Vanity Fair: Lit fests go glam

2011 might not have been a particularly special year for literature in India.

But it’s been a spectacular year for literary festivals. Every city in India seems to have hosted a lit fest or a literary carnival or a writers’ festival. Spring Fever in New Delhi. The Writers Festival in Mussoorie. The Times of India’s Literary Carnival in Mumbai. An International Literary Festival in Bhutan. The Hay festival in Kovalam.

“You cannot have too many lit fests,” swears William Dalrymple. “Everyone is a winner. The readers. The publishers. The writers. It’s one of the rare things in life where it’s entirely win-win.”

The godmother of them all

Dalrymple, of course, along with Namita Gokhale, is part of the fountainhead whence all these festivals have sprung. AFP

Dalrymple, of course, along with Namita Gokhale, is part of the fountainhead whence all these festivals have sprung. The hugely successful Jaipur Literature Festival is the godmother of all festivals. It has become the brand they all aspire to. Whether an art as old-fashioned as reading is enjoying a fashion resurgence or not, the literary festival has certainly arrived as a place to be seen.

“It feels like the new trendy thing. Someone told me the Page 3 people all think it’s cute to be at a lit fest now,” says Anjum Katyal, a consultant with the upcoming Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival.  Apeejay is hosting its third festival in 2012. But this time it will have company. Barely ten days later, Kolkata’s famous International Book Fair will be hosting its own six day festival, directly inspired, it boasts, by Edinburgh, Hay and Jaipur.

Two literary festivals within two weeks seems a little excessive even for a city that prides itself as bookish.

Katyal is diplomatic. “When you have two in a month, authors have to decide which one to go to. Luckily we were scheduled before. However some publishers have said authors they had offered before are no longer available.”

Good times

It’s certainly a good time to be a writer if you enjoy being on the lit fest circuit. Shashi Tharoor says he attended four this year and turned down five more.

It’s also a good time to be in the business of organising these jamborees. Sanjoy Roy of Teamwork Productions which puts together the Jaipur Literature Festival says he gets “calls at least once a month to set up or collaborate or consult for a new lit fest.”

It’s good for publishers who get a captive audience for their writers. “(Lit fests) attract people who read and want to be around books (and writers),” says Tharoor. “And people who don’t read but think hearing about books (from writers) would be an acceptable substitute.” Either way, a signed book has become an unlikely fashion accessory. Authors and publishers are not complaining.

It’s even good for the government. Almost all the lit fests have government support.  For example, the Department of Tourism provided the Qutb Shahi Tombs for the Hyderabad Literary Festival’s gala dinner last year. This year they are providing the Taramati Baradari cultural complex to host it. “They see the festival has the potential to get a large number of visitors to the city in the years to come,” says Surya Rao, a director with the Hyderabad Literary Festival happening in January.

Welcome to the glamfest

But as a thousand lit fests bloom have they turned into a competitive sport? Is the focus less on the writing or even the conversations and more on the glamour quotient of it all?

Writers, for the most part, are used to readings in bookstores with uncomfortable folding chairs or conference rooms in convention centres with unflattering fluorescent lights. It’s hard not to feel glamorous when you get to speak under “grandly decorated tents at a Rajput mansion built in the  1860s” and party at “the Amber Fort replete with camels and dancing and drunk author antics" writes Neelanjana Banerjee in HTMLGIANT.

Katyal admits there “is pressure to glam it up.” She says she tries to resist it because she says she wants to retain the feel of a concert with a beloved musician: “intimate, in-depth, personal.”

But when big corporate money is flowing into festivals, DSC Limited, Essar, Shell, Goldman Sachs to name a few, it’s harder to keep it intimate or edgy. Or even truly local.

Continued on next page..


It's my party

Tehelka’s ThinkFest in Goa might have pulled in the likes of a Sir VS Naipaul but had to face a lot of flak for not having enough Goan thinkers. Goa, the critics cribbed, became the scenic backdrop for outsiders to party at a sort of global intellectual rock concert with Tarun Tejpal as the pony-tailed Bono-esque figure at its centre. Then again, a lot of Goans were overly incensed just because Tejpal made a passing quip while welcoming the attendees saying “Now you are in Goa, drink as much as you want, eat, sleep with whoever you think of but get ready to arrive early at the event.” “Tehelka boss invites ‘Think’ delegates to sleep with whoever they think of since they are now in Goa" screamed over the top headlines.

Sanjoy Roy’s Teamwork Productions made more news this year for a festival that got cancelled than any of the ones they organised. The Kashmir Harud festival was canned after it sparked off a firestorm about freedom of expression after its organisers said it would  be “apolitical.” Roy complains it was a victim of “irresponsible reporting” and “a backlash on the web.”

Kashmiri authors like Basharat Peer bristled “writers in Kashmir are not dependent on shamianas and autographs’ crumbs from a literary festival.” Fine, retorted Roy in an interview with the Times of India. “But would a book release in Srinagar create this level of interest or noise?”

Siddharth sanghvi (L ) with Vikram Seth at a reading from The Rivered Earth. Image Courtesy Tata Literature Live!

What Roy is pointing to, perhaps inadvertently, is that a lit fest is the big boy in town, the one with the real muscle. And no one has more clout than the JLF brand - if anyone admits to anything so crass as a literary festival brand - which is the gold standard in a country as viciously brand-conscious as India. That is why Dalrymple can afford to be magnanimous about the rash of lit fests cropping up all over the country, some of which he advises. None of them are really in the same league yet and pose no threat to the crown jewel.

“We are the only one really run by writers, not event organizers or arts management people. Both Namita (Gokhale) and I are writers. We got Coetze last year because of personal contacts because I am an author. We’ve been trying for years to get (Michael) Ondaatje. This year he said yes. (In comparison) a girl who is a sports organizer who is now doing a literary fest is going to have to work very hard to have the contacts.”

Performing monkeys

It might sound like a "my Rolodex is bigger than yours" contest. But the  Jaipur Literary Festival has much nobler aims. It’s almost missionary about keeping it free and open to all, about exposing busloads of schoolchildren, some from as far away as Assam, to A-list authors. “We wanted it to be a place where you could meet Rushdie, not just read him. Before Jaipur you might only have been able to see him at some British Council event,” says Dalrymple.

But despite all the noble intentions a literary festival isn’t just about some writers and fans exchanging chit chat and chai and some high-minded conversation. It’s about big names, preferably ones you know on a first name basis – you got Naipaul, I got Coetze. It’s about politics. It’s about governments and corporations that have their own agendas. And writers can easily turn into unwitting performing monkeys in someone else’s tourism brochure. The literary festival in Galle, Sri Lanka faced boycott calls this year from Reporters Without Borders which claimed the government brutally crushed dissident voices including writers, cartoonists and journalists.

“To go to festivals in [places where there is a] civil war going on – that must be the most galling thing of all, no pun intended,” says writer Aatish Taseer.

Writers: The best thing and worst thing about lit fests

But the seduction is hard to resist. Writing is a solitary exercise. A literary festival is the closest thing to a literary community for many. It’s a heady combination of intellectual banter, unlimited alcohol, balmy locales and doting fans. Novelist Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi says the only exchange that makes a lit fest worth it is “the great pleasure of meeting the friends of your books.”

But as the glamour quotient rises in the festivals, he says he also sees the downside – hanging out with other writers. “It’s like being caught in a somewhat dim constellation of insecurities and muttered resentments,” bemoans Shanghvi. Aatish Taseer says he has never attended any literary festivals in India and tries to avoid them in general. “I am sure they draw readers. But if I had known this was part of the job description of being a writer, I would never have signed up. I don’t like to be put in a pen with 200 other writers and reminded of my insignificance.”

Taseer might actually like the solitude of the writer. But literary festivals are only going to get bigger and better. The hope is, as they each try to make their own mark, that they’ll stop chasing the same small incestuous pool of Indian writers writing in English along with a smattering of whoever else is in town or can be piggybacked from another festival. Surya Rao says Hyderabad is trying to focus on regional writers. “HLF presents some of the best young regional writers,” he says. “Thus our composition of writers is different from other fests.”

That sounds worthy. But ultimately both writers and organizers will have to face the  existential question that Neelanjana Banerjee asked in her essay on Jaipur.

As an aspiring writer myself, does a decadent party like Jaipur inspire me or spin my head in the wrong direction? Or maybe I’m wrong, maybe the hundreds of school children who hobnobbed with the world’s literary stars came away wanting to be a writer, and maybe more importantly, wanting to be readers..

The jury is still out on that one. But as long as there is unlimited wine, perhaps, we don’t particularly care.

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