India Goes Big on Lit Fests

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Literati-2013-held-in-ChandigarhOne reason why litfests have become so popular in India is because there is an increasing number of readers due to growing literacy levels – the same reason that print media is thriving in India while reputed publications have been shutting down in the West.

VANIT SETHI

While the Jaipur Literary Festival has emerged as a big brand, around 25 lit fests are regularly being held across the country from metropolises to much smaller towns

On the green lawns beside the serene Sukhna Lake against the backdrop of the Shivalik ranges under a pleasant November sun in Chandigarh’s north-eastern periphery, 32 writers gathered from across the country and abroad last weekend to discuss and debate on a variety of issues, and to read from their diverse works to an enthusiastic mix of young and old people gathered to imbibe and assimilate eclectic ideas.

The event was Literati-2013 – the first literary festival organised by the Chandigarh Literary Society – and the participants included Retd Gen VP Malik, Bhaskar Ghose, Madhu Kishwar, Upamanyu Chatterjee, Jerry Pinto, Navtej Sarna, Ashwin Sanghi, Rahul Pandita, and Gul Panag, among others.

However, this was not the first literary festival held in the City Beautiful. The Adaab Foundation has been organising the Chandigarh Literary Festival (CLF) for the past three years, and the Chandigarh Sahitya Akademi holds regular author evenings at the UT Guest House in the city.

What was unusual was the flood of writers who swarmed the tricity in the month of November for the CLF, Literati and the Chandigarh Book Fair – organised by the National Book Trust – held after a gap of 15 years in the city. These three major literary events were held almost back-to-back, leaving literary enthusiasts and bibliophiles with enough on their plate to chew and digest for this season.

And this was in just one city in India – not a metropolis or a major city, despite being the capital of two states and a union territory. Across India, literary festivals are spreading like wildfire, and the winter months (roughly October to March) are jampacked with such events. Of course, the most famous one is the Jaipur Literature Festival, which is now an international brand. A total of 139 writers have already confirmed their participation at the festival, which will be held at the Diggy Palace in the Pink City from January 17-21, 2014.

While the Jaipur Litfest is a big brand, around 25 lifests are already being held across the country from metropolises to much smaller towns – Kolkata, Mumbai, Chennai, Delhi, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Pune, Lucknow, Patna, Bhubaneswar, Goa, Agra, Kovalam, Kasauli, Neemrana, etc etc. These festivals have also been held in Srinagar (Kashmir) and in the Maoist-infested Dantewada region of Chhattisgarh. What makes these litfests so popular? Are they able to make money and sustain themselves? Or will the literary bubble eventually burst some day?

One reason why these litfests have become so popular in India is because there is an increasing number of readers due to growing literacy levels – the same reason that print media is thriving in India, while reputed publications have been shutting down in the West. This fact goes against the common but mistaken perception that people don’t read books anymore.

If one goes by the growing tribe of writers that are produced every year – ranging from housewives to bureaucrats to journalists to entrepreneurs – there is hope for book lovers. Publishers will also vouch for the fact that readership is growing, but maybe the younger readers are shifting to newer modes of reading, like laptops, notebooks and tablets.

Fiction has always been popular, and Indian writing in English is growing significantly, thanks to the increasing use of English across the country – which has made a once-colonial language into another Indian language, with its interesting Indian words and phrases. Biographies and inspirational books are the other best-sellers, besides of course, the prescribed and suggested texts.

Another reason for the popularity of litfests is that they are comparatively easier to organise than arts or film festivals, which typically require much more manpower and equipment, thereby increasing the costs significantly. But more importantly, litfests lend a certain amount of prestige to the city and the people hosting them – they give a cerebral kick to the city and add an intellectual aura to its citizens.

The moot question is how do these festivals sustain themselves? In India, most of these festivals – if not all – are privately driven, with little government support. They thrive almost entirely on sponsorships and partnerships as almost all of them are free of charge. As of now, it is said that even the Jaipur Litfest is not making money, as they spend much more than they earn. So, in most cases, these are a labour of love, organised with the hope that in future they will become self-sustaining, or maybe attract some government largesse.

Which brings us to the last question – will this bubble burst one day? One wishes that all of them survive, but the law of nature will eventually take its toll on some of them. Obviously, some smaller lifests will fall by the wayside after their initial spurt, but the bigger ones like Jaipur, Kolkata, Kovalam, Lucknow and Hyderabad might remain, and even probably flourish. I personally wish the Chandigarh Literati and some smaller festivals are able to pull their way through, as the public seems to love the periodic intellectual exercises, and the vibrancy and richness of Indian culture is on full display at such festivals. Besides, the hard work and motivation of the organisers is truly touching.

Books are indeed a man’s best friend. Our lives would be much poorer and far less satisfying without them? “Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill. Without books, the development of civilization would have been impossible. They are the engines of change.” (Barbara W. Tuchman)

  • Vanit Sethi spent around quarter of a century working with newspapers in India and in the Gulf before returning home to a more relaxed and peaceful existence in one of the prettiest parts of India. He loves music, food, writing and reading. This is first of his blogs for Caravan.

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