Spread the word: ‘Give me more’ is what is happening when it comes to litfests

February 23, 2020 3:10 AM

JLF prides itself on being the world’s largest free literature festival where authors, artists, actors, journalists, politicians, poets, bureaucrats, chefs, businesspeople, and literary enthusiasts of every description mingle freely.

Jaipur Literature Festival, JLF fashion, Hyderabad Literary Festival, Kolkata Literary Meet, Rudyard Kipling, Oxford Bookstores, Diggi PalaceIt is just as well, perhaps, to invoke democracy, for the story of the evolution of literature festivals in India is itself one of democratisation.

By Suvanshkriti Singh

The curtain recently fell on the 13th edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival. It was designed, in characteristic JLF fashion, as an amalgamation of poetry, music, literature, politics, business, and media. On their last outing as the venue for the first Indian literary festival, the lawns and durbars of Diggi Palace saw a melange of the popular and the literary, as the likes of Purbayan Chatterjee, Urvashi Butalia, and Tom Holland shared the JLF platform with R Gopalakrishnan, Faye D’Souza and Manish Malhotra. In the pleasant chill of late winter, the crowd that thronged the palace’s grounds numbered in hundreds of thousands, their yawning demographic disparities fading, for once, into insignificance.

JLF prides itself on being the world’s largest free literature festival where authors, artists, actors, journalists, politicians, poets, bureaucrats, chefs, businesspeople, and literary enthusiasts of every description mingle freely. This is no small achievement; it might be difficult to imagine now, given the hordes of literary pilgrims flocking to the Pink City, but the festival’s first edition saw an attendance of just a dozen or so. Yet, JLF’s crowning glory might just be the spate of literature festivals—estimates vary from middling double-digit figures to low triple-digit ones—it has sparked off across the country. And its producer, Sanjoy Roy, is inclined to agree. “What we celebrate as the success of the festival is not necessarily the festival itself but really the hundreds of festivals that have taken inspiration from this gathering of writers,” he says. If it is surprising that it is this particular legacy of JLF in which Roy takes the greatest pride, one need only remind oneself of the fundamentally democratic role of literature and, therefore, of the festivals that celebrate it—of giving a platform, in these divisive times, to writers and writings of all kinds, across languages, irrespective of caste, colour and religion.

It is just as well, perhaps, to invoke democracy, for the story of the evolution of literature festivals in India is itself one of democratisation. What began with that dozen-strong audience at Jaipur was quick to expand to India’s metro cities, especially over the turn of the last decade. A few days back, the Hyderabad Literary Festival (HLF) marked the close of its 10th iteration, while Tata Literature Live (Lit Live), Mumbai’s bespoke lit fest, achieved the decadal milestone in November last year. Kolkata, the cultural capital of the country, in true pioneering fashion, celebrated the 11th edition of the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival (AKLF) recently. Pune, Chennai and Bengaluru all boast of their own literature festivals with a history of over half a decade. Nor very often is a city’s celebration of the literary arts—and literature’s celebration of a city, for the two have been inseparable in the Indian experience—limited to a single event. For instance, the Kolkata Literary Meet, or Kalam, following close on the heels of the AKLF, is another reason for the city’s bibliophiles and literary enthusiasts to rejoice. Mumbai, similarly, is home to the Times LitFest in addition to Lit Live, and even though Pune’s own International Literary Festival is only six years old, the city is already the centre for the Deccan Literature Fest, now in its second iteration.

But it would have been unfair to claim that literature festivals in India had become truly democratised had they not reached the vast majority of the country’s small towns and cities. The tremendous success of a JLF or an AKLF has seeped into non-metropolitan spaces too, with cities like Lucknow, Chandigarh, Kasauli, Bhopal and Bhubaneshwar getting their own literary events. This proliferation, Roy argues, is quite the natural, logical progression of things—“an idea coming of age”. Global precedent would prove Roy right. Take, for instance, the United Kingdom. From Aberdeen and Salisbury to Bradford and Cardiff, every town, city and university in the UK has its own literature festival. It is then unsurprising that with technology having made writing much more widely accessible—“taken literature out of the IICs and IHCs”, as it were—India has developed a voracious appetite for the art. More so, since the relatively smaller festivals give a tremendous boost to regional voices. “You’d never have thought of Bhubaneshwar (the city hosts the Kalinga Literary Festival) as a centre for literary fests,” Roy quips, “but in India, the best writing comes from the smaller places, and if there is a platform for such writing, audiences will come.”

This sway that literature holds has put India on the global literary map in a manner hitherto unprecedented. If the JLF is going places—international editions of the fest are to be held in London, New York, Adelaide, Toronto, Doha and more—the world, too, is coming to India. Kerala is all set to host an iteration of the Hay festival. In the process, not only has literature’s globalisation received a boost, but also literary tourism has become a thriving industry. If the JLF is a must on the literary tourist’s itinerary, so is a trip to the Kolkata Book Fair, one to Mussourie in the hope of meeting Ruskin Bond, and a hike down Hindustan-Tibet road to trace Rudyard Kipling’s authorial journey.

This, perhaps, also explains the hitherto uncharted territories that literature festivals have now begun to explore, creating, as any democratic populace is wont to do, new axes of identification. Moving beyond celebrating the history and culture of cities, themed literary festivals—the new ‘it thing’—bring to the fore those areas of national cultural life that have been relatively deprived of literary attention, and even socio-political hot-button issues. If the Rainbow Lit Fest, organised in Delhi this past December, put the questions of queerness and inclusivity front and centre, the Ekamra Sports Literature Festival was a cerebral celebration of the great Indian obsession with sports. The Military Literature Festival, organised in Punjab in November, similarly focused literary attention not only on the rich martial history of the region, but also on contemporary military politics. Even something as esoteric as public policy found itself, for the first time, the subject of a literature festival last month. About 1,700 people attended the Rainbow Lit Fest despite it being an exclusive, ticketed event, and the public policy lit fest, organised in a venue with a capacity to seat some 400-odd people, saw registrations from 800 delegates—this gusto among Indian audiences for the literary arts alone speaks for the need for more spaces for civilised debate, where disagreeing points of view can interact without being disagreeable.

The burgeoning industry of literature festivals, however, comes with its own set of complications, not the least of which is the need for individual festivals to maintain relevance in the face of increasing competition and variety. This is, perhaps, less of a concern for thematically niche festivals, of the Rainbow or Ekamra kind, than for more generalised ones—say, an AKLF. The identity of the former, by virtue of responding to a specific historical lacuna in the world of literature fests, while limited, is also sharply defined. For Maina Bhagat, director of both the AKLF and Oxford Bookstores, which organises it, this question of identity is crucial. “Each literary festival,” she believes, “has one and must stick by it.” AKLF’s, for instance, is rooted in its origin in a bookstore—the ethos of the bookstore, the commitment to books and reading, and to building a community of book lovers is at the centre of the festival. In terms of the festival’s programming, this translates to current issues, rather than cult celebrity status, being the organising principle.

“Content,” Bhagat aptly aphorises, “is king”. Roy, similarly, is of the opinion that it is not the cast, but the vision that makes a festival. Even JLF, famous for its penchant to cater to a startlingly broad range of interests, ensures that it has thematic foci that respond to the times we live in.

This last, however, might be an unfair comparison to make. An AKLF—or HLF or BLF for that matter—though highly successful in its own right, is no JLF. There are significant differences in the branding, the sponsorship and the footfall they enjoy. Mild as it might be, there is competition even among literature festivals. Take JLF co-director William Dalrymple’s confession, for instance. While he is convinced that “there are no downsides to literary festivals, the more people talking about the arts, books, the better,” he is also “pleased that JLF still hasn’t got a big competitor.” Even a half-joke about the possibility of its pride of place in the litfest space being overtaken contains an explicit awareness of that eventuality.

AKLF co-director Anjum Katyal, too, finds competition more helpful than harmful. “It keeps everyone on their toes in terms of ideas and new concepts, and that enriches the audience experience,” she opines.
While that might be true, Malvika Banerjee, director, Kalam, warns that there is a real danger of litfests going out of trend. This, she believes, is a function of the low entry barriers to setting up a literature festival. “The challenge,” says Banerjee, “is to make a festival continue, to keep people coming back.” With big corporate brands—Tata, Times Group, and Hindu Group, to name just the most popular ones—now a mainstay of the literary scene, isolating what keeps audiences coming back year after year to a literature festival might have become just a little bit more complicated.

The financial backing that these brands bring to a festival translates into significant cultural capital, including a generous doze of “glitz and glamour”. The latter so much so that litfests are often—unfairly—accused of devolving into a tamaasha. Opinion is divided on how the nature of litfests is evolving: while Bhagat is inclined to think “festivals are becoming more broad-based, with literature being one part of them”, Banerjee is of the opinion that “fests are becoming decidedly more literary and cultural”. Yet, the consensus is that this allegation of commercialisation and massification at the cost of literary allegiance paints a skewed picture; the relevance of a literary festival remains dependent, primarily, on the currency of the questions it pushes itself to engage with. Catering to audiences’ demands might be an executive call for organisers to make, but it is not for them, Roy emphasises, to decide or criticise individual preference. And those arguing that conforming to market rules dilutes literature’s subversive political power would perhaps do well to remember that ‘crowd-pullers’ play the indispensable role of expanding the reach of ideas that would otherwise remain trapped in ivory towers, of creating a dialectical space where literature can, should it so choose, critique the market from within.

Choose as one might to rationalise what makes a literature festival tick, and logically explain their proliferation, one must make some concessions for the intangible euphoria one experiences walking down the central courtyard at Diggi Palace. For a space of time, the palace is a city of its own, bursting at its seams with ideas whose energy is ethereal, yet palpable. The answer, perhaps, is not all that complicated. Entertainment sells and ideas, as Roy quips, are the new entertainment.

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