For us Indians, a literature festival is not just about literary discussions—of varying degrees, depending on the popularity and scale of a festival—but also a social event, where the who’s who rub shoulders with each other. But Tshering Tashi, co-director of the Mountain Echoes Literary Festival, held in Bhutan, dismisses any such notions about the only litfest the small mountainous country hosts. “Every day in Bhutan is like a social event and the last thing we need is another social event. The litfest is definitely not a social function, but more like going back to class to listen to your favourite teachers,” he says.
Interestingly, he tells us that Bhutan is traditionally an oral-based society, where in the past, the big Dzongs and monasteries were the only publishing houses and only the monks ever read anything. This has, of course, changed over the years, and today, the National Library in Bhutan has one of the best collections of books and rare Buddhist texts in the Himalayas. Over the years, the number of publishers, writers and readers have also grown.
“We have authors in English as well now, although there are more books in Dzongkha than English. And most books are non-fiction,” says Tashi. He adds that the monasteries and Dzongs are still repositories of several rare manuscripts, biographies and spiritual texts.
Mita Kapur, producer of the festival, and also CEO, Siyahi, a literary consultancy, however, likes to believe that stories can be told through varied mediums, like culture, fashion, leadership, natural history and spirituality, which is what the festival reflects.
“A festival is a hub for creative people. You meet, you talk, new ideas take birth, you evolve—creativity feeds on all this. While books, stories and oral narratives are an essential part of the festival, we take a long, hard look at the world around us while conceptualising our programming each year, observing the current socio-cultural situations and taking inspiration from them. With each edition, our aim is to present deeper insights into the literature, arts and philosophy of Bhutan and India. At the eighth edition, we will encourage conversations on environmental conservation, natural history, spirituality and the global evolution of textiles and design traditions,” she tells us.
Audiences at this year’s edition can look forward to sessions with acclaimed Bhutanese, Indian and global authors such as Phuntsho Namgyel, Lopen Samten Wangchuk, Justice Tashi Chhozom, Kuenga Wangmo, Padma Lakshmi, Devdutt Pattanaik, Amrita Tripathi and Pradip Krishen.
Popular local performers such as singer Sangay Lhaden, pop band The Baby Boomers and dance troupes Druk Jackson and Waki Nation Crew will also perform at Thimphu’s Clock Tower. Fashion is another key element at the festival this year. Celebrated names from the Bhutanese and Indian fashion worlds, including Chandrika Tamang, Chimmi Choden and Abraham & Thakore, will come together to curate collections that intersperse their nation’s textile heritage with contemporary fashion.
Kapur adds that more and more global authors are participating in the fest, with names such as Markus Zusak, Emma Slade, Francesca Beard and Michael Rutland lined up for this year.
The festival is free and open to all. Each of the past seven editions saw average footfalls of 15,000 people, attracting a mix of international audiences, as well as people living in Bhutan.
Tashi feels the festival has impacted local residents very positively, helping expose young minds to different genres and styles of writing and storytelling. Kapur adds that over the past seven years, they have noticed book clubs opening in almost every school, book stores holding monthly poetry and book reading events, besides increased awareness about Indian authors such as Ashwin Sanghi, Namita Gokhale, Devdutt Pattanaik, Jerry Pinto, Barkha Dutt and Shashi Tharoor.