls (spons and catering) the platforms for FA, the electricals, the generators, transport costs, internet around the area, all the PA equipment, i.e., microphones, amplifiers, speakers and sound equipment in general, stages for Bindaas Park and Informals, the Paintball Arena and a thousand other things I can’t even begin to list. And with rising inflation, this number keeps increasing while the sponsorship amount Saarang brings in each year, roughly, remains constant. About 10% of the money goes towards event conduction which could range anywhere from food for the judges to the free material that participants use in Fine Arts. About 10% of the money is used in funding the loss that the Proshows make. Around 10% of the money is not spent as everything that is budgeted for, is given a 10% buffer – just in case. It, of course, eventually gets used up. The remaining, approximately 20%, ends up becoming the prize money. In 2013, the total prize money at Saarang was increased from INR 700,000 (Saarang 2012) to INR 950,000, an increase of 35%.
All other sources of revenue fund their own departments. Caterer stall allocations and T-shirts sales just about fund Saarang’s expenses towards coupons for Coordinators and Volunteers. Money the Hospitality team earns is a little over the money spent towards mattresses and the rooms themselves. All in all, Saarang barely makes a profit in general, and ended up making a loss last year. The more curious of readers can approach the current Finance Cores and the Cul Secs for more details about budgeting.
What is Saarang trying to be? As mentioned by one of our own ilk in a comment under the now-infamous-article, Saarang is trying to do the best it can in gathering sponsorship in a heavily competed student-festival industry. Saarang has already suffered very heavily under the Admin. Gone are the days when students decided and the Chairmen Committee advised. Now it’s the administrations decisions based (?) on the Core team’s advice. The latest measures implemented by our administration have caused certain hysteria among those involved that zero fresher involvement will spell the end for Saarang. Amidst all this, and the rising difficulty in attracting sponsors, Saarang has had to repeatedly reinvent itself. Events do not, I repeat – do not, attract sponsors like they used to in the good old days. Though we received some contribution from an alumnus for a few Classical Arts events, the money was around 10-15% of the total prize money for Classical Arts. We can comfortably discard any alumni funding in the foreseeable future. The glamour of a Proshow is much more evident than the finesse of an event. If not us, potential sponsors now find other festivals that can cater to their interests. Hence the apparent increased marketing for Proshows. Not because people want to look cool, no, but because we need our festival to sustain itself. Unlike in IITB, the gymkhana in IITM doesn’t fund our festival in any way.
When the Saarang team is almost 400 Coordinators and 25 Cores strong, it would perhaps be wrong to suggest that the festival is not open to criticism. As mentioned above in an example, the organizing team receives, and considers, from its coordinators a lot of feedback that can be termed ‘constructive criticism’. In the end, everyone within the team makes an earnest effort to make the festival inclusive so that both, the die-hard event participant and the general audience, go back happy. Saarang will of course, always, welcome suggestions. The festival is always on the lookout for new events and ways to better itself. And in this regard no opinion is discounted. Obviously, not everyone’s opinions are practical or feasible. We all come from diverse backgrounds and have diverse tastes and hobbies. Each edition has new Cul-Secs and an entirely new Core Team, which is bound to lead to a few new awesome ideas and a few “cups”. Can Saarang be custom-fit for each student? The answer is no. The festival takes the best possible route under prevailing circumstances. Ultimately, if the average Institute student no longer appreciates Saarang, the premise of its existence is compromised. Trust me; this is something the organizing team has nightmares about. I know I’ve had them.
Before I end this, I have a few questions of my own, for the reader to ponder about. When one says that events are being sidelined, what exactly is the issue?
Do we have a smaller number of events, not catering to everybody?
Of course not. Everyone, and their dog, knows that there are more events at Saarang than anywhere else. They are more diverse than and cater to a wider set of people than anywhere else. In that context, Saarang is truly the biggest student festival in the country.
Do we not get the participation from the best in business for the events?
Again, of course not. For almost every event, the best in town come participate. For a majority, the best in the region come participate. For a few, the best in the country come participate. Again, a statement that doesn’t need defending.
Do we not get general participation for the events?
Yes, we do. The Proshows, Spotlight events and a whole set of things ranging from Informals to Paintball ensure that people are attracted to Saarang, resulting in greater general participation.
Is it the reduced prize money?
That has been discussed in this article. That prize money is the only yardstick used to measure the success of events has the bearings of a very bad argument.
Are we really losing the touch we once had, when A. R. Rahman played at Mardi Gras? In 2012, on the day of the Vishal-Shekhar show one of my co-Pro Show Coords received a call from Anirudh Ravichander, a repeated participant at Tarang, wanting to open for Vishal-Shekhar. What did he want in return? Nothing. He approached us, he wanted to sing, and sing he did. That memory of seeing and feeling nine thousand people sing ‘Why this Kolaveri’ alongside Anirudh Ravichander, if nothing else, convinces me that the romance of the past is not lost. Saarang has not lost its charm.
Note: It’s disappointing to see T5E publish an article such as ‘A Different Take on Saarang’ at such a crucial juncture for Saarang. With barely a month leading up to the festival T5E could have chosen to do this post-Saarang. Publishing it now has served no purpose except for, well, evoke a response from the now-dormant Core Group of 2013. 🙂
About the author: Recently retired Cul-Sec, ex-Proshow Coord, ex-Soc Sec. Actively involved in various Lit-Soc events throughout my four years in Insti.