November, for most of Lucknow, was the season of literature festivals, with two such well attended festivals being held in the city itself, and one of India’s oldest literary festivals , the Tata Literature Live Mumbai literature festival happening simultaneously in Mumbai. The Lucknow Literature Festival that took place from the 11th to the 16th of november, courted controversy with its choice of participants, while the Lucknow Sahitya Mahotsava, organised by the local Lucknow Expressions Society was less controversial but better attended. Spoilt for choice and struck by Ruskin Bond’s comments about literary festivals deviating from literature, I was lucky enough to experience a bit of both these festivals in Lucknow and attend the Mumbai Lit Fest as well, and this week of fest hopping left me with quite a few insights into what goes on at these events and what one might gain by attending them.
1) Exposure to a Plethora of Perspectives-
a literary festival is, quite literally, like a bag of Bertie Bott’s every flavour beans- there’s going to be some specimens that look beautiful but turn out a bit like earwax, but for most things, you’ll find unexpectedly wonderful ideas from sources that are simple yet infinitely satisfying. As a festival goer, you don’t always know what to expect – a debate that has Shashi Tharoor and Makrand Paranjpe one one side claiming that the Indian State interferes too much in its citizens’ private life could also have a man like Chandan Mitra teaming up with Sunil Alagh, droning incessantly about how they oppose this idea but wished they had a State of the sort that did. If you think the editor of The Pioneer isn’t such a bad guy to witness at a debate, you’ve probably never heard him speak. the first time i did, it was after two of the country’s most eloquent men went up and charmed the audience, and Mitra despite his attractive CV, was the earwax of the event. Yet there were multiple redeeming factors- like the talk by Homi Bhabha (harvard professor) and Glen Lowry (Director of the Metropolitan Museum of art) about culture in the times of conflict, in conversation with Anil Dharker , that convinces us of how culture isn’t found only in esoteric bubbles of complacency, but is essential to coping with the stress of existence.
2) An introduction to new authors, ideas and information-
Fiction is competitive, ( sometimes repetitive too), and since it depends so much on media coverage and word of mouth publicity, newer voices are often left unheard in the din of excessive publishing. In such a case, an event that calls new writers, gives them a voice and a platform, isn’t just a great way for writers to connect to new audiences, but is also an excellent place for readers to find out who their new favorite might be. In the context of the Indian publishing industry, this becomes a highly effective tool, because even though more indian writers are being published in English than ever before, the bookshelves of an Indian Reader remain crowded with mostly European and American literature. i too am guilty of this to an extent, because for a long time, Indian English writing comprised of (in my ignorant opinion) Chetan Bhagat on one end of the spectrum , and Amitav Ghosh or Vikram Seth on the other.
Non Fiction, on the other hand, isn’t in such abundance, but quite a lot of it is boring and too complex for the average reader to grasp. The best way for me to acquaint myself with writers of non fiction is to hear their talks , read samples of their work and then plunge into their books only if these initial brushes with their work interest me. Thus, it was only through Lit Fests and the discussions at the Lucknow Book Club, that i learnt about Mita Kapur and Annie Zaidi, and they now feature on most of my reading recommendations !
3) Literature at its interdisciplinary best–
Reading a book is one thing, and while it is immensely satisfying, sometimes, it’s just not enough to read the book to really experience it. Some of the most interesting discussions at a literature festivals have interdisciplinary panels- a food writer in conversation with a politician on how stirring up communal sentiments can be a recipe for disaster, or a filmmaker discussing Shakespeare with a researcher . Literature democratizes esoteric ideas of social, scientific and environmental concern, and becomes a more easily digestible way of reaching out to the public.
4) Actual Interaction–
Reading is a very one sided experience- a book speaks to us, and while we listen and interpret what a writer is telling us, we must also make peace with the fact that this is not a dialogue, and any questions we may have, might never get answered. Most literature festivals provide readers with the rare opportunity to discuss questions that they may have had while reading the book , and sometimes, an audience of a 100 compels even a writer who ignores 10 emails asking the same question to finally get down to answering it. Not that any writers have ignored my long questioning emails, or anything …* wipes tears* …
5) The Organizers WANT you there –
It’s true, the soul of a literature festival is the people who attend it, and one of the most effective methods to increase the crowds at a literary event is to allow the audience to participate in it, through open mics, group discussions, workshops and contests. all of these become not only great experiences that help you learn how to present yourself and network, but also boost your CV and help you get recognition as a fledgling artist or performer.
Another way to increase your involvement in these events is to volunteer. A literary fest volunteer has to work really hard to make sure the event goes smoothly. In fact, as Jaideep Mathur, President of Lucknow Expressions put it to me at the recently concluded Lucknow Literature Festival- “Volunteers are the backbone of such events”. And it does require a thick skin and spine to be a volunteer. The experience hones your communication, management and team leadership skills, all while giving you certificates, backstage access and cool festival ‘merch’ at the same time.
Literary festivals aren’t the problem, Ruskin Bond. A literary festival is a wholesome and heartening thing, but just the way dessert should be consumed after main course, a literary festival cannot make up for reading books, and shouldn’t.
the author’s views are her own, mostly because she was fortunate enough to speak at two literature festivals. in the past week. disagreement is permitted at LBC ( #democratic) , but we encourage you to share your views on this by using the written word.