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  • The Edict

Beyond the Lit. in Literature Festivals

by Priyanshi Prasad, UG'24.

Literature Festivals offer us an opportunity to show appreciation for literature: both the art form and the public discussions it brings forth. Gone are the days when literary festivals only concerned themselves with to-be-released books and panels of authors. Now, we see a plethora of festivals that encourage engagement with political issues and showcase talks featuring personalities from different pockets of mainstream culture, be they influencers or politicians. With an average of more than one literature festival happening a week in India as of 2014, it is important to ask ourselves: what makes literature festivals an enduring form of appreciating and questioning culture and politics? Likewise, what do we, individually and as a community, get out of these festivals?

In recent times, literary fests have become increasingly politically charged. Political personalities are often invited to participate in talks alongside journalists and writers to comment on the political landscape. The featuring of politicians such as Yogendra Yadav for the Ashoka Literature Festival in 2019 and Hardeep Puri for the Bengaluru Literature Festival sheds light on the political spaces that these festivals attempt to create. In fact, festivals have become so closely tied to the political culture that if they are separated from one another, they add little to the conversation and culture, as a whole.

An example that perfectly illustrates this intimate bond is the Kashmir Literature Festival, Harud, which was supposed to take place in the Summer of 2011. Touted as the first Kashmiri Literature Festival, attendees and participants were in anticipation of a space rife with debate about the politics of occupation and the importance of Kashmiri literature. However, this excitement was cut short by an open letter written by fourteen guest speakers including Mirza Waheed and Basharat Peer which outlined how festival advisor Namita Gokhale wished for the event to remain “apolitical.” As Srinagar-based journalist, Wasim Khalid says, “Literature is a reflection of life. But our life… is full of politics,” which follows in line with the growing tradition of the intertwining of literature festivals and politics. This segment of festivals today teaches us to engage with literature and the world around us in a more nuanced and wholesome manner since they perform important social functions as public events.

Another example of politics heavily impacting the discourse in and around literature festivals lies in the withdrawal of writers from the Bengaluru Literature Festival in 2015. This was following an open letter penned by guest speakers including Arif Raja, T.K. Dayanand, and O.L. Nagabhushana who took offence at the founder director, Vikram Sampath’s anti ‘award wapsi’ campaign comments. Sometimes, the political discourse surrounding a particular controversial guest speaker can jeopardise the safety of everyone involved, including the attendees, organisers and other speakers. Consider the example of Salman Rushdie and the outrage created by extremist Muslim groups toward his 1988 book, ‘Satanic Verses’ for which he also had a fatwa declared against him. He was invited to speak at the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2012 but was unable to due to the potential for immense violence his presence at the festival would have caused. Extremist groups surrounded the venue of the festival and threatened to attack everybody if Rushdie was given the platform to speak.

Literary Festivals have become increasingly popular over the last few decades of the twentieth century; cities, libraries, community centres, bookshops, non-profit organizations, online communities, and even Twitter, now organize their own festivals. As noted above, festivals are often founded upon a strong sense of community and belonging. An example of this phenomenon in action is the world’s first ‘Gender Literature Festival’ held in Patna, Bihar in 2017. The event, organised by the Gender Resource Centre of Bihar's Women Development Corporation (WDC) aimed to create a platform for discussion about gender-based or focused literature as well as to increase the visibility of gender equity in Bihar. The festival is then not only a place to platform and celebrate intellectuals from within these niche communities (who perhaps might not be given much space in other intellectual circles), but also a means of outreach for these communities.

The festival, significantly, is the arena where an individual often transcends from being a mere intellectual to being a public intellectual. That is to say, the academic is not a public figure till they deliberate with the public, not in the confines of a university or from behind the keyboard. The festival allows them to graduate from being a person of the word, to being a person of the world. A similar concept applies to interactions between authors and their fans. Attendees get the chance to uncover the mystique behind their favourite writers and engage with the text more closely, especially during book readings.

Festivals also tend to mark important occasions that become the underlying theme for the talks presented. The festival proceeds to become a space for celebration, and reflection. An example of this is ‘India’s 75 Years of Independence’ which is the theme for the Jaipur Literature Festival, this year.

The upcoming Ashoka Literature Festival (ALF) being held on the 11th, 12th, and 13th of November 2022 encompasses the aforementioned features of a wholesome and explorative festival that opens the space for intellectual discussion and a collective celebration of a love for literature. The event will include competitions, book readings, workshops, panel discussions, and more. I had the opportunity to attend the Ashoka Literature Festival in 2019 while I was in the tenth grade.

I saw a panel discussion featuring Vqueeram Aditya Sahai (@vqueer on Instagram) in which they talked about the complexities of gender and the way in which it manifests in their poetry. The festival showcased a diverse range of mediums as well. For example, I remember attending an extremely insightful session with photographer Dayanita Singh (@dayanitasingh on Instagram) where she discussed precisely this intersection of her photography with other mediums. She focussed on the poetic and narrative possibility of what she calls “photographic sequence” and “re-sequence.”

Never had I seen such enthusiasm about literature and the all-encompassing umbrella it can be for several different avenues of discourse, such as politics, social media activism, and photojournalism.

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