An eclectic group of India’s finest will begin to gather today to discuss, over the next four day, the idea of India@70. How are we doing? How is she doing? Still shining? Mildly tarnished? Or hopelessly rusted?
By India’s finest I mean writers, thinkers, social commentators and activists, journalists and media persons, filmmakers and musicians, environmentalists and sports personalities. The occasion? The ninth edition of Kolkata’s longest running international literary festival – the free and open-to-all Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival (AKLF) being held from January 11-14.
India@70 unanimously emerged as this year’s focus for the festival. Not only is it relevant and extremely topical, it also allows for multiple perspectives and voices — from the marginalised to those speaking for the environment; from the world of popular culture, cinema and media to the arena of social activism. India @70 is everyone’s concern, whether looking back and taking stock, or facing forward to the next few years.
As a Director of the Festival, I feel a curious mixture of anticipation and apprehension as months of planning by the AKLF team finally comes to a head. It’s been a rollercoaster ride, with the unexpected playing an unexpectedly large part: something we have learned to expect as inevitable. It will be interesting to see if sessions which have so far been concepts and ideas in our heads work on the ground – will the participants gel, will the sparks fly, will the discussions rivet the audience?
Kolkata, with its largely justified reputation for being a city of culture and the arts like no other, offers certain unique challenges to someone attempting to curate a major literary festival. The first of these is how – or even more importantly, why – does one do a literary festival in Kolkata at all? How does it add value to a scenario already crammed with arts and literary activity on various levels?
My stance on this is simple: books mean ideas, discussions, a meeting of minds, a forum for debate and dissent. A literary festival is a space dedicated to this. It is a celebration and sharing of the world of books, and, unabashedly, an attempt to win more converts to the deeply valuable habit of reading. As Kolkatans, we can only benefit from a quality literary festival.
Having said this, curating for Kolkata requires careful thought. Ours is a society steeped in literature and the arts, rejoicing in an active cultural scene throughout the year encompassing cinema, theatre, music and the other arts, including fashion, design and off-beat alternative events. So this is not an audience starved for stimulation. It is, in fact, one which could be said to suffer from a surfeit of options. Moreover, this is also a city notorious for its social awareness and for having an opinion on everything. Aware, articulate, choosy. Selecting an array of speakers and events for Kolkata, we have to keep this in mind. How to avoid being yawningly repetitive, how to offer something fresh enough to attract this jaded and often sated audience at the festival grounds at St Paul’s Cathedral, and keep them there, absorbed and engaged?
So we strive for new ideas and experiences – over the years this has included literary addas and literary walks, for example. We try and feature fresh-off-the-press books and their authors – like, this year, Chandrahas Choudhury’s newly minted novel Clouds, Nayantara Sahgal’s new dystopian futurist work of fiction When the Moon Shines by Day, Pramod Kapoor’s much-discussed just published Gandhi: An Illustrated Biography; or, for people interested in lighter reading, business journalist Kingshuk Nag’s ‘snappy book’ Kingfizzer, on the headline-grabbing and controversial Vijay Mallya.
We like to keep one eye on variety and range so that there is something for all tastes, ages and inclinations. This is, after all, an open event that welcomes everybody. Inclusiveness, in terms of ensuring representation of the wide spectrum that is India, is important to us. So marginal voices, under-represented segments, multiple languages – all these must find a place in our programme.
We also try to stay relevant by starting conversations and discussions around topical issues – what could be a greater concern of the moment than talking environment, climate change, pollution, as our major cities struggle to breathe over these winter months? Not just for our adult audiences, we have several sessions dealing with the environment aimed at younger audiences and students too. Women and the girl child – with the #Metoo tsunami sweeping the internet – and how they are represented, empowered, perceived, is another major festival concern, with several sessions around this subject.
It has always been important to us to stay intimate and personalised and not aspire to grow bigger and bigger. Our delegates tell us how much they appreciate the fact that we give each session enough time, that we don’t feature multiple parallel sessions which end up invariably competing with one another for audiences, that we keep the focus firmly on allowing a direct interface between the listeners and the speakers. The Kolkata audience likes this kind of a quality experience.
Another curatorial priority is to continuously strive for reinvention, to add something new to the experience of the literary festival. Let me explain why this is matters so much to me. Nine years ago, when AKLF began, the Jaipur Literary Festival was just two years old. Its spectacular growth into the ‘greatest literary show on earth’ is a major success story. JLF may be the litfest everyone loves to hate – criticising it for being a ‘tamasha’ or circus, for being hopelessly overcrowded – but it is still the mother of all litfests, pulling a huge crowd year after year with its varied and diverse programming.
Inspired by the buzz around JLF, literary festivals have mushroomed across the country, more or less modelled on the JLF example. In Kolkata, the grande dame of the city’s bookstores, Oxford Bookstore on Park Street, decided to gift the city its first literary festival in 2010: the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival. The idea was quickly picked up, and Kolkata now has three. Mumbai and Bangalore have two each.
But apart from the metros, we have seen a blossoming of literary festivals in smaller towns across the country, from Dehradun to Pune. Even universities have begun to organise literary festivals – Manipal University near Mangalore, for example. This is a healthy trend because inevitably the smaller fests tend to showcase regional languages and local writers, and the overall effect is to create a growing value and visibility for the world of books and ideas in general.
However, this proliferation also throws up a need for reinvention – how can we ensure that AKLF retains its own personality which renders it distinct? Yes, we have certain unique features. We are perhaps the only literary festival rooted in a bookstore, for example, where books are a 24/7 priority.
We also pioneered the idea of using heritage sites as venues, taking literature out of four walls and framing it within the public history of the city, and this has remained a special feature of our festival: Indeed the festival venue is the lawns of the majestic St Paul’s Cathedral, reflecting the city’s composite and cosmopolitan inheritance. So each year we try and push the envelope a little.
This year we are offering specially curated literary heritage walks as part of the Kolkata experience. We are including a film screening programme and a youth music festival, while our iconic Poetry Cafe invites India’s top poets to read alongside the city’s younger voices. But the need to reinvent, to stay current, relevant yet distinctive, remains. And that is both the excitement and the challenge of curating for Kolkata.