A literary festival at Kovalam to link ideas and cultures

A literary festival at Kovalam to link ideas and cultures
Bill Clinton called the Hay Festival, the celebrated annual literature and art event, ‘the Woodstock of the mind’. Literary festivals across the world have been evolving quicker over the decade, both in terms of content and design, as part of efforts to stand out. The challenge, perhaps, is in finding a right blend of the two worlds – something that presents the writers and their craft in an open, inclusive setting that lets them and the readers form an inspired community, open to debate and even dissent. The promise of a unique, interactive experience is fast replacing the old codes of moderated seminars and Q&A sessions. In Kerala, perhaps, it was a given that the change had to start from a beach.

Kovalam, the coastal town located about 20 km off Thiruvananthapuram city, is set to host ‘Books on the Beach’ from February 2 to 4. For decades, Kovalam’s beaches have been hugely popular with tourists to the state. Now, promoters of the three-day international book festival are hoping to put together a sustainable literary event that also gets the tourists walking in. Two successful glocal models to emulate could be the Kochi Muziris Biennale and the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) in Thiruvananthapuram, both events growing in stature and in footfalls.

Sabin Iqbal, director of the festival, says his small team is working on the first edition with plans set to carry the event forward as an annual fixture. Organised by India Book Foundation, a non-profit organisation, and supported by Kerala Tourism, the festival will feature about 30 writers from India and abroad. ‘Books on the Beach’ will feature book readings, cultural performances, poetry slams and story-telling sessions, local culinary breaks, events for children and word games. The festival will also showcase some of the local artists and bands in music performances.

“It’s a fine balance that we are hoping to achieve. A serious event -- a festival of literature, ideas and conversations which also helps in enhancing the value of the city, and particularly Kovalam, as brands,” says Iqbal.

The Director’s note on the festival website calls the event – “a festival of literature, performance and ideas to reflect and celebrate the role of oceans/sea/water in the progress and development of civilisations, discoveries of lands and people, cultural exchanges, explorations, voyages and exploits shaping human history, imagination and migration, and globalisation of culture and economy.”

The festival is expected to reflect on historical and contemporary concerns, science and environment. As part of the event, the organisers are also holding writing workshops and reading sessions in select schools and colleges.

On the phone, however, Iqbal insists on calling it a “modest start”, an event planned on a shoestring budget. He has long-term plans to develop the festival as a travelling event but for now, the focus is on getting the first shot right.

It was in May this year that Thiruvananthapuram MP and former union minister Shashi Tharoor, patron of the festival, presented it as an event that would celebrate good literature and facilitate meaningful discussions. “It is time we established a durable institution that showcases Thiruvananthapuram and Kerala as a place of ideas and culture. But a lit-fest is not for visitors alone; it will also further energise the already vibrant reading culture in the state,” Tharoor said while introducing the festival to the media.

Five months later, the festival’s promoters are still busy with their preparations, firming up the participation of writers and finalising the venues. From India, writers including Jeet Thayil, Anita Nair, Manu Joseph and Tishani Doshi are expected to be part of the line-up. The team also plans to bring together academics, artists and journalists at the event. Thiruvananthapuram did host two editions of the Hay Festival, in 2010 and 2011, before the event moved out of the state capital. ‘Books on the Beach’ could just be the sort of “cultural brand”, as Iqbal calls it, the city needs on its calendar.

Presenting the event in May, Tourism Department Principal Secretary V Venu spoke about the role of cultural festivals in building brands and promoting destinations. He said “a literary festival with an international perspective” was in line with Kerala Tourism’s positioning of the state as an arts and culture hub.

In India branding, as a concept, is being increasingly endorsed by promoters of these festivals as a necessary trope. Iqbal is aware of the challenges in striking the “fine balance”, in maintaining the spirit of what essentially will be a festival of literature without affecting its potential to also evolve as a show-piece event for the state, a popular brand. “We are clear about what this is going to be. It’s convenient to go all elitist and criticise the manner in which some of these events are being branded but ultimately, we are also pitted against the reality that someone has to pay the bills. Within the restrictions, the effort is to create something meaningful,” he says. Iqbal’s concerns find context in issues of sponsorship that continue to cloud many literary and art-based events in the country.

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