Literary festivals are carnivals for global travellers. They have no space for serious questions

They are turning writers into performers and readers into passive spectators and fans.

The Jaipur Literary Festival concluded its latest edition under a cloud recently, with criticism from some writers over the inclusion of participants from the far right-wing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the festival’s continued sponsorship by the Zee group, which led a high decibel campaign against Jawaharlal Nehru University students last year. These are interesting issues but they are part of the problem, not the problem itself. It is time to give serious consideration to the model of the literary festival itself.

Over the last decade we have seen a mushrooming of literary festivals in India. Not just literary festivals, but also art biennales, think festivals and multi cultural festivals. Despite their intellectual pretensions and growing influence little thought has been given to the reason for this rapid proliferation or its implications. Media narratives suggest that the phenomenon is driven purely by the passions of creative individuals turned founders stumbling upon a yawning public need. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Borrowed robes

The zeal of festival founders notwithstanding, it is important to point out that the model they are replicating is not original. It has existed for a while now and its inception has little to do with creativity or cultural necessity. The cultural festival emerged in a substantial way in 1980s Europe, spreading to other parts of the world, including Asia and Africa, in response to a need to sell cities.

Known as the “opera and croissants” strategy – like the Roman “bread and circuses” – the staging of cultural events (art biennales, music and literary festivals) and setting up of infrastructure for the arts was perceived as a potent tool to attract money, either from high spending tourists or as investment in offices by transnational corporations whose employees would like to live in places rich in culture and cosmopolitanism.

“More and more, a broad and high quality of cultural facilities, industries, experiences, images and lifestyles is a basic prerequisite of a place’s ‘membership of the club’ of internationally successful cities,” claims a 2003 report for the Liverpool City Council on “Harnessing and Exploiting the power of Culture for competitive advantage”.

Whether the benefits of the cultural strategy justify the high expenditure on it is not yet clear, though that has not stopped its spread across the world. What has however been a source of concern is the social and political cost of the strategy.

Scholars and planners have found that the prioritisation of the needs of the global traveller (and also, to some extent, of the globally-travelled local elite) has led to an undermining of inclusiveness and democratic processes.

The Kala Ghoda story

Let me try to interpret this in the Indian context by looking at festivals not through the narratives of schedules, celebrities and controversies as they are usually seen, but through the lens of geography and politics.

One of the earliest festivals, a precursor in some ways to the trend, is the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival in Mumbai. The festival, a multi-cultural event including art, music and literature was started in 1999 by a group of prominent citizens, which aimed: “to preserve and refurbish the heritage arts district of Mumbai with the co-operation of local authorities”. The district in question being Kala Ghoda in downtown Mumbai.

Having studied at Elphinstone College, a large Victorian neo Gothic building in the heart of the district and worked in the maze of bylanes abutting the central square, I have vivid recollections of the neighbourhood as it was till the early 2000s. I recall the daily buzz outside the city civil and sessions court at the end of Hope Street, the smell of glue and sambhar from the printing units and Udipi cafes in the lanes between Rampart Row and the Stock Exchange and monster buses ferrying outstation tourists and schoolchildren to the Prince of Wales Museum and the Jehangir Art Gallery.

I remember riffling through new work by KH Ara at the Artists Centre after running into him on the street, a striding, barefoot Hussain, and IS Johar in Rajneesh robes at Samovar in the morning. I remember graffiti on the cubicle walls at Rhythm House, prostitutes at dusk, a family and its wild-haired companions on the broad pavement curving around the bend from Max Mueller Bhavan. In Arun Kolatkar’s Kala Ghoda poems I would meet them again: the yellow dogs, the leper band, the legless hunchback on his homemade skateboard and the bandanna- headed begger.

I walked around the precinct recently, two decades after the commencement of the Kala Ghoda festival, and felt I was in a foreign land, literally. Hushed cul de sacs and glamorous shop-fronts resembled the upscale shopping area of a western city while the restaurant signboards offered a quick world tour: Irish House, Mamagoto, Burma Burma, The Pantry, La Folie, Cheval. Even the corner tea stall looked like it had been made over in Brooklyn. Old, familiar landmarks, Samovar, Rhythm House, Madras Cafe and Wayside Inn, had given way to designer stores and ateliers: Sabyasachi, the Bombay Shirt Company, Obataimu, Ritu Kumar. Shops stocked quirky India and Mumbai memorabilia. There were new art galleries with buzzer operated doors. The columns outside Elphinstone where prostitutes lounged at night were enclosed by iron railings. Where the ragged family once cooked, slept and played was a pavement art gallery.

Altering the discourse

Gentrification, the creation of anodyne spaces where the global traveller can feel at home is a critical factor in the making of the contemporary global city. The exclusion of the poor, the stigmatised and the eccentric from these spaces is a necessary part of the process. But to formulate and execute exclusionary policies without risking a political backlash requires a diminution of the public voice. And this is where I believe the literary festival has played a key, if perhaps unwitting, role.

Festival websites convey a perception of festivals as a benign force providing space for serious discussion and touting free access as an egalitarian measure. But if you think about it, festivals have completely altered older forms of discourse, the political implications of which are never discussed.

What are the implications for instance, of turning writers into performers and readers into passive spectators and fans? India had a prolific media and local forums including roadside addas for discussing literature and politics. What are the implications of the enclosures of time, space and sensibility imposed by cultural festivals on this landscape?

The Salman Rushdie affair at the Jaipur Literary Festival in 2012 provided an opportunity to consider these questions. The facts of the case are well known. Muslim groups protested the participation of Rushdie, author of the controversial The Satanic Verses. The Congress then in power, used informal means to keep Rushdie away. A videoconference with him was later cancelled too.

At JLF, fury reigned over Rushdie’s enforced absence. Fellow writers read out passages from The Satanic Verses in solidarity. Attendees fulminated about dirty politics (the Congress’s reluctance to provide safe passage to Rushdie was seen as a nod to its electoral constituency) and railed at the state. That people at a literary festival should be worked up about an assault on free speech is natural and as things should be. Then why did the incident seem disquieting to me?

By the time of the JLF-Rushdie incident, over two decades had passed since the publication of the controversial book which forced Rushdie into hiding and left many casualties on both sides of the freedom of expression fence. (As a reporter I had first-hand experience of agitations in Mumbai which left nine Muslim protesters dead). More significantly, in the intervening years intolerance against free expression in general had snowballed in India. A library had been set on fire, cinema halls picketed, plays disrupted, books withdrawn from syllabi, journalists attacked. This background did not seem to enter into the consciousness of JLF.

But there were a myriad ways in which it could have. It could have entered for instance as a reflection on the shifting contours of free speech protection. Amitav Ghosh, who was not at the festival, wrote a thoughtful piece about the powerlessness of governments in confronting threats to freedom by non state actors. It could have entered as an effort to imagine new ways of breaking the long, impasse between proponents of free speech and religion, “a language in which this dialogue could be held” as the writer Tabish Khair (also not at the festival) suggested. It could have heralded the start of a movement to protect writers across the country, people in positions far more vulnerable than Rushdie. That could have suggested an empathy between the festival and the reality of the world around it.

But there was none. The moment was all. There was a stagey quality to the whole saga. The actors – the organisers, a politically savvy TV anchor stirred to an anti-politics position by the occasion, the absent celebrity writer, and festival attendees milling about the partially lit venue, tense with expectation, slapping their foreheads, shedding tears.

The episode with its dislocated quality could have played out like a film in a cinema hall to a select audience. But it didn’t. The festival screamed, shouted, clawed out through newspapers, television screens, and drawing room conversations till everyone was involved in its story of thwarted hope. “The spectacle appears at once as society itself, as a part of society and as a means of unification. As a part of society, it is that sector where all attention, all consciousness, converges” wrote Guy Debord in 1967.

And this is the crux of the matter. Over the last decade or so the carnivalesque, celebratory and spectacular approach to ideas and literature has come to occupy a disproportionately dominant space in our lives, to garner and focus cultural clout within itself. It is no wonder then that the ruling dispensation, the RSS, is moving in.

Amrita Shah is the author of Ahmedabad: A City in the World.

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