“We go to school, or are made to go,” McGurl writes in The Program Era, “to become richer versions of ourselves, however that might be defined. This doubleness is readily apparent in the educational endeavour called creative writing.” While this has easily translated into the proliferation of Creative Writing programmes in the US, it is far from being popular in Indian universities, barely existing outside of one or two new universities such as Ashoka and Ambedkar – a public university in Delhi which offers a two-year Masters in Literary Arts.
But the rarity of university-run creative writing programmes is more than matched by the sharp rise of a wide range of creative writing courses and workshops in urban communities outside the campus. I’ve been drawn into the lives of many of these, and there are several others I’ve heard much about.
Just a couple of months after I moved back to India, I got to meet a popular and influential Facebook group, Write and Beyond, which runs a series of meetings and workshops on reading and writing, both online and in-person in the Delhi-Gurgaon area. I was invited by Kiranjeet Chaturvedi, the coordinator of the group, to conduct a reading from one of my novels, to be followed by a creative writing workshop for the group.
This initiated my association with the group, and through events and other forms of collaborations, I came to get a sense of what a creative writing community might look like outside the university. In this instance – and I imagine this would be true of many community-driven creative writing groups – the participants came from a wide-variety of age groups, but most of them much older than the average college student.
After a stretch of working with 18-21-year olds, it was an invigorating experience reading the work of real adults who were, however, relatively new to writing. People ranged from their twenties to their fifties, and perhaps beyond, and in the case of this particular group, most of them were women, busy women who balanced careers with family responsibilities, and still took out time to write. Particularly through my work with the publication of a collection of stories by members of this group, Escape Velocity – again, all of them written by women – I saw a world entirely different from the youthful, often virtual and speculative world that dominated the writing of students at the university.
These stories were diverse in the regional cultures they represented, but what united them was a sense of quotidian life, a lingering love for it, sometimes in the context of family and sometimes against the backdrop of a profession – sometimes from a remote rural area but more often from metropolitan cities and their affluent suburbs. But there was a commitment to, and a muted love for, the banality of everyday life that I felt comes with living a little, with experience – and perhaps, importantly, from experiencing life as a woman. It was, for me, the best way I could have been introduced to a creative writing community outside the university.
Subsequently I have had the experience of holding sessions for various creative writing communities outside the university. Regular venues include high schools across India, where I have conducted workshops as part of the university’s outreach programme. Beyond academia, these have included events for publishers, at literary festivals, and writing groups in different cities.
I usually give a brief talk on the idea of creative writing, its history, the writing process and its various components, to be followed by one or more (depending on the time available) writing prompts. Then I give the participants some time to write, concluding with a session where they share their work with the group, which offers feedback.
I usually come away from these workshops enlivened, not just by the diversity of the participants – which have ranged from people in their seventies to a couple who brought their small child along – but more importantly, by the quality of the writing, the daring confessional quality, the willingness to experiment and air sensitive political views, moving dialogues and dreamlike longing and aspiration – and much, much else, far more than that to which I can do justice here. And between them, I feel, they have given me a real glimpse of the diversity that is India – the India that is Anglophone sometimes deliberately, sometimes accidentally, sometimes aspirationally, with the robust shadow of the indigenous vernaculars close behind.
Where authors teach writing
There are other well-known programmes, many of them run by practicing writers. Anita’s Attic is a creative writing and mentorship programme run by the novelist Anita Nair in association with Penguin Random House India. Since its inception in 2015, this programme has mentored 87 writers from a wide range of backgrounds, working in multiple genres: crime, fantasy and literary fiction, as well as children’s fiction, writing on health and well-being, and screenwriting. It has also had significant alumni success, with many of them publishing professionally, and winning residencies in India and abroad. Each cohort takes courses once a week, spread over 12 weeks, and includes sessions by visiting writers, publishers and agents.
There is also Bangalore’s World-Famous Semi-Deluxe Writing Program, started by Anjum Hasan, Eshwar Sundaresan, and Zac O’ Yeah in 2017. “We were not going to take ourselves or this whole business of selling creative writing too seriously,” writes Hasan, “hence the attempt at a tongue-in-cheek name.” It was initially planned as a weekend course over a couple of months each year. In addition to the founders, visiting writers conduct sessions on fields such as narrative journalism, children’s literature and translation. The goal is to expose the participants to a wide variety of genres so that they get a clearer sense of what really interests them.
They have completed three rounds of the programme successfully, though only a couple of students from each cohort of around 30 seem to have gone to pursue writing seriously. The desire to write, Hasan points out, is ubiquitous these days – people hope to articulate their uniqueness in a world of overwhelming sameness. “I like the idea of the creative writing classroom allowing space for people to express their individuality,” she said, “or perhaps just their loneliness, even if it’s not going to make writers of them all.”
Bangalore being a major IT hub in the country, many of the participants of this workshop are IT professionals. “There is,” Hasan said, “the stereotype of the soulless engineer, but often writing by engineers does reflect a sense of estrangement – not quite feeling at home in their routine jobs and trying to revive the creativity they might have once nursed dreams of.” The other thing that comes to surface, rather alarmingly, is how poorly read people are these days, including those aspiring to write. Since reading must be a requirement in any writing workshop, this brings to the surface the sad reality of more and more Indian moving away from literature as a means to engage with life.
The retreat model
Another series of workshops gaining increasing popularity are conducted by the Bound Writers’ Retreats, who usually host their events in Goa. It was set up in 2018 by Tara Khandelwal, a graduate of Barnard College and the Columbia Publishing Course. According to Michelle D’Costa, one of Bound’s coordinators, they conducted their first application-based writing retreat in Goa in March 2018. It was initially hard to find support, but a number of writers, including Chandrahas Choudhury, Ratika Kapur, and Amitabha Bagchi came on board as instructors.
Since then, a number of other writers have joined: Rhea Mukherjee, Aditi Rao, Prayaag Akbar, Tashan Mehta and others. They also offer classes online, in a number of genres: screenwriting, creative writing for children, blogging, fiction, poetry, meditative writing and more, and plan to introduce additional genres.
In addition to workshops, Bound also offers editorial, mentoring, and promotional services to writers. They also offer a popular podcast, “Books and Beyond With Bound.” The idea, according to. D’Costa, is help aspiring writers in every possible way, from honing their craft to finding ways of making an income through writing. Alumnae from Bound have been published by major publishers, have appeared in literary magazines, have gone on to do MFAs and have won prizes and fellowships.
Once creative writing is institutionalised in any venue – be it the university or in a community workshop – it is hard to separate it from a narrative of professionalisation, and even upward mobility. This comes with a negative aura of its own.
In the context of the rise of university creative writing programmes in the US, Mark McGurl argues that “to the degree that it would end up linking the profession of authorship with classrooms and committees and degree-credentialing and the like, creative writing cannot help pointing toward the unglamorous institutional practicalities of literary life in the postwar US and beyond.” It may refer to the old debate about spontaneity and cultivation in literature, or it may refer to any number of disputes, but in the end, it all comes to a certain suspicion of the professionalisation or academisation of the artistic process.
Offering a residency
One feature of the rise of creative writing culture that manages to stay outside the suspicion of professional instrumentalisation is the Writing Residency. Creating a short-term community of writers – usually in an idyllic, non-urban location – and supporting them with uninterrupted time to write and exchange work has been one of the most innovative and refreshing components of a culture that has become increasingly attentive to the process of writing as an activity that needs significant space and conscious support.
The best known writers’ residency in India is offered by Sangam House, set up by Arshia Sattar and DW Gibson. Inspired by Art Omi in New York’s Hudson Valley – previously directed by Gibson – Sangam House brings together writers from various cultures and languages, reserving about half the space for Indian writers working in various Indian languages, while the rest come from outside the country, working in different languages of the world.
In an essay written for Scroll, Gibson points out that they invite about 15 writers to stay at Sangam House, with most coming for four weeks, sharing the experience with three or four writers at a time. Sangam House does not own property; instead, as Gibson says, they “are nomadic, partnering with other arts organisations that have facilities to share.”
They spent two years in Puducherry with the theatre company Adi Shakti, subsequently moving to the village of Hessaraghatta, outside of Bengaluru, where they shared a campus with the dancers of Nrityagram. In 2018 they moved to Bengaluru, where they are hosted in The Jamun, a guesthouse that dedicates itself to supporting the arts.
“The nomadic model,” writes Gibson, “suits us for practical and creative reasons: we have a limited budget with an all-volunteer staff, so buying property is out of the question, but we also value what our collaborating partners bring to the Sangam House experience.” It adds to their repertoire of experience: “We get to crash dress rehearsals and share the dinner table with world class actors and dancers and directors and artists of various expressions.”
Over the years, Sangam House has become a coveted destination for writers, including several in the early stage of their careers. In a country where there are hardly any long-term fellowships for writers at work, either at universities or at other institutions, these short-term gatherings offer meaningful support to writers, if of a spiritual and symbolic variety, more than the kind of material or infrastructural that long-term fellowships or grants can offer.
But the former is important too, and anybody who has embarked on the many uncertainties of a writing life knows well, every little bit counts, all the more when it comes with the warm company of fellow travellers on their uncertain path. Trends such as these point to new patterns in the formation of national and international community of writers with a conscious attention to craft and process.
Talent versus system
The rise of a culture of “creative writing” in India doubtless brings along its own caveats – an excessive preoccupation with the professional, even mercenary aspects of the writing life, the “industrialisation” of the pursuit, as it were. And yet the development of a conscious attention to writing as a craft, and a communal gathering over its process can only be a good thing. If I’m allowed to conclude this survey with a personal observation, too often I have felt that there is a rich plenitude of artistic talent in India – but the arts tend to lack systems that can harness learning and experience for people.
Like most things in India, the arts, too, run on individual talent and charisma – but unlike our western counterparts, we rarely have the means through which a larger cross-section of aspirants can benefit from the talent and experience of individual practitioners. A cursory comparison with popular Bollywood and Hollywood films, or even the American and the Indian productions on OTT platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime says much: there are some brilliant and beautiful Indian productions on these platforms, and yet outside of these few striking ones, often in the rest the standards of production, be it acting, screenplay, or cinematography, things are appallingly poor, unlike even the uninspiring American productions, where these elements rarely fall below a certain level.
We see a similar pattern in print and online journalism – the presence of brave and talented journalists in India, apparently, do nothing to consolidate a larger system of excellence or professional structure. It is as if in spite of excellent individual practitioners, we suffer from a pattern of amnesia, unable to absorb larger, learnable skills, even if the magic of the purely personal talent must remain ineluctable to systems.
Literature, in its modern, printed form, is arguably the most abstract of all the arts, using the non-sensory form of language as its medium. It is also, I feel, the most intellectual, appealing directly to a certain consciousness rather than through any of the physical senses, as music, painting, or cinema do.
Given its bookish or textual nature, literature comes to occupy the intersection of the arts and academia with the greatest ease, coming to life as the most academic of all the arts, and conversely, the most artistic of all academic subjects. In India, where the study of English possesses a cultural, social, and even economic capital that it has now more or less lost in Anglo-American universities, the rise of a pedagogic culture around creative writing offers a new communal consciousness to an artistic practice that is becoming increasingly significant to the nation and its global diaspora.
Saikat Majumdar’s novels include The Firebird (2015) and The Scent of God (2019).