Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep. Musings from someone who sees stories everywhere.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

The narrative of Literary Festivals

As the rains abate and cool breezes begin blowing, people all over the country gear up for celebrations. In recent years, literary festivals have joined this exuberant bandwagon, with almost 100 such galas planned in India this year. Litfests, as they are fondly termed, add glamour and crowd pulling appeal to reading and writing, which are essentially quiet and solitary activities. Publishers, publicists and ‘Famous Authors’ of every feather flock to literature festivals all over the country. With new literary festivals sprouting up every year to add to the already rich variety,  lifestyle coaches, gawkers, culture vultures, fast food vendors, aspiring writers, fitness gurus, film personalities, film stars of every sparkle level, and everyone who is anything else, all join the festivities. With so much fanfare and drumrolls, are these litfests becoming commercial circuses? Or do they really serve the cause of literature by focusing on good books, offering a platform to a variety of voices and artistic perspectives, and drawing in new readers to books they would otherwise never have known?
First, let’s take a look at the not-so-literary but equally vital practical part of litfests. Organising any literary festival is a huge exercise in management. The Jaipur Literary Festival, that mother of all Indian litfests, draws stupendous crowds that can fill up an entire town. Other litfests are also catching up. This is enough to prompt borderline introverts like me to hide inside the nearest cupboard at the very thought. Such litfests are organisational wonders, with promoters juggling finances, public relations, logistics and heaven alone knows what else. Star guests have to invited and hosted, air tickets and tour itineraries have to be synchronised, sponsors have to be tapped, venues have to be booked, security has to be in place, volunteers have to be organised and trained, and I faint to think of what else organisers have to go through to present these grand events to the world.  What happens in Jaipur on a mammoth scale, is repeated in varying degrees in all the other litfests. Hotels are fully booked months in advance, and a galaxy of literary greats descend from all over the globe. Many star studded sessions are organised simultaneously, and the audience are spoilt for choice. Food stalls, book stalls, souvenir stalls, contests, workshops and many other activities are also presented to keep the crowds entertained and well fed as they pursue the literary muses.
Litfests are definitely big business. The many visitors also look for accommodation and visit places of interest, giving a shot in the arm to tourism and the local economy. Hotels, restaurants, tour operators and other business establishments profit from this influx of migratory literati. Many visitors consider Famous Authors themselves as major tourist attractions, jostling to click selfies and grab their autographs. No wonder many literary festivals are co-sponsored by government tourism departments and major corporates.
Book sales are only a small part of the commercial extravaganza. From what I’ve seen, malls and junk food stalls steal a march over books. Fine dining in fancy restaurants, grand cars and designer clothes may cost the earth. People still feel their money is well spent on such luxuries for making a lifestyle statement. Books are cheaper than pizzas and burgers which we gobble to attain blissful obesity. But books are considered a waste of time and money by many, who have never read anything but textbooks or advertisements in their lives.  
Meanwhile, brick and mortar bookstores are downing shutters. Authors like me whom nobody has heard of, are delighted to get occasional four-figure cheques for what some bright comedian has termed ‘royalties’. If more people bought, read, and learnt to love books, they would realise that books are not only cheaper than junk food, they are healthier for our brains and bodies too. The hoopla of litfests will be well worth it if it draws such doubting Thimmaiahs to reading books.
Publisher Dipankar Mukherjee of Readomania perfectly sums up the symbiotic connection between literature and commerce. “There is a distinction between a literary platform and a literary jamboree. A platform that promotes literary voices, celebrates good writing and showcases different perspectives is a cultural and societal need, but a jamboree to make noise, earn money and create a saleable property is a commercial need. Both must co-exist.”  Which, in my ‘author whom nobody has heard of’ speak, also means that well written books for the edification and entertainment of humanity cannot be produced with empty coffers.
Accepting an invitation to the recently held Pune International Literary Festival (PILF) I experienced this happy combination of a literary platform in a lively carnival atmosphere. While three literary sessions were conducted simultaneously in various halls, street plays, book readings and signings by authors, and just plain fun happened outdoors. There was a colourful exhibition on Enid Blyton, and book stalls, souvenir stalls and food stalls to keep everyone busy between sessions. Bestselling author of mystery novels and PILF founder Manjiri Prabhu seemed all hands, eyes and ears as she coordinated the three-day event, while playing gracious hostess to the many literary guests. I observed author Shinie Antony speaking at sessions and interacting with fans. All the while she was mentally planning for her own responsibilities as the lady behind the Bangalore Literary Festival. As I prepared to speak at my own session and braced to don the mantle of moderator for a panel discussion, I realized that planning and smoothly executing such massive events was a challenge requiring much blood sweat and tears to flow behind the scenes.
PILF 2016 showcased multiple genres of books. Mysteries, thrillers, crime fiction, yoga, comics, mythology based fiction, romances, self-help books, food writers, health, beauty and nutrition all had a space here. There were also fascinating movements across various art forms. A ballet was performed based upon Pervin Saket’s novel about a modern day Urmila, the neglected wife. The ballet incorporated several classical dance forms such as Kathak, Odisi and Bharat Natyam. There was even the screening of a film on Lahore, a travel documentary about filmmaker Rahul Chandawarkar’s visit to Pakistan to perform a play. And of course, there were the lively street play performances. The exuberant fairground atmosphere helped in the free flow of ideas as people moved from one session to another, soaking in whatever suited them.
From Pune, I travelled to Bhubaneswar, where I was invited to speak at two sessions of the Utkal Literature Festival (ULF). I saw how each litfest has its unique character and flavor, offering fresh perspectives and insights. ULF 2016 was a more formal event conducted inside a spacious auditorium. While there were poetry readings in the lawns and a bookstall, there were no food courts or other fairground trappings. Acknowledging that intellectual activities cannot be digested on empty stomachs, visitors were generously offered lunch by the hosts. The focus was upon novels, short stories and poetry, giving equal importance to both English and Odiya writing. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I could understand the gist of what was being read and discussed in Odiya. This offered another wonderful perspective on the great work happening in our neglected languages. There were lively panel discussions on relevant topics such as the crisis in translation in Odiya literature, the art and craft of fiction writing, independent publishing, book promotions, blogging and the role of literary festivals.
Literary festivals are coming up to cater to every angle of the complex world of literature. Bookaroo, the children’s litfest, is going strong with editions all over the country. As a speaker in Bookaroo in Delhi a few years ago, I saw how the playful open air atmosphere drew excited kids to books. Another theme based festival Comic Con, focuses upon comic books and graphic novels. Poetry festivals attract many enthusiasts.
Do we need more litfests? Yes, says author and publisher Zafar Anjum, who is launching the Seemanchal International Literary Festival in November. Set in Kishanganj in the picturesque foothills of the eastern Himalayas, this litfest will draw attention to a beautiful but neglected region of India. Anjum’s literary venture Kitaab focuses on building a platform for Asian writing in English. In keeping with this spirit, speakers will be coming from countries such as the US, UK, Singapore and elsewhere. Among other attractions, the India release of noted Singapore author Isa Kamari’s latest book Tweet is planned here.

As ‘an author whom nobody has heard of’, I am all for litfests. Through them, an eccentric reader or two may have come to know of my books. Perhaps someone may actually buy, read, enjoy my books and tell others. We live on hope. I have a soft corner for literary fiction, with its stress on the inner life and struggles of fictional characters, and style and artistic expression. It was enlightening to learn of new work in other areas. I reconnected with old writer friends, and met some interesting new ones. I’m still ‘an author whom nobody has heard of’, and my books are languishing on Flipkart. But thanks to generous sponsors and hosts, I briefly emerged from under my bed, travelled to new places in comfort and had literary adventures.

This is published in Sunday Herald