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Is literature possible without the presence of the State in our literary imagination?

Organised by the Sahitya Akademi, the recent Unmesha was a literature festival that showcased multiple voices and ideological viewpoints. An academic reflects on the State’s role in such a literary event

shimlaUnmesha, an international literary festival organised by Sahitya Akademi, was held in Shimla in June (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Literature is the domain of multiple voices, which we realised while participating in Unmesha, an international literary festival organised by Sahitya Akademi in Shimla between June 16 and 18, with the support of the Ministry of Culture.

It’s difficult for any literature festival to provide space to all, especially in a society as complex as ours, but Sahitya Akademi tried to incorporate various marginal voices like those of women, Dalits, tribals, and LGBTQIA people in its literary festival. With more than 400 writers from different regions of India, as well as writers from 15 countries, It was truly a festival international in spirit and diverse in expression.

I saw leftists, rightists, Ambedkarites and writers of various ideological moorings meeting and hugging each other. There was no whispering behind one’s back or snickering comments over why some writer or the other had gotten an invitation from Sahitya Akademi or why a tukkad baj or a manchiya kavi or a cinema wala was at such a festival. Such comments are part and parcel of lit fest in India but here, in its absence, it felt like a literary confluence of various forms and ideologies.

While attending this State-sponsored literary programme, a question appeared in my mind — is literature possible without the presence of the State in our literary imagination? Our Bhakti poets and various dissent literature in India and other countries have tried to refuse the State in their literary imagination. But we think dialectically and every refusal is also a kind of reception in one way or the other. I extend this argument a bit further here — in a society like India, where the State works as the main anchor of democracy, is any absolute non-State literary imagination possible?

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In our time, the State is all pervasive. How can a literary imagination be possible without the State? The State may appear in it either in the form of a critique or appreciation. The State-led democracy raises aspirations which touch our imagination either as a writer or as the public. As in the case of Unmesha, the State also works as a patron. In this way, the State influences our literary culture in various ways.
In the form of the Union Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs and Culture Arjun Ram Meghwal, I saw the State interacting with the invited authors on the Ridge along Shimla’s Mall Road. I also saw the struggle of Sahitya Akademi secretary K Sreenivasarao to create a balance to facilitate various voices to come up in this literary festival. While searching for answers to these questions I raised for myself, I remembered a statement by an author during a close personal interaction: “It is democracy — democracy gave us the State, so why should we be hesitant in enjoying it while making literature?”

The writer is professor, Govind Ballabh Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad

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First published on: 26-06-2022 at 06:20:46 am
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