Our father, Thakur Vishva Narain Singh, was a writer and a journalist. As the first-ever Braille editor in India, he helped usher the visually impaired into the world of reading. His translations of entire manuscripts into Braille gave the visually impaired access to both Indian and foreign literature. For us, his three daughters, he brought home an endless supply of books every month. He never refused to buy us books and made sure we learned to experience the world through words.

I remember how well my father could tell a story, holding a listener’s attention until the last word had been spoken. A wonderful raconteur, no conversation he initiated was ever boring, and no library that he knew of was never short of books.

After my father’s death, we wanted to pay tribute to a man who had touched so many lives during his lifetime. But as we got off the Mussoorie Express on an early morning in 2010, armed with backpacks full of books, we never thought that this journey would become an annual affair. For us, it was a trip to reclaim a part of our identity, to pay tribute and forge our own alliance with Dehradun. It was a transition – from what was to what would be. For the first time, it would be without our father’s presence.

This, then, was the beginning of Ghummakad Narain – the travelling literature festival. Both the name and its concept were wholly inspired by my father’s life: Narain, an elderly book-lover, travels around the world with his books, reading stories aloud to children he meets along the way. The Kathakar festival has emerged from Ghummakkad Narain, though, over the years, the two festivals have gained enough traction to stand alone individually. They have taken place at different times and places, never simultaneously.

Early days

The first edition of Ghumakkad Narain was inaugurated by Margaret Alva, then the Governor of Uttarakhand, along with celebrated author and mountain man Stephen Alter. A section of the festival was held in Delhi, and while the programme reached out to both privileged and underprivileged children, its main objective was to provide a wholesome reading experience to children who had neither held a storybook in their hands nor interacted with a writer or a storyteller.

Several cartons full of books were donated to state government schools in and around the capital city of Uttarakhand as well as to municipal and the municipal schools of Delhi. The students were first generation learners and their parents were not educated. A carefully chosen set of writers accompanied us to the government schools. We also donated books to each child individually, in addition to setting up a library for these schools.

This yielded results. Within a month, teachers contacted us with requests for more books as the children had finished reading the set we’d left with them. The next year, when we returned to the same schools, we discovered that some of the principals had requested separate budgets from the state administration to purchase books for their students. And so it was that Ghumakkad Narain set the wheel of change in motion. Over the years, the festival has managed to reach out to less-privileged children in far-flung areas of the country like Meghalaya and Kashmir.

As an independent offshoot of Ghumakkad Narain, Kathakar began in 2010 as well, as the first and only oral storytelling festival of India. Supported by UNESCO, the festival was begun to preserve and promote the ancient art of oral story-telling in India. Over the years, it has been home to many annual workshops, drawing audiences from across the country. It is usually held in Delhi, though it has occasionally travelled to Bengaluru and Mumbai as well.

Over the last decade, under the umbrella of both Ghumakkad Narain and Kathakar, we have visited all kinds of venues: a school in Haridwar set up by a mother-daughter duo to educate children from neighbourhood slums; a state government school on the outskirts of Dehradun, where the principal contributed her own salary to support extra-curricular activities; boarding schools in Shillong and NGO-run shelters for the underprivileged in Darjeeling, Mumbai, and Dharamshala.

No matter the location, we found that some things never changed. Children loved activity-based sessions like illustrations and how to create a comic book. Storytelling was always a huge hit. Anywhere one went, irrespective of age, everyone loved a good story. We even resorted to puppet stories and film screenings for better and more meaningful engagement.

The response that we received over the years encouraged us to take bigger steps to ensure that books reached places where they had never gone before. So, Ghummakkad Narain worked together with UNESCO on the Donate-a-Book campaign, urging the public to donate books to underprivileged children. There followed the Herculean task of preparing inventories of books, of finding the right takers, and of managing logistics such as transportation. The programme concluded with over one lakh books being donated to school and community libraries across the country.

Covid attack

The year 2020 was the 10th anniversary of Ghummakad Narain. We had planned a major celebration, but Covid-19 threw the proverbial spanner into the works. As spring became summer, it became more than evident that the physical celebrations – originally planned at Sunder Nursery in Delhi – would have to be postponed.

For Kathakar as well, we had to push back the dates – from October, to November, to a reluctant realisation that it would have to be held in the spring of 2021. What was immensely comforting was the fact that requests kept pouring in for special digital sessions – across Zoom, Instagram and Facebook – for schools and other cultural institutions.

It seemed that digital would be the only viable alternative in the days to come. It would help us to reach out to those who, in the past, had not been able to attend our festivals. But there was a new problem. For, the team – like true storytellers – hated the idea of a digital medium on which to tell stories. The best kind of stories are the ones that are told and heard in person.

There is a lot that goes into the telling of a good story – an ambience and atmosphere has to be created, for one, which requires the investment of a huge amount of energy on the part of the directors. It seemed unacceptable to all of us that audiences should have to lose out on this precious aspect of telling stories. But it seemed that the pandemic would force us to continue digitally, whether we liked it or not.

However, as the hopes for performance-related travel continued to dwindle, and as restrictions on social distancing increased, the writing seemed to be on the wall. The team, therefore, designed a digital format of Kathakar to mark its 10th-year celebrations. In its physical form, Kathakar was a three-day format, lasting for anywhere between five to six hours a day. The digital version is designed as an hour-long extravaganza of stories from around the world.

GhummakkadNarain, too, moved into the digital world, by holding a few virtual sessions for select schools. But an important section of our audience was missing out: the less-privileged schools. These children did not have access to smartphones, computers or the Internet. The class libraries, which we had helped to establish in their schools, remained locked. In 2020, Ghumakkad Narain dispatched its first annual batch of books for students. But the move met with little success. School staff was limited, and it was difficult for deliveries to be made to students individually.

Ideally, during the pandemic, children should have been provided with as much reading material as possible to help them cope with missing school and daily lessons. But then, no one was prepared for something like this – certainly not schools catering to the underprivileged. While private schools tried going digital for everything, from subject classes to yoga, from craft to even sports, children attending public and government schools lost a year of learning and gaining knowledge.

After the pandemic

Of course, it is just a matter of time before life returns to normal. And when it does, we need to prepare for children returning to school. The festival is, therefore, preparing itself for the next phase. Starting January 2021, Ghummakkad Narain will bring books and interactive digital literary sessions for children, tucked away in the far reaches of the North-East.

These include curated workshops, wherein children will engage with resource persons. There will be discussions and activities to supplement the readings and talks. In order to make the pandemic edition of the festival a success, we have tied up with state governments to reach out to children as they return to schools, to help them acclimatise, learn and heal. We believe that literature and the arts will play an important role in helping children make up for lost time, enabling them to adjust to “the new normal” and providing healing of a different kind to cope with the year the children have lost.

As far as Kathakar goes, the way forward will be a digital edition, which will help us to reach out to new and previously inaccessible areas and audiences. We believe that the digital medium will enable our under-privileged audiences to be a part of the festival, and we hope to accomplish this through tie-ups with schools and state governments. So perhaps, in a post-covid world, the digital platform will allow everyone access to our books, irrespective of geography.

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