Lit fests have come into their own. Every city will soon boast of one, and one need not stir out of routine to find it possible to meet, listen to or rub shoulders with authors who till recently were but names on book covers.
From the mass mela that the Jaipur Literary Festival has become to the almost unnoticed Literary Meet organised in Kolkata, the fest comes in all sizes; the only constant sometimes being the literary names that grace the programme list. A wicked rumour has it that today some of the writers are so busy attending festivals that they can hardly find the time to write!
What then can an organiser of a literary festival do to make it meaningful and different? The Mountain Echoes Lit Fest in Bhutan entered it third year with a strong possibility of being a me-too.
But the mountains brought in a breath of fresh air. Having an entire kingdom of talent waiting to express themselves to the outside world gave the festival its raison de etre. Articulate and prolific, the Bhutanese writers, led by the Queen Mother, herself a published author, held their own against some of the best writers from across continents.
So what else was new, you ask? Yes, there were the usual suspects: William Darlymple with his overbearing ways and never-before stories of history, Vikram Seth with his yet another rendering of the Rivered Earth, and even Patrick French saying little that was new as he read from India: An intimate Biography of 1.2 billion people. But the event also included some smaller, and rarer gems that made it all worthwhile.
One example stalwart Laila Tyabji exchanging notes on weaving, which is such an important aspect of Bhutanese life with HM Ashi Sangay Choden Wangchuck, Tshering Uden Penjor or Kashmiri gourmet expert Sarla Razdan, who exchanged recipes with Kunzang Choden, at a cook and taste demonstration. There was the sizzle of spice in surprise demos as the one by designer Wendell Rodricks on Goan food.
There can be no lit fest sans Bollywood. Yet this was Bollywood with a difference. The mountains echoed with Gulzar reading yet unpublished travel poems that made poetry of the mundane, like the take-off drill in a plane ride. Sharmila Tagore offered a surprise element as a special invitee of the Queen Mother herself. She shared her journey in films from her debut with Satyajit Ray to her sojourns in Hindi films, it was a slice of cinema history coming alive.
Music took centrestage when Vishal Bhardwaj and wife Rekha shared the dais with Bhutanese singer and musicians Sonam Dorji and Ugyen Pande, expounding on how the classical could be made popular through adaptation and blending. Vishal made the sweeping statement that classical entered film music with AR Rahman and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan – quite ignoring the contribution of Naushad , Roshan and the others before them. But few in the audience minded, or knew better. They were quite happy listening to Rekha sing Namak ishq ka...
The Himalayas stood sentinel around the city of Thimpu, and found their way into discussions thanks to the contributions of the Bhutanese participants. Tshering Tashi in conversation with Siok Sian Dorji brought to the fore the sacred quality of the mountains. In the session Dreaming of Prayer Flags, Karma Singye Dorji read a poem about a mountain pass that he had travelled on, while some of the urban audience wondered why on earth! A session on unclimbed mountains shared the surprising fact that the climbing of mountains as a sport is banned by law in Bhutan, so as to leave the Gods undisturbed in their high abodes.
The passion for the environment was evident, meaningful, and could be a theme for other festivals to echo.
Tucked amid the same-old voices and panels were Sri Lanka’s Ashok Ferry, personal trainer by day and story teller when off duty, Mishi Saran, whose book charts her journey along the route from China to India taken by Hueng Tsang, Ali Sethi from Lahore who writes as beautifully as he sings, Shazia Omar from Bangladesh with her book of stories.
The mountains echoed with a chorus of new voices and the soulful songs of the mountains, giving this litfest an identity of its very own.