There is a hush in the corridors as one takes the stairs up the Tata Theatre at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) which is hosting the opening ceremony for the eighth Tata Literature Live! The Mumbai Litfest.
I am late by a couple of minutes, but enough for the theatre to be almost full as I am politely ushered towards the last open gate. Inside, the theatre is dimly lit and packed to the rafters. The reason for such a turn up on a Thursday afternoon is not necessarily the opening ceremony, but what is in the store immediately after that.
As the organisers wind down their speeches — mostly concerning the Tata group’s contribution towards various arts and NCPA’s role in promoting the same — the first event for the day, the one for which most of the crowd has turned up for, in brought into session.
You Gave Us Cricket, We Gave You Curry. Who Got The Better Deal? has been dubbed by the festival as an intellectual “slugfest” between Oxford historian and the author of The Silk Roads Peter Frankopan, and crowd favourite, India’s literature festival circle sweetheart, Shashi Tharoor.
The debate on who got the better deal from the British Empire is barely a slugfest. It’s hardly a debate at all. As the conversation swings between curries, cricket, diamonds and whatnot, the only thing repeated more than Frankopan’s constant reminder to the crowd that he is not defending the British colonial rule is the rapturous applause for Tharoor’s every move.
The predictable but amusing none-the-less session concludes in good spirits with the only possible outcome — some more applause.
Moving to a cosier venue — NCPA’s Little Theatre — an illustrious panel of Glenn Lowry (director of New York's Museum of Modern Arts for over 20 years), Homi Bhabha (professor of Humanities at Harvard) and Matthew Teitelbaum (head of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts) deep dived into the role of culture in times of conflict.
The panel, chaired by a quite provocative Anil Dharker (the festival director), discussed the role of an artist not just in time of a conflict, but in the larger scheme of things in a society. How one approaches art and how it can be made more accessible via a museum’s understanding of its audience made much of the conversation.
Another topic being flung around was the role art plays in resisting the powers that be and the courage required on the part of the artists in doing so. As the discussion spun from museums in the US in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidentship to Shakespeare plays in Afghanistan, one was left with a perhaps cliched but strong none the less, sense of, as Lowry put, life being not just about surviving, but striving for the best in us.
Late afternoon, and it was once again time for Frankopan to take the stage, but this time on his own as he gave a lecture on history seen from the perspective of Persia being the centre of the world, rather than Europe.
The historian and professor, treading familiar territory here, delivered a fascinating talk on the Silk Road, a topic he has spent decades researching and writing about. And it showed.
A mesmerised audience was introduced to the idea of understanding history from a different perspective. A perspective long been ignored but vital for our understanding of the contemporary state of world affairs.
And understanding the current state of the things was once again a topic for discussion in the evening as British philosopher and author AC Grayling; Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman; American political scientist Uday Singh Mehta; along with the founder-editor of The Wire Sidharth Bhatia; tackled the pressing idea of living in a post-truth world.
Rich in perspective, the panel discussed both the philosophical and the practical aspects of the topic.The role of the more conventional, as well as social media was brought into question with a fair share of warning given out on what things might come to if the majority of the population is comfortable with their ignorance on how news and media are consumed.
Finally, as the day ended where it has stated — the Tata Theatre. A debate on whether we are living in a nanny state was in order. For the motion sat Makarand Paranjape, a professor at JNU, and Shashi Tharoor. Against the motion were Chandan Mitra, editor of The Pioneer and Sunil Kumar Alagh, former CEO of Britannia. Vir Sanghvi, a veteran journalist, was to moderate.
In the opening statements, the definition of what a nanny state might be was debated, with the opposition arguing that such a state was desirable or that India is not a nanny state. The other team contested that the current government's interference in the everyday life of the citizenry is far too much.
The odds were tilted from the very beginning in favour of the ‘for’ team, and the effect was further strengthened by Tharoor's fan following in the crowd. Points were made about the necessity of policing and disciplining, as well as the ill-effects of decisions such as the ban on beef or the re-instating of section 377.
More time was spent taking jibes at the debaters and political parties, although the questions from the audience were pertinent. The crowd finally voted in favour. The opposition was largely unable to justify why the state is a nanny or rather why such a state is desirable, and the panel fighting the 'for' motion, established that the state must not pry into the personal lives of citizens.
— With inputs from Neerja Deodhar
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Updated Date: Nov 17, 2017 14:52:10 IST