Of Festivals and Literature

“Literary festivals may be a celebration of the written words and a treat for the art lovers but they are no exception to nepotism, sensationalism and exclusive club cultures.”


Ik sukhan aur ki phi rang e takkalum tera

Harf e sada ko inayat karay aijaz ka rang

One more skill yet the hue of your conversation,

turns an ordinary word into a miracle.
– Faiz Ahmed Faiz

Sherlock Holmes, the great fictional detective, once observes wryly to his friend and chronicler Dr Watson – ‘There is nothing new under the sun Watson, it has all been done before’. One is tempted to repeat these words today for the surfeit of literary festivals that seem to be springing up in every corner of the country – from the metros to obscure towns, from hill stations to coastal lands. Each time I log on to social media, I notice friends, acquaintances and friends of acquaintances attending one literary festival or the other. Literary festivals are the rage, and if the ever increasing number of festivals is anything to go by, soon there will be hardly any major city that will not have hosted one. From Shimla to Kerala, Ahmedabad to Shillong, the pleasing hill station of Dehradun to the nondescript Patna and all the way to the raging heat of Hyderabad, literary festivals are held everywhere and in every weather.  The concept, however, is hardly new. In antiquity, the Greeks held such festivals regularly, where rhetoric, poetry and several other oral forms were performed before approving audiences. The modern festivals are progeny of these festivals, and take their cue from them.

Like every social phenomenon though, literary festivals are boons and banes, depending on the degree to which optimism finds favour with one.  

I, personally, find it hard to side with the naysayers and firmly nod aye in the direction of festivals. I have attended three literature festivals so far and came back having thoroughly enjoyed two of them. Book lovers jostling to listen to their favorite authors tell their stories of writing, poetry in a variety of tongues or an evening whiled on a grass bank under the starry sky humming to Sufi music; attended by eager volunteers, and experiences of a similar nature are hard to ignore.

Literary festivals are an alluring mix of men and women of letters celebrating the beauty of words. The question, however, remains, who and what purpose do these literary festivals serve? Literary festivals are not just about being far from the ignoble strife of the madding crowd. These festivals offer a rare feast to literature lovers by congregating writers from across the spectrum – from English to vernacular, from known to lesser known to completely unknown, regional to international, all under a common roof. As readers we get to see the authors in action and get new insights into their work, by way of understanding their inspirations, routine and intentions which open up ways of understanding the text.

Literature festivals, especially the ones focused on poetry like – Jashn-e-Rekhta should be given the credit of giving the readers an opportunity to experience the text in performance. Text transform into dynamic, more pleasurable entities with the inflection of voice, gestures and mood when performed. Unlike the good old days where the Radio would train our auditory senses  to actively understand the nuances of the text, our auditory capabilities are turning passive in the age of smart phones. Literary festivals are unique in evoking all our senses as text readings train us to be more receptive to the non-textual signals enhancing our ability to perceive literature. Moreover, literature festivals nurture a thriving ecosystem for arts. Along with providing the readers an excellent opportunity to see and listen to their favorite authors in flesh and blood, emerging and lesser known authors get to present their work to a large receptive audience.

Besides the printed words these festivals include features like food, art, painting and music. They promote and cultivate a creative space where readers can meet the creator behind the art. Attending book festivals can also help to expose readers to new and different kinds of books that they may not have heard of or read otherwise.  

All said and done, we can’t ignore the fact that literature festivals, even the most well intentioned ones including the Cannes of the literature world – Jaipur literature festival is infested with glamorous crowd pulling faces from the film world, models, singers, nutrition experts, who take up the space from the real writers and poets. A trip to these festivals and it won’t take you long to understand that some of the writers and performers with their seemingly impressive bios which boast of having been invited to the festivals all over the world are mediocre artists who land up there by the virtue of their powerful network with the organizers than any real talent.

The coterie culture is also greatly nourished by these festivals, and aided by social media has turned into an unavoidable feature of the events. Birds of the same feather flock together, and artists are no different. At every event, you find lesser known men trying to cozy up to powerful mediocre men, who by dint of networking and resources hold immense cultural power. They, in turn, humor powerful stars of the literary world who can get the eyeballs, often at the expanse of more talented yet ignored writers. However, nepotism is the way of the world. The course of true love never runs straight and the world is not always fair. It is unfair to single out festivals for this. Powerful connections get you places everywhere!

So, I believe that these festivals with all their faults are a celebration of words. And celebration of words signifies celebration of freedom, expression and  community of art lovers as opposed to the muzzling of free voices, oppression and factionalism, that have become the hallmark of our times.

Richa Singh is a content writer with Investronaut. She is a voracious reader and a keen traveller.