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Literary festivals flourish in India

India hosts 60-odd literary festivals every year, with the next big one starting on January 17 in Jaipur.

Last updated: 16 Jan 2014 11:44
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Lit fests in India bring together book readers to listen to and watch stories come alive [Indrajit Hazra]

With India producing more books than ever, the country is witnessing a boom in literature festivals.

Last year saw more than 60 'lit fests' across India, an average of more than one a week; their scale, quality, brand visibility and attendance varying from the biggest to the smaller ones scattered across the country.

The biggest draw is the Jaipur Literature Festival, starting on January 17, and billed as the "largest free literary festival on earth".

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The correlation between a book-reading culture and literary festivals is obvious.

But the real draw of such events – dismissed by some frowning critics as 'tamashas' or spectacles – is to allow readers and non-readers alike to meet and listen to authors, some famous, many of them to-be-discovered.

Indian literary festivals are modelled on the broader cultural festivals, especially film festivals, but without the traditional dowdiness of government-sponsored affairs.

International events such as the Edinburgh Festival – the collective arts and cultural festivals that take place in the Scottish capital each summer – serve as a role model for the bigger lit fests in India, and these in turn serve as templates for the smaller ones.

These conglomerations of the curious drawn-to-culture, people interested in seeing and listening to 'famous personalities' (that may or may not include writers), as well as those genuinely interested in what writers have to talk about, form the clientele that have put lit fests firmly on the Indian annual calendar.

The lit fest and its location

With 240 writers, musicians and public personalities participating in and attending the 9th edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) this week, this is the Cannes of Indian Lit Fests.

Last year it recorded nearly 180,000 footfalls, the highest since it began in 2006.

"JLF allows you to access ideas and their writers in a unique atmosphere of colour, magic, sun and the incredible energy of a vibrant, engaged audience. Add to it its democratic access, the music stage, the romance in-built into the experience of being at Diggi Palace, and in Jaipur and you have a winning formula," says Sanjoy Roy, managing director, Teamwork Arts Pvt Ltd, the organisational force behind JLF.

Jaipur in winter, with the JLF for five days, becomes a special 'tourist destination within a tourist destination'.

Location is something that the Shillong CALM Festival in this northeastern Indian town makes its unique selling point too.

Into its third year, this small, more intimate lit fest is actually, as its acronym suggests, a festival for the Creative Arts, Literature and Music.

"Each festival has its own flavour and excitement. Literary festivals are not only about meeting authors and following discussions," says Sambha Lamarr, creative director of the festival.

The festivals bring together different themes in literature, including sports writing [Indrajit Hazra]

Music concerts, stand-up comedy and motivational speeches – last year, India’s best-selling author Chetan Bhagat, motivated a packed hall of young and not-so-young - jostles with discussions about books and writing, as well as about subjects such as 'Does India Need Old Age Homes?'

The Taj Literary Festival in Agra hosted its second chapter in December 2013 and has a more localised 'big ticket' flavour to it in terms of both participants and attendees.

Along with Booker Prize short-listed writer Jeet Thayil, last year's festival also had the likes of film-maker Saeed Mirza in attendance and actors Shabana Azmi and the late Farooq Sheikh performing-reading the iconic play by Javed Siddiqui, Tumhari Amrita (Your Amrita), to a packed open-air crowd with the resplendent Taj Mahal in the background.

"The festival has not still activated the tourism machinery and is largely an event attended by local citizens," says Anshu Khanna, Event Coordinator, Taj Literature Festival and Managing Director, Goodword Media Services Pvt Ltd.

Multiple lit fests

Multiple festivals are now a fixed item in cities such as Mumbai and Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore and elsewhere.

The Indian lit fest scene offers a smorgasbord to pick from. Besides the city-based lit fests, theme-based fests include Bookaroo, the largest children’s book fest, and Comic Con, the largest comic book and graphic novel festival, both held in New Delhi.

The fests remain a congregation for both writers in English and other Indian languages.

With so many lit fests, some in the same town around the same time, organisers have to meet the challenge of making each one different from the other.

"In the end I think it is all about the programming, and whether the festival is able to make it distinctive and strong and nuanced enough to attract people," says Rachna Singh Davidar, programme director, Lit for Life in Chennai.

While many authors and speakers remain common among the festivals, each organiser tries to offer a
"programme different enough and interesting enough to stand out and appeal to the most jaded festival-goer," according to Singh Davidar.

Comic Con, the largest comic book and graphic novel festival, is one theme-based festival held in Delhi [Indrajit Hazra]

In Kolkata, there are two back-to-back festivals in winter. The Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival in December is followed in the last week of January by the Kolkata Literary Meet.

In Mumbai, the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival in January that incorporates much more than a 'celebration of literature', jostles for winter space-time-attention with the earlier-scheduled Mumbai International Literary Festival (known more popularly as the Tata Literature Live!) and the Times Literary Carnival in December.

"In a country like India, each festival should be able to manage to get enough book-lovers. Each festival must focus on interesting themes that help elicit from writers something new and relevant," points out Malavika Banerjee, Director, Kolkata Literary Meet.

Maina Bhagat, Director, Apeejay Oxford Bookstores Private Limited and organiser, the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival says, "Our festival has always reflected the ethos of the city, while showcasing national and international literary writing. Kolkata is a very unhurried city, and we do not believe in offering five literary options during the same timeframe to our audience, though this does work well in venues such as Jaipur."

The Times Literary Carnival in Mumbai also utilises the larger cultural aspects of its home to create a festival brand. "It is much more than a literature fest," says Namita Devidayal, co-curator of the festival. "It seeks to draw on the eclectic passions of Mumbai – like film, food, money, relationships – and creatively connect them to the book world. While the fulcrum of the festival is clearly literature, the sessions and discussions are curated to draw in other creative fields."

So while there are different characteristics to all these lit fests, organisers and curators do believe that after a point what one will see is a natural selection in which the good (read: well-planned in both organisational as well as thematic terms) lit fests survive what could end up being overkill; while the bad (read: slapdash) ones fall by the wayside.

The business of book fests

Lit fests in India, unlike many festivals abroad, are free and open to the public and depend on corporate sponsorship.

For the first year, the JLF cost over Rs 1 crore ($162,654) and this year it is Rs 7 crore ($1.1m). Costs include authors’ travel and transport costs, and accommodation. A smaller lit fest costs between Rs 30 lakh ($48,796) to 70 lakh ($113,858).

Funding for these fests includes food and beverages sponsorships, corporate sponsorships and also from private and state government tourism and culture ministries to cover expenses.

Officially, no one is making money. Publishers do not benefit in terms of book sales.

The crowd at most lit fests even if not always literary is an engaged and curious crowd, and if that interest brings them closer to books, then I think that's enough reason for us to be there

Urvashi Butalia, Author and publisher

New authors flock to these lit fests because it is the only place where they can get noticed by the media and, by extension, readers, since in India literary criticism and reviews are not a part of mainstream newspaper-magazine culture.

Sarnath Banerjee, graphic novelist and artist, loves going to literary fests. "Within the festival you are special. Outside you are just another person with a big writerly ego, which no one really cares about," he says.

"After your book comes out, for two or three months you are, like, famous, as famous as a B-grade television star. Once that’s over you are just a guy who wrote a book. And as far as interaction with readers go, you realise that at least there are some. The weirder they are the better it is."

Established authors like Vikram Seth, Ian McEwan, Mahasweta Devi, or a Salman Rushdie get good publicity, which in turn make for good publicity for the fest.

This has, however, little to no effect on the money they make from future deals or sales. It is part of the 'marketing' of their last book or backlog and generating interest in their new work rather than directly influence deals for future books.

The publishing industry in India, sluggish as it is, is actually far better economically now than it has been before. Unlike the west, where book stores are shutting down or going digital, the Indian book market is growing. Online retails like Flipkart have made a big difference to purchase of books.

The Indian book volume sales according to a Nielsen BookScan for 2013 was 17.4 million units with value sales of Rs 5.3 billion ($8.6m) - a 5 per cent increase in market sales since the previous year.

Culture camps

More often, writers and other participants who form the key ingredients of this lit fest boom seem to be playing a game of musical chairs given the number of fests they are invited to across India.

Urvashi Butalia, author and publisher says, "The crowd at most lit fests even if not always literary is an engaged and curious crowd, and if that interest brings them closer to books, then I think that's enough reason for us to be there. It's also really useful to meet actual or potential readers and listen to them, which is what we tend to do a lot of at lit fests."

India's mushrooming lit fests are, of course, about books and writers and ideas and thoughts. But what they really are, are culture camps, for the 'cultured' as well as for those who want to wear some of that literary pixie dust.

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Al Jazeera
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