The sheer joy of litfests

Harish Bhat | Updated on January 15, 2018

Why literary festivals are pulling in huge and eager audiences

Literary festivals are wonderfully refreshing and stimulating events. Last weekend, I participated in Tata Literature Live!, the Mumbai Lit Fest. I found myself partaking of a wondrous feast, and here are some of the events that captivated me: Gulzar reading his poetry, and speaking about the beauty of Urdu. A dialogue between Amitav Ghosh and Shashi Tharoor on the real story of the British rule in India. A debate where Alyque Padamsee, Suhel Seth, Carlos Gamerro and Simon Choa held forth brilliantly on Shakespeare and his language. Amitav Ghosh, once again, speaking to us on how best we can read. And there were a host of other diverse events which I could not unfortunately attend, ranging from cricket writing to contemporary poetry to a play staged by Naseerudin Shah and his family.

What was amazing to see were the huge, endless queues outside each venue at this literature festival. Thousands of people stood patiently waiting to get in, to participate in eagerly anticipated programmes, or to interact with their favourite authors. I could not help noticing that the queues were longer than at many film festivals, and, in aggregate, perhaps even comparable to the queues outside a cricket stadium. What also struck me was the very large number of young people who could be seen in the audiences. This is truly wonderful, I thought to myself, if today’s youth and digitally hooked millennials are getting back to reading and to books!

The rise and rise of literary festivals is one of the big cultural phenomena in today’s post-modern world. In India alone, we have at least 25 major litfests today, in places as diverse as Mumbai, Jaipur, Kolkata, Chennai, Agra, Bhubaneshwar, Pune and, interestingly enough, Dantewada. The UK is home to over 350 litfests this year, up from a mere 40 in 2008. The Zee Jaipur Literary Festival, which began in 2006, is now described as the largest free festival on the planet, pulling in crowds of over 250,000 people last year. What has triggered this exponential growth of litfests, and the number of people attending them with such joy and anticipation ? Are there any consumer insights here that marketers will find interesting and relevant?

Powerful ideas, fine language

Personally, litfests appeal to me because I have always found in them interesting new ideas to take away with me. For instance, at Tata Literature Live!, I found Amitav Ghosh’s assertion that “a good book should always resist the reader” an intriguing idea to grapple with. He went on to say that a good book should also resist the writer, from time to time, even as it is being written. As I am myself fond of writing, that resonated with me immediately. Similarly, at the debate on Shakespeare, the ideas of the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges were put forward to define the wonderful difference between the eternal and the immortal. My senses suddenly awoke to a new stream of thinking. I am sure many visitors to litfests crave the intellectual stimulation that such ideas bring in their wake.

Yet another deeply ingrained need that litfests fulfil in me is my great love for the English language, and indeed for all languages that I know. I love the sheer beauty of language, the sound of a well crafted phrase, and the timeless music of poetry. The wordsmiths who grace a litfest give us all this and much more. At Tata Lit Live!, it was such a pleasure to hear Shashi Tharoor speak, with his brilliant command of English, and his masterful choice of words. Similarly, hearing Gulzar recite some of his latest poetry was like seeing a master magician make fabulous things appear out of nowhere.

Books and writing

While these are my foremost reasons for participating in a litfest, a dipstick study conducted by my colleague throws up many other needs too, that these events help fulfil. For some people, these festivals are an opportunity to see and interact with famous writers and poets whom they have always admired. The opportunity to see and listen to Amitav Ghosh or Martin Amis live on stage is worth its weight in literary gold. In addition, the possibility that you can ask them a question or two, or meet them to seek an autograph on the book you own is a rare opportunity.

Interestingly, many people nurture literary aspirations of their own, and hope to write a book some day. This segment of the population hopes to find inspiration in a litfest, and also some good advice from established writers. A recent YouGov poll of 15,000 respondents in the UK showed that 60 per cent of the people surveyed deemed being an author to be the most desirable occupation in life. I think a poll amongst literate Indians may well throw up a similar result, and perhaps many people at Tata Lit Live! were part of this segment. At the very least, they would hope to find motivation for picking up the pen, and reviving their hobby of writing – a hobby which many of us would have flirted with during our school or college days.

Human connect and real debates

A litfest offers lots of human connect – with writers, with publishers, with others in the audience who cherish the experiences that literature provides. And, of course, it offers human connect with real, good books and real, face-to-face debates, which is particularly refreshing after an overload of staring at digital fonts and following soulless, meaningless Twitter debates. This need is captured best in the words of Maryanne Vagg, the Director of the ‘Word for Word’ non-fiction festival in Australia. She says: “Litfests provide a cultural depth to daily lives saturated by digital overload. The underlying factor (behind the popularity of these festivals) in my opinion is a very human desire to get together to discuss with others what they are reading, and to compare and contrast experiences.”

Yet another need that debates and discussions at Litfests serve is the opportunity to listen to a totally objective exchange of views and ideas. Many people today are distrustful and weary of media channels, which they believe are often commercially motivated in the debates and programmes they host. On the other hand, at litfests, authors and opinion leaders are free to speak their mind, in a safe crucible, which is far from the constant noise of instant media, and the commercial glare of television rating points.

Intellectual and free

One more fundamental human need that litfests cater to is for participants to feel part of an intellectual circuit. And you can always take away useful, intelligent talking points from litfest sessions that you attend. Also, people love it that litfests are generally free of charge and involve no bookings – you get to watch skits, performances and plays by reputed artistes in wonderful settings, that would otherwise have involved buying expensive tickets and making bookings weeks in advance. And finally, participants get to advance their own knowledge of literature by attending these events.

To stoke this love of knowledge in literature, I conducted an enjoyable and cheeky literature quiz at this year’s Tata Lit Live! festival. I was delighted with the response, as members of the audience came up with better and cheekier answers than I could ever have imagined, to the questions which I asked. So, for all of you who love literature and litfests, let me wear my quizmaster’s cap, and end this article with an interesting question: Malgudi is the fictional town where the famous writer RK Narayan based his novels. What is the genesis of the name Malgudi? Do write in and let us know.

Harish Bhat works with the Tata Group. He is the author of the best-selling book “Tata Log”. He acknowledges the valuable inputs he has received from Jukta Basu Mallik in researching this article

Published on November 24, 2016

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