It was the unlikeliest setting for a “literature festival”. A run-down auditorium with rickety chairs secured with rope. Noisy ceiling and pedestal fans. Battle scarred tables covered with threadbare cloth. But the first edition of the People’s Lit Fest, held in Kolkata, was designed to be just that – a radically different interpretation of literature and its role in modern India.
Over two days in March, at Sukanta Mancha (named after the socialist-humanist poet Sukanta Bhattacharya) a packed auditorium of students, young activists, poets, singers, street performers and writers made a success of the unique, crowd-funded festival. The organisers were the Kolkata chapter of the Bastar Solidarity Movement, which pledged to present a people’s alternative to corporate sponsored appropriation of literary discourses.
“This is a platform” said Tamoghna Halder, one of the organisers of the festival. “From where we want to send out a message to the facist regime, to the capitalists that have appropriated literature. We want to create a space where dissent is welcome. Where no one should feel worried about a backlash if he/she speaks their mind,” he wrote in his welcome note.
“We all know how corporate giants have been suppressing the adivasis, grabbing their lands, livelihood and erasing their identity. In places like Bastar, which is one of the most militarised zones in the world, there is an information blackhole. It is time to change that. Bastar is now metaphor for the exploitation of our adivasis, our farmers and all that is also wrong with the facist regime. And when the companies that are destroying our land and its people suddenly turn around and say come let us talk about literature, it is ugly, distateful,” said Halder, before raising the resistance battle cry that kickstarted the festival.
“Corporations fund these festivals as part of their social responsibilities to wash their hands of the blood of the people and erase violent histories of land grab, eviction and murders in Kalinganagar, Niyamgiri, Bastar,” said Jhelum Roy, the festival’s other convener, in her address. “States watch on, encouraging and supporting these enterprises to whitewash histories of oppression, brutalities and structural inequalities, and ensuring status quo. In a cruel irony, mainstream literary festivals host sessions on ‘censorship’, ‘dissent’, and ‘resistance’, where writings on these very issues get awkwardly enveloped and museumed as ‘voices from the margins’ and eventually tamed into ‘order.’”
Citing instances of statues of Lenin, Ambedkar, Periyar being vandalised, free thinkers and voices of dissent being murdered and attempts to rewrite history to propagate a monolithic idea on nationalism, the hosts said that it becomes all the more important to orient literature to its critical social function. “To bring in the voices that challenge these structures and those that are simply not known because they have failed to find room in this system,” they said.
Roy spoke after the festival to Scroll.in, saying that the template was the India Progressive Writer’s Association, which was a space for people with diverse opinion and ideologies to come together in opposition. “We put in months of research to find these voices,” she said about the panelists.
Shahnaz Bashir, one of the most keenly followed writers from Kashmir, spoke of the resistance movement and its struggle for self determination while Sahitya Akademi winner Hansda Sowvendra Sekhar discussed stories from the Santhal community. Also present were popular writer and activist Rinchin, who has authored several books for children featuring standout child protagonists from the coal belt of Chattisgarh; poet Jacinta Kerketta, known for her blistering verses about “bloodstained rivers”, madua fields and saranda forests in Jharkhand; Chhaya Koregaonkar, the foremost figure in gender and caste struggle in Maharashtra, and poet Kutti Revathi, known for her dissenting views on women’s body, desire, sexuality.
Chandramohan S’s poetry about Islamophobia, Raja Puniyani’s strong views on the Gorkhaland resistance movement, and Varvara Rao’s perspective on culture emerging out of fascist repression were as much a part of the festival as Arun Ferreira’s take on art in prisons and Iravi’s stories of queer desire. So were Haripriya Soibam’s insights on women’s resistance of patriarchy within and outside Manipur and Vishu Rita Kroja’s ideas of preserving Naga oral traditions of story telling. Palestinian activist Mahmoud Nawaja’a, was also invited to speak about resistance literature in Palestine.
They talked about...what?
The sessions were interspersed with songs of resistance and folklore performed by groups from Kolkata and Bhopal. “The idea was to have intersectional panels, with various political standpoints and voices of self determination movements that question the existing power structure,” said Roy.
One of the sessions, titled, “What did you learn in school today”, spoke of how to talk to children about oppression. The discussion covered everything from caste structures to land grab, living in harmony with nature, and power equations between teachers and students.
At the other end of the spectrum was the session on the politics of “talking dirty”, which made a strong case for talking about sexuality with the kind of seriousness it deserves. Even progressive platforms shy away from discussing this, said the participants.
For many of the panelists, it was a genuinely unique experience. Between sessions, as they sipped on Kolkata cha at pavement teashops outside and shared a smoke, the conversation was about the novelty of the effort, the abundance of enthusiasm at work, and the need to have a space such as the PLF for a healthy discourse on dissent and resistance.
“We have received very positive feedback,” said Roy at the end of the festival. “We are looking at incorporating some of the inputs for next year,” she added, indicating that the festival was not a one-off. “The issues that we are raising, have been there and will be there. Which is why the PLF will be as relevant in the future as it is today.”