"Literary festivals: the journey" by Vidyadhar Gadgil

Vidyadhar Gadgil on how a neighbouring country’s literature festival has successfully portrayed the different narrative streams there

Over the past few years, there has been a huge growth in literature festivals across India. Habitual carpers may say that we now have more literature festivals than readers of serious literature, but there is no gainsaying the fact that these literature festivals present a twofold opportunity: bringing the best writers from across the world to readers in towns across India, and enabling the literature of the region in which the venue of the festival is located to find a wider audience.

It was the Jaipur Literature Festival, which began in 2006, that set the trend. The inaugural edition had a number of big-name writers, including Hari Kunzru, Namita Gokhale and William Dalrymple, but only around a hundred people attended, including some who, according to Dalrymple, appeared to be ‘tourists who had simply got lost.’ Yet from that uncertain start, the festival has grown exponentially – by 2011 there were over 30,000 attendees and the list of featured writers read like a who’s who of world literature. Too numerous to list, let it suffice to say that there were two Nobel Prize winners present, J M Coetzee and Orhan Pamuk. The Jaipur Literature Festival has become a ‘must-attend’ event for lovers of literature, also having been described, rather gushingly, as the ‘greatest literary show on earth’.

One of the fallouts of the Jaipur festival has been its catalytic effect in the growth of smaller festivals, not only across India but across the region as a whole, each with a distinct identity. Much of the credit for this must go to the co-director of the Jaipur festival, Namita Gokhale, who has tirelessly encouraged and promoted the staging of festivals across the region. Importantly, these festivals, in the tradition set by Jaipur, have been free and open to all. Guwahati itself is now gearing up for its own literature festival in January 2012. As it does so, one festival whose example it could benefit from is the Kathmandu Literary Jatra, held in Kathmandu in September 2011.

Guwahati is the hub of Northeast India, and as such it provides an opportunity to showcase the myriad literatures of this region – inhabited, like Nepal, by a multiplicity of ethnicities and communities, each with their distinctive voices. The Kathmandu literary festival, held at the historic Patan museum, had its share of literary heavyweights like Namita Gokhale, Tarun Tejpal, Mohammad Hanif and others. But it stood out in its showcasing of literature from Nepal, going beyond literature produced in Nepali to highlight writing in other, less known languages of the country, like Newari and Maithali. Also, as the only country in the region which residents of all South Asian countries can visit without any hassles (visas are available on arrival), Kathmandu is the ideal hub where writers from across the region can interact. With writers from Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and Nepal present, the socio-cultural commonalities of the region were evident, and a small beginning was made in terms of developing a vision for a pan-regional literature – a vision that will hopefully develop as the Kathmandu festival grows further in the years to come.

There were a variety of fascinating sessions – on ‘Insurgency and Nepali Literature’, ‘The New Age of News’, ‘Dalit Voices in Literature’ and ‘Narratives as a Window to History’ to name a few – but it was the session on ‘Bridging the Language Divide’ that could offer valuable pointers to how Northeast India needs to approach the issue of bringing to the fore the various voices in the region, ensuring that dominant groups and communities do not crowd out other voices. The panelists included Nepali-language writer Yuyutsu Sharma, literary critic from Kalimpong Anmole Prasad, writer Namita Gokhale and Alka Saraogi, who writes primarily in Hindi. They all stressed the importance of translation in making local literatures more widely known – not only translations from local and regional languages to English, as we commonly assume to be the norm, but translations from one regional language directly into another.

Another issue of relevance to Northeast India, and of particular interest of festival advisor Namita Gokhale, who is herself from Uttarakhand, is the need to acquaint readers with literature from the mountains. Just a month prior to the Kathmandu literary jatra, there was a literature festival held in Bhutan, and now the Guwahati festival can continue the trend by showcasing literature from the Assam and the Northeast.

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