A date with the best among storytellers

Thomas Manuel | Updated on January 11, 2019 Published on January 11, 2019

For the love of the word: In its 10th outing, The Hindu Lit for Life opens in Chennai tomorrow and will go on till Jan 14, 2018   -  R ASWIN

Over three days, The Hindu Lit for Life in Chennai will puncture pomposity, challenge received wisdom and generally shake things up, promises the programme director

Beginning as a one-day outing about 10 years ago, The Hindu’s Lit for Life annual festival in Chennai has expanded to three days of intense pow-wows on all things literary. Along the way, it has added to the mix an annual prize for best fiction, a children’s fest, an annual lecture series on issues of the day, and, most recently, a Tamil litfest. The lens is on regional literature, the arts, cinema, history and politics, among other areas. The festival is helmed by Nirmala Lakshman, festival director and curator, Rachna Singh Davidar, programme director, and Prasanna Ramaswamy, programme coordinator. As the 2019 edition kicks off tomorrow, Singh Davidar, a literary consultant with 30-odd years in the book business, shares her vision for the event and what lies in store for attendees over the next three days.

Rachna Singh Davidar, programme director



The Hindu Lit for Life or LFL debuted in 2010 — almost a decade ago. How has the festival evolved over the years?

When we started out, we had about 1,000 people attend the festival over two days. Last year, the festival had over 30,000 attendees over three days and 150 speakers. It is clear, therefore, that Lit for Life has touched a chord among lovers of literature in Chennai. What is also interesting to me is that every year more and more people from around the world have marked us on their festival calendars. Authors from everywhere have remarked on how enthusiastic their audiences were, and all these things are hugely encouraging for us. It shows we are evolving in the right direction. In the future, we will be looking to make sure our literary offerings are even more varied, thought-provoking and thrilling for all those who love books and writers.

Are there specific themes or issues that the festival is built around?

We do not want to limit ourselves to a single theme. We try to have a good part of the festival focus on the most pressing issues facing the country and the world. For example, this year, we have several sessions on the upcoming elections and the greatest challenges India needs to tackle, deliberated upon by writers and thinkers of the calibre of Rajmohan Gandhi and Arun Shourie. At the same time, we also discuss subjects of universal interest such as LGBTQ issues and the #MeToo movement. While subjects of contemporary relevance are a key feature, we never forget that the core of the festival is about the magic of storytelling. Some of our greatest draws over the years have been the world’s greatest storytellers, and this year is no exception, with literary superstars like Daniel Handler, who is visiting India for the first time. In sum, we don’t limit ourselves to one theme, but design each day around a variety of interesting ideas and concepts.

LFL describes itself as the “sharpest literature festival in India”. I love that line. What does sharpness mean to you?

We believe the sharpness that distinguishes our festival comes from writers who are profoundly original, go against the grain and are renowned for their edgy views and cutting-edge books. These are people who puncture pomposity, challenge received wisdom and generally shake things up. In other words, sharp.

The literature festival as an institution in India seems to be going beyond the literary and embracing ideas from a plethora of different sources. Do you see us naturally progressing towards an “ideas festival”?

Absolutely. Literature cannot be contained within books alone, which are only one medium to showcase ideas, philosophies and other forms of cultural expression. This is why you will find people who have excelled at other forms of creative expression like music, dance, drama, cinema and so on featuring in the festival. Some of them, like TM Krishna, have written books but others like Nilima Sheikh are participating because LFL has evolved into a festival of culture although books and writing remain at its heart.

Do you see the festival as having a particularly Chennai or Southern identity? Is there a focus on regional issues or writers?

Around the world, the most successful literature festivals have a distinctive identity which usually arises from their point of origin. Chennai therefore gives LFL its unique identity through writers from the region and the city. But all of us who have worked to build the festival are very clear in our minds that it is a truly international festival that we have tried to make on a par with the best in the world, because our discerning audience expects no less. So what we are aiming for is the right balance between regional, national and international.

I’m sure there are a number of practical constraints in organising LFL. If they were to magically disappear, what would the festival look like?

Our main constraint is that the most sought-after authors have full calendars at any given point in time. We do very well when it comes to attracting the best and the brightest to LFL, as you can see, but there are always writers that I would love to have who have been unable to make it to us because of previous commitments; in such cases it takes just a little bit longer to have them over. That I think is my only major constraint. Oh, and I’d love to add another day to the festival.

Thomas Manuel is a Chennai-based writer. He is the winner of The Hindu Playwright Award 2016

Published on January 11, 2019

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