Mumbai’s Oktoberfest takes place under the stars

December 2, 2012

(The views expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not represent those of Thomson Reuters)

It wasn’t Munich, but try telling that to the hundreds of Mumbaikers and expats (including some wearing lederhosen) who gathered at Mahalaxmi Race Course on Friday night, sipping imported Bavarian brews from hefty beer steins, determined not to let geography get in the way.

Noticeably absent were the big beer tents typically associated with the event, which in previous years had sheltered guests under a welcoming canopy. But no matter; the mood remained festive well into the evening, as a lively band crooned German folk music and Western covers, and guests dug into an Indianised version of an Oktoberfest spread, with jalapeno chicken sausage served alongside schmorbraten, illuminated by the glow of brightly lit trees.

Oktoberfest has been celebrated in Germany for more than 200 years, and now draws more than six million people to the annual two-week affair. Mumbai’s interpretation, hosted by the Indo-German Chamber of Commerce, is considerably younger, celebrating only its third year. But despite its relative youth, the event seems to be gaining traction in this city, leaving organisers hopeful the budding festival, which has been hosted at Mahalaxmi Race Course since 2010, although usually in October, will become a permanent fixture on Mumbai’s social calendar.

“It’s about promoting German culture,” said Peter Deubet, Deputy Director General of the Indo-German Chamber of Commerce, “and German culture is about drinking beers and eating sausages.” (Around 7 million litres of beer and 200,000 pairs of pork sausage links are consumed during Oktoberfest in Munich each year, according to estimates).

There are also certain parallels between Indian and German culture, said Deubet, who is originally from Hamburg, but has lived in Mumbai for 17 years. Both Indians and Germans are renowned for their appreciation of dance and good food, he says. “Indians may dance better than the Germans,” he laughs.

The large expat population in the city also gave a strong show of support, many of whom were among the first to arrive and the last to leave.

But this year’s Mumbai Oktoberfest, which is usually celebrated worldwide late September or early October, didn’t take place until the last day of November, and was almost cancelled because of a large conference in New Delhi.

In the end, organisers were able to host a condensed version of what had previously been a three-day affair, piggy-backing Oktoberfest onto the eve of the Mumbai Christmas festival, with a traditional outdoor holiday market (and an ice skating rink) built especially for the occasion.

Somewhat ironically, November may be a better time, at least in terms of the weather, to celebrate Mumbai Oktoberfest. “It was just after monsoon, so hot,” Deubet said of last year’s event, recalling the air conditioners on full blast under the beer tent.

But despite its condensed format, hosting an event in India doesn’t come without challenges, particularly in Mumbai, where organisers find themselves applying to a hodge-podge of different state departments for the necessary event permits. The city’s notorious entertainment tax, where organisers find themselves giving a 25 percent cut of all ticketing and sponsorship revenue to the city, compounded by the frustratingly high taxes on foreign alcohol, doesn’t help. Mahalaxmi Race Course is the only space in the city large enough to accommodate 1500 people, the amount of guests expected to attend.

And according to many of the guests, the event was shaking off some of the growing pains that had plagued it in the early days, particularly in the first year, when organisers underestimated the drink order. A woman who attended last year recalled “waiting around for ages” before she could get through the bar line to refill her glass. This year, multiple bars flanked the perimeter of the main seating area, with separate huts serving German wine and food, keeping lines to a minimum. Another young man said he thought the event was less crowded than last year, which was “nice” and made it easier to get a drink.

While the general consensus was that year’s event was better organised, some guests felt Oktoberfest’s past offered better value for money. While priced similarly, at 2,500 rupees before taxes, last year’s event lasted for 3 days and the one-litre ceramic beer boot, this year available for 500 rupees, was included in cover.

Yet the general reaction seemed positive. Mustafa Rajkotwala has been to every Mumbai Oktoberfest. “It was a good event,” he said of the third annual instalment, and will “most probably” attend next year.

Vineet Raina, a Mumbai-based actor working on a television show broadcast on Zee TV, attended his first Oktoberfest with friends. “We wanted to do something new,” he said. “We work all day and night, we wanted to just go and have some fun.”

“Of course, I am going to go next year,” he said, when asked if he planned to attend the fourth annual event. “I am already waiting.”

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