We are currently in a world where the Olympics have been postponed by a year, where Wimbledon has been cancelled for the first time since the Second World War, and where we are looking at the real possibility of a James Bond film being premiered on a web-streaming platform. It seems grandly delusional to worry about the fate of the humble literature festival in a world where such global marquee events have been felled by the Covid-19 and its aftermath.

However, it is a question that festival organisers are finally beginning to confront. What happens to the100-and-odd literature festivals that dot the calendar across the country in post-Covid times? For my team the question is: what happens to the Kolkata Literary Meet, which has come to occupy a major slot in the city’s January calendar?

The short answer is that each festival will have to work out a way to strengthen its digital presence as a Plan B for round-the-year book launches and events. It is unlikely that all festival think-tanks will have the same ideas, and each one should ideally follow their own creative and innovative path. Apart from this, one will have to rethink the structure of the main event.

As part of the Tata Steel Kolkata Literary Meet team, there is some solace in the fact that the next edition of the festival is still nine months away, and the optimistic side of the brain is hoping a semblance of normalcy will be restored by then. Sure, even in a best case scenario, there will be masked faces in a more scattered seating formation, listening to masked authors speaking into freshly sanitised mics. There may be fewer writers from overseas as people will minimise non-essential travel, but one hopes an on the ground festival will be possible in early 2021 – perhaps in February instead of January.

The absence of overseas stalwarts might result in sessions with writers uplinked from different parts of the world, to converse with speakers or moderators at the venue. The other two festivals organised by Gameplan are in Bhubaneswar and Ranchi, the Tata Steel Bhubaneswar Literary Meet and the Jharkhand Literary Meet, respectively. They too will be affected for at least one year even in a best-case scenario.

The rush to go online

At present, many of the festivals are using their social media pages and handles like never before because the situation does give the term “captive audience” a whole new meaning. Every festival’s curating team imagines their followers on social media are thirsting for intellectual succour in these trying times and we have all sprung to the task, rolodex in hand!

While it is clear that people are spending a lot of time on the social media, our research (very limited in sample size because of the prevailing situation) suggested that a long conversation of talking heads in drawing rooms/studies across the globe is not what most people are thirsting for.

So, at the Kolkata Literary Meet we have opted for shorter videos of readings by authors and speakers who have been part of our festivals. The evergreen Ruskin Bond, actor Vinay Pathak, Chocolat author Joanne Harris,writer-poet-filmmaker Chandril Bhattacharya, poet Srijato and diplomat-author Pavan Varma, to name a few, were sporting enough to read before a propped up personal device – a far cry from iridescent shamianas and milling marquees.

Many more are planned, with the aim of reflecting the trilingual (English, Bangla and Hindi/Urdu) programming that the festival has boasted of over the years. The response to each of these readings has been encouraging. Ranging from two minutes to 12 minutes, each one has had many viewers, running into tens of thousands.

The Jaipur Literature Festival is running conversations under the banner of Brave New World with speakers from across the globe participating in the discussions. Other festivals are offering book recommendations, posting messages from authors and reposting popular sessions from past festivals. Ravi Deecee, who helms popular festivals in Sharjah and Calicut, organised livestreamed sessions through the day to celebrate World Book Day on April 23.

The next logical step will be for festivals to collaborate with publishers to have online book launches.This format can also be used to give a leg-up to books that might have been deemed too niche for a multicity launch even in normal times. That might be one way in which publishers and festivals can deal with the current situation. If done well, some of these activations will be viable in kinder times as well, providing new writers a great platform to meet readers.

Unrehearsed and real

But these are events that happen between two winters, the season of the on-ground literature festivals. The question that confronts everybody involved over the next few months is: Will a literature festival be a literature festival without the multi-coloured arena, the visiting writers, the eminent artistes from other fields, and most crucially, teeming crowds? In a world where our consumption of content had become increasingly virtual, the literature festival was an oasis of live spectacle, of hearing and seeing the authors one had read for years, of idols, gurus and superstars suddenly being made accessible.

The thrill of being able to get a book signed, a quick photograph and, with a bit of luck, getting to speak to the author – these were the moments that made the literature festival such a popular event. The web possesses a magic of its own – it brings TS Eliot alive through a reading of The Waste Land by the poet himself, it enables us to watch Andrea Bocelli live from our living room. But its magic is different from the magic of the unrehearsed live experience, which still is the Holy Grail for audience satisfaction.

As Bachi Karkaria, media stalwart and director of the Times Literature Festival in Mumbai put it: “Being a believer in warm-blood relationships, the live experience is vital; virtual comes nowhere near it, despite all the razzle-dazzle that tech can pull off these days. That’s because, as in any significant experience, the conversations, interactions and casual encounters outside the discussion halls are as important. This is why at Times Lit fest we expended so much energy on an immersive offering.”

Razi Ahmed, who helms the Lahore Literature Festival, agreed with Karkaria: “Without the festive atmosphere and the rapt audiences, LLF, or any other festival, will never have the desired social and intellectual impact, as interactions in a physical setting are critical to a more meaningful way of advancing intellectual and social inquiry.’

New formats?

Can the literature festival assume a TED talks avatar? It seems slightly difficult, since TED’s success lies in the fact that it was imagined as a virtual platform, and even within that brief each conversation is a live talk with an audience. For a lit fest to remain true to its identity, the live festival is simply irreplaceable.

“The physical festival might be delayed by the Covid-19 lockdown, there may be a tech presence in the form of uplinks with international speakers, but the fests will have to take place physically,” said Ravi Deecee. “Going completely virtual is not possible, but through this scenario, we might learn to use uplinks to enhance the live festival. In time we could use tech uplinks to connect with writers like Yuval Noah Harari and Paulo Coelho.’

There are as many opinions and points of views as there are lit fests, but there is a broad consensus that some festivals will perish because of a post-pandemic lack of sponsors and an economic downturn. Said Karkaria, ‘A few big city ones will survive because they have the audiences and the deep pockets, but I’ve become a fan of smaller, intimate ones such as KSLF at Kasauli (though here I’m biased because Khushwant Singh was my first boss and all-time mentor) and Bhutan’s Mountain Echoes.”

Running literature festivals is synonymous with expecting the unimagined. From the vigorously vegan demands of a speaker to the author with hay fever who could not walk past the winter blossoms at Victoria Memorial, from protests at the festival gates to the American author who wishes to put on a sari after reaching the venue, we’ve seen it all. However, nothing ever prepared any of us for a pandemic where touch and proximity would be taboo.

A mix of venue management, crowd control, responsible practices of social distancing and sanitising, and perhaps a delayed start are what seem inevitable at this moment. However, a few festival directors are looking at perhaps one edition being virtual before the world gets back to some form of normalcy. “Lahore Lit Fest is a flexible idea to adapt to the times by becoming while the world is under lockdown – a virtual event to keep the traditions that Lahore is known for, of open discourse and enlarging the landscape of learning,’ said Ahmed.

A new chapter is unfolding for the world we live in and it is clear that dystopia is not as much fun to live through as it is to read about it. The festivals that are spry, innovative and patient will be the ones who survive the virus as well as the doubts and fear it has brought in its wake.

Malavika Banerjee is director of the Tata Steel Literary Meets in Kolkata, Bhubaneswar and Jharkhand.

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.