Every lit fest has a story...

Literature is celebrated across India like no other. With every other major city now hosting a literary festival, Shinie Antony offers behind the scenes account of what gives lit fests their high

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There is no precise number when it comes to literature festivals. They in-breed and multiply furiously all over the land even as you start to count. Here, there, everywhere... Even schools and residential buildings organise their own lit fests. If one’s not looking for a lit fest to attend, one’s busy organising it.

With the Bangalore Literature Festival (BLF) and the Bengaluru Poetry Festival (BPF), both of which I’m involved with, the genesis can be traced back to a lack of such fests in the city’s calendar. We’d speak animatedly of festivals far, far away and make plans to be in Jaipur or Mumbai. It seemed a fairy tale, to have our own festival, an event others travel for.

But now that we do have our own festivals, the singular feeling is that of frantic worry. Each edition has to be different from the last one; has to bring something new; must speak to all. It gets challenging to maintain the festive air as planning proceeds.

There is the frustration of funds, the ego of authors, lacks in the venue, the weather which is suddenly set to launch Noah’s ark. But then there’s the spirit of togetherness, the down-to-earth celeb author, the sun that smiles over that particular weekend like a film-star booked to dance at a wedding.

In spirit and soul

The BLF and the BPF, both the city’s own, have only one secret ingredient: teamwork. Without that curious combination of human beings, these could’ve well lapsed into battlefields, or at least unpleasant occasions. The magic, however syrupy it may sound, is the spirit of Bangalore. Volunteers who take up planning and scheduling bring it in spades to the table.

The energy, the vibe, the chemistry — helmed by V Ravichandar and Srikrishna Ramamoorthy ((BLF), and Lakshmi and Subodh Sankar (BPF) — make both fests more a fun learning than a dull matter of logistics.

Lit fests ask to combine a passion for reading with common sense. Visualise big, but groundwork is no less the oxygen. Preeti Gill, founder of the Majha House Literature and Culture Festival in Amritsar, says: “There are some 200 literature festivals in India now but Majha House is open through the year; it holds literary evenings, discussions and baithaks each month. The local community has been most enthusiastic and the fact that it is small, intimate, held in the lawns and rooms of Majha House (an ancestral home) makes it a one-of-a-kind space where authors and audience mix freely.

To be able to bring the best writers and writing from across the country to Amritsar is what Majha House has managed to do in the 15 months of its existence. 

So sometimes it’s the location. As Gill explains: “We named it Majha House because that is where it is located — in the Majha region, the heartland of Punjab. This region, before Partition, was the fulcrum of art and culture, of a composite culture. Much of that has been lost or forgotten and I felt we should try and bring back some of that virsa (in Punjabi, virsa means virasat, rich inheritance of literature, poetry, values). To me, the region represents the indomitable spirit of Punjab, resilient and forward-looking in spite of all the cataclysmic events that it has been witness to, including the Partition and the horrific bloodletting that engulfed the region.”

Finding answers

Sometimes it’s a particular audience segment. Says Shaili Chopra, founder of the Women Writers Festival, “The festival brings women writers together to explore writing from a gendered lens and find answers to gaps in their journey as a writer — from plot to publishing. The fest has been able to break away from lofty ideas and nourish with unique conversations that interest women. Both our audience (which also consists of men) and our speakers feel women pursue their writing different from the male gaze and extract different elements of a given story. The success of this is evident by the surge of new books by women in our bookstores and sections now dedicated to showcase the badass new chick (age no bar) of our generations.

“Discussions at our festival go from love, relationships, feminism, parenting, self-help, the gender gap in workplaces, sexual identity, and more across fiction and non-fiction writing. Not to forget women writing isn’t just about books and so find at our festivals a good dose of spoken word, poetry, even music. As we embrace digital, there is a shift in the concept of writing. We are now experimenting with books, micro-fiction on digital, long and short form, twitter novels, limericks, self-publishing and so much more. Hence it’s the essence of the word, the language and how we play with it, that’s more central to our festival.”

Sometimes it is age-related. As Vikram Sridhar, curator of the Kovai Bookalatta Festival for children in Coimbatore, says: “Tots are the toughest customers. Unlike adults, they are reading stories all the time and have high expectations.”

However they are born, and to whosoever they are addressed, all festivals have backstories in common.

Trials & tribulations

According to Manjiri Prabhu, founder of the Pune International Literary Festival (PILF): “When I look back at the journey of the last six years, I realise that the first year was a trial and error year. I had to work really hard to revive the festival in the second year, and in that sense, PILF was actually born in the second year, 2014. But the festival finally took off in its third year. It has been a journey fraught with challenges, ups and downs, but of course, loads of satisfaction.”

At the centre of it all, of course, is the festival itself. Prabhu adds: “Putting a lit fest together is serious business and requires months of hard work, commitment, passion, and teamwork. We call our festival a festival with a heart! There is a social theme attached to create awareness in society and we hold an exhibition on a legendary author. The basic objective of the festival remains to celebrate the ‘word’ in all forms, to facilitate a direct connect between authors and the readers, and to create an inspirational platform for all creative people — at all levels of their careers — thereby promoting the culture of knowledge-based reading and learned appreciation of various arts and craft.”

And as Gill puts it: “The idea of an intimate community space, a non-intimidating platform where people could come to listen, to talk, to perform, where we could invite the best and the brightest to come tell their stories — this is why I wanted to create Majha House. I wanted it to be a living space full of people, especially the young people of Amritsar and Punjab who would find here a place where they can come freely to discuss and debate, create and write.”

Festivals have this in common: each strives to stand out from sister-fests and from its own previous selves. The run-up can be slightly headachy, with moderators who flatly refuse, panelists who don’t agree with the theme, and writers who can’t miss their morning swim, but then the festival happens and makes up for everything.

Every lit fest tells a story… of dreaming the same dream, of going with the flow, of surprises.

The unknown — with both organisers and participating authors only human — is what gives lit fests their high.

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