How 'Literary' Are Literature Festivals In India?

11/07/2016 8:25 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:27 AM IST

The third Kalinga Literary Festival in Odisha ended recently. The two-day event had panel discussions on a variety of topics, ranging from "Dialogue, Development and Democratic Spirit in Literature" to "Youth, Language and Emotions" to "Is Romanticism Dead in Contemporary Literature" and so on. There was also a delightful talk by Padmashree Haldhar Nag, the Odia Kosii tribal poet from western Odisha, who dropped out of school in Class 3 but is the subject of research by five PhD scholars. He recites his poems without any text. Piyush Mishra, film and theatre actor, music director, lyricist, singer, scriptwriter, added spice to Day 1. Mani Shankar Aiyar and Dr. Subramanian Swamy shared the opening ceremony podium amicably, but their words to reporters were contrary!

Literary festivals have sprung up across the nation. How much pure literature is discussed is a moot point. As one young speaker-cum-lecturer pointed out, there is "campus" literature that finds favour with his young students. Another professor lamented his son's disdain for Shakespeare while yet another underscored the theory of a crisis in readership as being manmade.

So there I sat, with a degree of knowledge in literature, in the theory of criticism, soaking in the afternoon, trying to imagine a set of giant noise-reduction headphones to filter out the curious joy of toddlers squeezing plastic water-bottles. Wait, surely a Literary Festival is not a place one would want to drag junior to? The sounds of the lunch tables being set up and the more-than-necessary volunteers chatting outside the convention hall were a distraction. More so the chatter behind me and in front of me and, no, cell-phones had NOT been switched to silent in respect to the speakers. It's a wonder the speakers could focus at all and even some of the moderators were off-base.

Literary festivals have sprung up across the nation. How much pure literature is discussed is a moot point.

No, I cannot compare the fledgling KLF to the Jaipur Literature Festival or other such festivals around India. For instance, an air of "parochialism" hung over the convention. It was indeed a change to hear crisp banter in one's mother-tongue, but where were the translators for non-Odiyas? Yes, a few did resort to Hindi-English as we Indians know it and no, it did not do justice to what was being discussed.

The speakers were advised playfully that they would be allowed three minutes to answer the moderator's questions, as they had a large line-up! Some carried on oblivious to the tell-tale signs of anxiety all around.

Arundhathi Subramaniam, who won the inaugural Khushwant Singh Memorial Prize for Poetry for her collection When God is a Traveller was at ease in her new setting and charmed the audience with her verbatim recital of one of her poems, "To the Welsh Critic Who Doesn't Find Me Identifiably Indian".

As I listened to poets on one panel, who were all women, explain their version of being "feminist", to outlining the need for empowerment and equality, my thoughts retreated to my own interactive panel discussion "Help her Walk Forward", where the audience was also asked to question, discuss, argue for or against suggestions by the speakers on schemes of work that will, in fact, be acceptable in our society, to help in the safe rehabilitation of women in distress. I insisted the audience join in after each speaker and not wait till the very end, when threads of themes are lost, time is short and it is time to wrap up.

The speakers and the audience at KLF 2016 needed more time for their thoughts to be expressed, mulled over and discussed. Perhaps there ought to have been fewer speakers on panels?

Are these events truly "literary"? Or could we rename them as "conversations" or "dialogues" or "voices" or "talk fests"?

I would suggest the organizers form "regional literature discussions" that are distinct from national literary events...

Noted international filmmaker Mira Nair once said, "If we don't tell our stories, no one else will." Everyone has a story to tell. They need a platform to be heard. There are those who will listen. Those who disagree often come across as aggressive dissenters.

Some critics have called these events "tamashas". But if each event piques the curiosity of a reader or even induces a love of reading, it is definitely worth it. However, I would suggest the organizers form "regional literature discussions" that are distinct from national literary events, so that the audience may comprehend all the subtle nuances of the language. Much is lost in the tri-lingual hotch-potch. These talks may then be translated into other regional languages and English. Stories and words will then enlighten, entertain and endure.

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