Apparently India now boasts of more than 200 literary festivals. There may well be more; each mofussil town now hosts one, or even more than one literary festival. Some of these are sponsored by huge corporates, some by newspapers and publishing houses, some by smaller companies, and some directly by governments. The advantages of these festivals are evident: readers get a rare chance to hear, and at times talk to some of the authors they have read or intend to read (or may never read). Authors get a chance to directly address local or regional literary communities, and understand the way they approach literature and ideas. And all this happens in a festive atmosphere, something creative writers at least, given their essentially solitary pursuit, are not used to.
Will the audience return to the books spoken of at the festival? Will the celebration promote reading or increase sales? Or is there a danger of their promoting celebrity culture or mediocrity? No one is sure; there seem to be arguments on both sides. But whether a festival makes a difference seems to depend on the kind of literary culture people take away from the festival. This point could be sharpened with the question of the politics of literary festivals, politics that can be hard to separate from their economics.
What happens, for example, when a company with defined and vested economic-political interests, acts as the chief sponsor of a literary festival? The argument is not that such events should necessarily promote an oppositional culture. But they do need to provide a liberal atmosphere for free discussion and debate, with enough space for non-hegemonic views, and peripheral visions of the society at large. Can a festival sponsored by a corporate — motivated more by profit and interested in pleasing the ruling dispensation for favours given, and to be given — provide an open platform for counter-cultural perspectives that often revolt against ‘common sense’? Common sense, as Antonio Gramsci defined it, is nothing but the distilled essence of the hegemonic view of society, politics and morality.
This question becomes important because literary festivals can provide space for dissent and diversity of views and opinions, especially in our times of shrinking cultural spaces. The Kerala Literature Festival held recently at Kozhikode in Kerala organised by D. C. Kizhakkemuri Foundation was a good example. Its theme was ‘No Democracy without Dissent’ and it had sessions on freedom of expression, the state of the media, science and myth, distortions of history, the plight of human rights in India etc. The speakers included several dissenting intellectuals, scholars, media people and writers of the left or liberal persuasion, including Romila Thapar, Ashis Nandy, Shabnam Hashmi, Shashi Kumar, Jairam Ramesh, Isaac Thomas, Kancha Ilaiah, Kanhaiya Kumar, Sagarika Ghosh, B. R. P. Bhaskar, Rajdeeep Sardesai , E. P. Unni, E. V. Ramakrishnan, Upinder Singh, Sunny M. Kapikadu, Sara Joseph, Shahina Sanal, Kumar Sasidharan, Prakash Raj, K. P. Ramanunni, Perumal Murugan, Kavita Lankesh, Cheran Rudramurthy, Ganesh Devy, Bama, Bina Paul and M. A. Baby. The editors of Guftugu took part in the deliberations. The focus was clear, even in the sessions with writers from abroad who interrogated the conventional concepts of ‘European’ or ‘English’ literatures. Faced with the qualitative decadence of liberal institutions; the calculated ideological take-over and occupation of conventional cultural spaces by the dominant right-wing ideologues and propagandists; and the threateningly systematic presence of paid cyber-terrorists on the new social media, we need to say ‘yes’ to literary festivals, but to a particular sort of festival. Let literary festivals flourish; but let democracy, diversity and dissent too flourish with them.