How the Bangalore Lit Fest was thrown off the rails by the chowkidars of literature

By Vedam Jaishankar

In a nation with a literacy rate of a mere 74 percent, having as many as 67 literature festivals a year is pretty impressive. Except, most of these literary festivals have gatekeepers who control the discourse and thereby the narrative, and hence every new Lit Fest is simply a case of “more of the same”.

The gatekeepers, or chowkidars to use an eminently Indian expression, ensure who gets to be highlighted, talk or moderate discussions and in this manner, run a pretty tight ship. The speakers, their leanings, topic and the course of the debate are so carefully calibrated that in all the cacophony there is a sense of similarity in the message.

Occasionally, a band of Lit Fest organisers break the mould and try and serve a healthy, honest platform where the Left- and Right-leaning literati can clash with their ideas and dish out a feast of contrasting thoughts and concepts. The Bangalore Literature Festival – put together by four ambitious individuals, Vikram Sampath, 2011 Sahitya Akademi Awardee; Shinie Anthony, 2003 Commonwealth Shorty Story Asia Region  winner, Srikrishna Ramamoorthy and V Ravichander — is one such centrist event that should have been welcomed for not being “one more of the same”.

Instead the intolerance of the ‘liberals’ almost killed the event. The bone of contention was Vikram Sampath’s stand while refusing to return his Sahitya Akademi Award like the ‘Award Wapsi group’. “The shocking aspect was that editors and journalists called up some of the intended speakers and discouraged them from taking part in the event. They were unhappy with my stand on the ‘award wapsi’,” he said.

 How the Bangalore Lit Fest was thrown off the rails by the chowkidars of literature

The Bangalore Literature Festival. Image from Facebook

One of the organisers said that they had welcomed both right-wing and left-wing speakers to take part. “But if the Left deliberately stays away and then accuses this of being a Right event, it is nothing short of stage-managing the protest and the charge,” he said.

Another lamented how the media was playing its part in cosying up to Left voices and ignoring even the middle-of-the-road ones.

“This is sheer mischief,” said Prakash Belawadi, theatre activist, film actor, journalist and columnist. He had launched a scathing attack on the activists in a local newspaper column and was staunchly countered by other columnists in the same newspaper!

“The biggest challenge for Literature Festival directors is to find sponsors. Corporates and individuals who finance these events do not want any controversy associated with either the event or themselves. This sort of ganging up and spewing venom is one way to choke the funds and sabotage the event,” he said at the conclusion of BLF.

In his column he had lambasted the ‘intolerati’, as he called them. “Bringing down BLT founder-organiser Vikram Sampath is brutal, barbaric and censorious. It is an act of intolerance by ‘liberals’ who are like ‘a villain with a smiling cheek, a goodly apple rotten at the heart’,” he had written.

But Chandan Gowda, another columnist stressed that “rather than closing the debate by boycotting the festival, the authors have opened a debate much wider than what the festival would have allowed.”

Gowri Lankesh, activist, journalist was just as scathing while attacking Sampath: “When Sampath says that he shall not return the award since he did not win it for being a ‘political stooge’ he is accusing all those who are returning their awards of having won them in the first place by being ‘political stooges’. That, dear Sampath, is bloody insulting”, she wrote in her column.

BLF was already in the cross hairs of the liberals for having previously invited right of centre speakers Rajiv Malhotra, Arun Shourie and Swapan Dasgupta to air their views last year. The crowd had been overwhelmingly with Malhotra and Shourie in the heated discussion where they had demolished the arguments of the other side much to the chagrin of the liberals.

Of course Malhotra and Shourie are tough targets and the many Lit Fest gatekeepers in other parts of the country, which, incidentally also includes a travel writer, rarely grant them entry. But Sampath was seen as a soft target and, additionally, the fact that he was an organiser made him a sitting duck.

But just when the vicious attacks started, Sampath took the wind out of the sails of the liberals by quitting his post following which Belawadi and others wrote their columns.

Thus, the dice had been cast and even before the BLF began, opinions had crystallised to the extent that the audience too took positions on whether to cheer or boo rival arguments.

This was particularly so in two debates. The first between BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra and AAP representative Ashutosh and later the finale of the Fest, where known right wingers, Patra and Madhu Kishwar, among others, duelled with Aakar Patel, Saba Naqvi and others.

The Patra-Ashutosh debate was a complete farce with both relentlessly throwing questions at each other. Neither had answers and if Patra came away looking better at the end of it all, it was only because he was sharper and more on-the-ball than the former television personality. The audience which was no wiser at the end of the debate was so sharply divided that about the only thing they did was cheer every question posed to the rival flag-bearer! And not surprisingly in such an audience of competitive cheerleaders, nobody wanted answers!

But it was the packed evening encounter titled ‘Are we heading towards an intolerant India today?’ that showed how viciously divided an audience of educated persons could become. The glib Congress minister Dinesh Gundu Rao was literally booed on a couple of occasions for trying to justify Mani Shankar Aiyar and Salman Khursheed’s anti-Narendra Modi comments in Pakistan. But he also drew applause while criticising specific statements of BJP hardliners.

Mohandas Pai struck a chord when he pleaded with the politicians not to degrade India: “You political parties can have a go at each other. But please don’t denigrate India for your narrow gains. Millions of Indians have worked very hard to build the good name of this country which you guys are destroying with your bizarre statements.”

The most applauded comment though came from the youngest member on the panel, Siddharth Dhanvant Sanghvi. He offered to set up a corpus fund of Rs 1.5 lakh to:

a) Define Tolerance

b) Define Intolerance

c) List all the instances of Tolerance and Intolerance for the past 40 years.

Ultimately, though BLF might have tried to position itself differently from other book festivals, it too became a stomping ground for politicians, film actors, musicians, well-heeled corporate honchos, TV anchors and journalists. The shroud of the chowkidars of various Lit Fests had cast its gloom: The ‘chaterati’ and ‘intolerati’ held centre stage with the ‘literati’ confined to the fringes.

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Updated Date: Dec 08, 2015 10:34:09 IST