It has been several weeks since I ventured across India to get a glimpse into the world of literary festivals, which are not only an emerging mainstay in this country, but seem to be growing in number across the globe. According to the director of one festival, there are currently 130 in India alone. Ultimately, I only attended two of them after initially planning to see four or five. The reason for the change was that my findings of what they could contribute to my research focus were limited. While I learned a lot and thoroughly enjoyed the adventure, the literature festival—as a topic of its own–didn’t give me a whole lot to work with. For researchers, this is the commonly experienced “dead end.”
Nonetheless, the festivals offered useful insights into some individual authors and their publishers. So maybe not a dead end; more like a detour into a topic to consider more thoroughly later. Ultimately, I found out that what I need to learn about the literary festivals is not at the festivals themselves, but with the publishers who collaborate with the festivals and have successfully leveraged sponsorships and author appearances for books sales. For now, I think it’s worth sharing some observations.
The JLF Machine
It would be impossible to say anything about literature festivals in India—or anywhere else in the world for that matter—without going to Jaipur, the mother, the big kahuna, the maharaja of all literary festivals.Anywhere. Hosted annually since 2007 in the “Pink City” capital of the palace-laden state of Rajasthan, the Jaipur Literature Festival is the industry standard globally for its enormous crowds, enormous international presence, and its enormous integration with the regional tourism. An economic impact study done in 2014-15 estimated that the festival brought the equivalent of 5 Million US dollars to the local economy, and that was when the festival boasted about 250,000 attendees. (These and other uncited numbers come from co-director Sanjay Roy)
This year it recorded 500,000 over its five days. Part cultural carnival, part book reading, part arena rock concert, the success of the JLF in terms of its raw numbers and global fame can be attributed to its decidedly international scope and impressive ability to bring the biggest names to the event. Virtually every major international author in English—including Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, Gloria Steinem, J.M.Coetzee, Alice Walker, Mohsin Hamid, Junot Díaz, and Reza Aslan, to name a very few—has made an appearance at some point in its ten year history, and several have made multiple trips. According to co-director Sanjay Roy, the JLF this year brought 60 international speakers out of over 300 while the next largest literary festival in India only brought 14. And of course, every Indian writer of note over the years has found his or her way there as well.
The sheer concentration of celebrity authors has not surprisingly drawn other celebrities from sport, politics, music, and of course, Bollywood and Hollywood. Some are
integrated into the program itself as subjects of biographies or industry tell-alls, and others show up simply to see and be seen. For instance, I happened to catch Dominic West working his way through the crowds on day three. Speaking to a few attendees who travelled from Europe, the United States, Australia, and Honk Kong, the JLF has become a kind of “bucket list” affair for those who love to read and have always wanted to travel to India.
Since I was on hot pursuit of “the popular” at a “literary” event I quickly discovered that there is lots to be found. Indeed, the JLF succeeds in part because it balances these two worlds that have often been hostile to one another (see earlier post). On the one hand there is the very top shelf of the world’s literary intelligentsia, and on the other what Roy calls “cricketers and Bollywood stars.” There are historians engaged in the most esoteric (and fascinating) archival work of early Sanskrit and colonial India alongside young adult romance authors. And, perhaps most importantly, you have Western tourists who have spent thousands of dollars to get to India to attend the festival mixing in the audience with busloads and busloads of schoolkids and local travelers who’ve arrived by train. Because, amazingly, the Jaipur Literature Festival is still free for all who attend.
Maintaining this balance over the years has not been without its challenges and controversies. Quite famously, Salman Rushdie’s appearance was canceled in 2012 after an outcry from Islamic fundamentalists (remember, The Satanic Verses is still banned in India). Similarly, this year two authors withdrew from the festival when they learned that the radical Hindu Nationalist group, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), were granted a session. American novelist and Man Booker Prize winner Paul Beatty hilariously described Donald Trump as “America’s Dick Pick” on the same day as Fortune Magazine writer Hindol Sengupta offered his profoundly anachronistic free-market right-wing fantasy that “India has been an entrepreneurial nation for 5000 years!”
You might say that the JLF is trying to be all things to all people, and so far it has succeeded because its grand scope and corporate experience have enabled a series of parallel experiences. The festival-goers who flock to see the Bollywood director’s comments on working with film stars are probably not the ones who attend the session on William Butler Yeats’s late poetry. Similarly, the throngs of schoolkids who arrive daily are not paying the 6000 rupees ($100) per day price for “Delegate” status, which grants access to a lounge, to most authors, to exclusive meals, and to just a bit of breathing space from the scrum. It goes without saying how the racial makeup there differs dramatically from that of the general audience.
The JLF directors, Roy, William Darymple, and Namita Gokhale seem abundantly aware of the wide net of interests that they are casting. And, in the end, I think they are really trying to fight the good fight for reading and intellectual endeavors in an age, both in India and elsewhere, that has waged war on such pursuits. Roy claims that festivals are
“supercharged universities.” I don’t think I’d go that far, unless you believe that universities serve “consumers’ rather than students. In fact, universities are almost completely absent from the event (even with the University of Rajasthan about a mile down the road) save for the India-wide for-profit school sponsor, Amity University. Roy’s other apothegm that festivals “bring the story to the tribe and the storyteller to the townhall” is probably a little closer. The question is whether or not the festival’s focus on literature (however you want to define it) becomes subsumed by the “keep it sexy” approach of celebrities, business moguls, politicians, and pop culture icons.
My sense is that the JLF is losing its hold on that balance. While the event always possessed an ambitious outward and international reach, the unwieldy crowds and emphasis on the spectacle of books and reading rather than the reader’s engagement with authors and other readers, made for an experience that encouraged its audiences to be passive and anonymous. It’s like watching your favorite musician perform at an 80,000 seat arena; it’s more party than music. And, unlike other festivals (see below) that work hard to engage local writers and local culture, one author from oversees told me (informally) that she felt the event gave her little connection to Jaipur and Rajasthan, “I feel like this could be taking place anywhere.”
The pressures to be popular and esoteric, local and international, intimate and well attended, special and public, are ones that are built into the very nature of literary festivals. I had a chance at the JLF to weasel my way into a “sponsor-only” roundtable (with lounge access) of festival directors from around the world, ranging from the celebrated Hay Literary Festival in England, which boasts tens of thousands of attendees, to ones in Malta and Croatia that are lucky to get a few dozen beyond the authors themselves. The main difference between them is not size, or scope, but mission.
Some are the projects of publicly funded arts councils, others are authors trying to gain a local network of writers and readers, one is the celebration of local language (the Gujarat Literature Festival), and still others, like the festival in Dongay, Ireland, are economic stimulus measures designed to bring capital to a struggling community. Literature there is a means, rather than an end. How much state money should be used, how much control should be given to corporate sponsors, who the festivals should serve, and what the goal of the festivals ultimately are, not only varied amongst this group, but were contested with some spirited exchanges. Other than the titles of their events, some of these festivals had very little common. Clearly, a literature festival is not always a literature festival.
In the humble opinion of this attendee, the JLF has become the victim of its own success. Or at least its own version of success. Given the precipitous growth in crowd size from year to year, its current model is unsustainable, and it won’t take long for it to be turning authors and visitors away if it doesn’t offer some kind of change. More importantly, it has surrendered too much to the appeal of the “sexy” as a means for supporting the kind of “university” it purports to aspire to. There’s very little space or opportunity for exchange amongst participants and even less between participants and authors. According to my friend from overseas who was an invited guest, the authors don’t see much of each other either.
If the JLF is a bit like Frankenstein’s monster, lost on its own in the world and beyond the control of its creators, the question is what a better version might look like. Fortunately, I was able to see one: the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival (AKLF) just one week before I hopped to Jaipur.
The Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival: A Better Approach
Centered at the Oxford Bookstore in downtown Kolkata, what the AKLF lacked in size (I’d guess a couple thousand attendees at most), it shined in its clear purpose, rational scope, and warm execution. It’s free and community-oriented approach explicitly highlighted the proud history of Bengali publishing and writing and actively reached out to young aspiring writers to interact with established international authors. For the relatively small affair, the high-quality talent they brought in, including Shashi Tharoor, Shobha Dhe, and Jerry Pinto (regulars at Jaipur) participated throughout the festival, rather than appearing at a single session. And attendees had relatively easy access to all. Large popular events, like the one that featured Bengali television and film star Parambrata Chatterjee, were balanced by intimate sessions on the second floor of the Oxford
Bookstore and evening poetry readings. And, perhaps above all, the festival itself was politically engaged, not simply a forum for varied viewpoints; the number of sessions specifically addressing important issues of funding for small publishing houses, Dalit writing, supporting feminist authors, publishing in regional (not English) languages, free speech, and literature’s function in being a vehicle for democratic culture, far outweighed those explicitly positioned at Jaipur. At the AKLF, the clear sense was that literature was supposed to do something, not just be a museum piece or a brush with fame. The fact that the closing event included the group signing “We Shall Overcome” by candlelight pretty much captures what the festival was trying to deliver. And for this attendee, it didn’t disappoint. The overseas author I mentioned earlier attended both the Jaipur and the Kolkata festivals and told me, “in Kolkata I felt like I was part of something.”
These, of course, are only two festivals out of many many here in India and elsewhere in the world. I therefore can’t comment with any authority that these two represent the state of festivals today, but the contrast between the two is obviously striking and illustrates the way literature today, as a category, remains a slippery and shifting one. I obviously like the AKLF’s version and think we would all do well in reproducing it where and when we can. I also think it would be an interesting project to set out and study more of these festivals both here in India and in other locales. If anyone out there wants to help fund such a project, give me a holler.