Lit fest nation | Why are literary gatherings mushrooming in India?

Jaipur Literature Festival set the tone, but the rise in the number of lit fests since proves that the market is strong for events that unite books, stars, and life experiences

February 09, 2024 04:52 pm | Updated February 11, 2024 05:09 pm IST

A section of the audience at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2024.

A section of the audience at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2024. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Jitlal, the auto driver I meet outside Hotel Clarks Amer, isn’t entirely sure what the big event that has taken over his city is about. If he’s to guess, he says, it would be something to do with celebrities. He’s noticed the heavy security outside the main gates of the venue of the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) and knows that this is an annual affair, whatever?this?is. But he keeps track of the dates and plans to be back at the hotel’s gates next year too. “I get five times my usual business during this?mela,” he says.

A folk performer at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2024.

A folk performer at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2024. | Photo Credit: Swati Daftuar

There are many in Jaipur like Jitlal who track the dates of this festival, knowing that it will boost their business. Prep for JLF, often called “the greatest literary show on earth”, starts early and involves a large number of individuals and organisations. At a glance, the numbers for the festival’s 17th edition are impressive: 400 volunteers selected from over 1,400 applications, around 4,000 vendors, more than 500 speakers over 200 sessions, and over 4,00,000 visitors from across the world. JLF debuted in 2006 with 18 authors and some 100 visitors.

At this year’s inaugural session, Rajasthan’s Deputy Chief Minister Diya Kumari, who has been associated with the festival since its inception, spoke of its impact on the city it calls home. “Five days of the JLF do more for tourism than what the State government does for attracting visitors during the entire year,” she said, adding that tourists, when planning their trip to Jaipur for the event, also carve out time to take in other attractions, bringing in business for both the city and the State.

I find an echo of this in my conversation with a group of young students from Sunbeam school in Varanasi. While the school has sent a group of teachers and students especially for the festival, they have been taking recommendations for their time outside it — where to eat the best?ghevar?or buy beautiful?leheriya?saris. Hotels receive bookings well in advance. JLF itself partners with around 25 hotels, from budget to luxury properties. Online reviews for stays in Jaipur now often include comments such as “perfect location for JLF”, “easy walk to site of JLF”, and so on.

Jaipur-based businesses too work in anticipation of the festival dates. Vidhi Mittal, owner of Beads & Beyond, a jewellery brand, has been a part of JLF’s ‘Festival Buzzaar’ for three years now, and designs a line especially for the event. Tarang Arora, creative director of the popular Amrapali Jewels, says his business sees a “30% spurt just in these five days”. At his cocktail party held to coincide with JLF, the eclectic crowd this year included designer Ritu Kumar, writer-director Mozez Singh, producer and author Koel Purie, author and JLF founder William Dalrymple and actor Ila Arun, among others, all gathered to “celebrate Jaipur, its art and culture, and JLF”, says Arora.

A festival in every city

Jaipur Literature Festival was launched in 2006 with just 18 authors
Down south, The Hindu Lit Fest debuted in 2010 as a one-day event
In Arunachal Pradesh, the Ziro Literary Festival runs parallel to the popular music extravaganza, Ziro Festival
Kerala Literature Festival takes the love of books to the beach, in Kozhikode
The venue of The Hindu Lit Fest in Chennai.

The venue of The Hindu Lit Fest in Chennai. | Photo Credit: Akhila Easwaran

According to Sanjoy Roy, Managing Director of Teamwork Arts, the entertainment company that produces and organises JLF, perhaps the biggest success of the event is the fact that since it began, over 60 literary festivals have sprung up in the country, with many of them pushing the format, trying new things, experimenting with scale, style and ideas. “Today, every city in India hopes to have a festival like JLF,” he says.?But how much sway do books and reading hold in the face of ever-diminishing attention spans and screen addiction?

Ananth Padmanabhan, CEO, HarperCollins India, says the COVID-19 pandemic proved to be a “forced tipping point” for literature festivals in India. “People were forced to stay home, and many of them turned to books.” With the number of readers growing, the pull of lit fests is stronger than ever. “People go to meet their favourite authors, watch some of the biggest stars perform, and in the age of social media, it becomes a place to be seen at,” he says.

Evidently, this change is also reflected in the programming of literature festivals, which now includes life coaches and chefs, performing artists and actors. “We think about the curation a lot, and we ensure that everything is connected. It doesn’t necessarily have to be about a book, but it shouldn’t become just a?tamasha,” says Nirmala Lakshman, Chairperson,?The Hindu?Group, and Director and Curator,?The Hindu?Lit Fest.

The Ooty Literary Festival is held in a heritage library building from the 1860s.

The Ooty Literary Festival is held in a heritage library building from the 1860s. | Photo Credit: Courtesy Ooty Literary Festival

While a handful of these are large-scale festivals (two, for instance, are run by media groups —?The Hindu?and?The Times of India), several others are smaller events exploring specific themes — for instance, the Crime Literature Festival in Dehradun, which debuted last year, or the Bengaluru-based Neev Literature Festival for children, which is very popular with young parents. The Ooty Literary Festival, last October, put the spotlight on the ecological importance of the Nilgiri Biosphere and diverse communities. Says trustee Kalpana Kar, “It was Ooty’s bicentennial year, so we ramped up the literary festival with music, exhibitions, home-cooked food stalls and so on. There was a lot of excitement among the visitors to celebrate Ooty.”

Unusual venues
The Ooty Literary Festival is held in a heritage library building from the 1860s. “Of course, there is a huge charm to it, but there are also challenges to hosting an event inside a heritage building, where you can’t change or add anything. So, we can’t add washrooms inside, the building has only one toilet, we can’t add a ramp, and the high ceilings affect the acoustics,” says festival trustee Kalpana Kar. “We have to work around this, but the warmth and charm of holding the event in a building such as this makes the challenges worth it.”
Audience at the Shillong Literary Festival held in November 20023.

Audience at the Shillong Literary Festival held in November 20023.

Literary festival curations have also become a good reflection of present-day concerns and issues — and while not all sessions feature heated debates, there is a spirited exchange of ideas. This year, for instance, reactions to the Israel-Palestine war dominated conversations at several of the festivals. At the Shillong Literary Festival last November, held against the backdrop of?the scenic Ward’s Lake in Shillong, with blooming cherry blossom trees lining the park, the ethnic violence in Manipur was among the topics of discussion.?

Depending on the scale of the festival, the cost of organising these can range from?several lakh rupees for smaller, single-day gatherings, to several crores for the larger events spread over multiple venues and days.

Doing the circuit

Nobel laureate author Abdulrazak Gurnah at this year’s Kolkata Literary Meet.

Nobel laureate author Abdulrazak Gurnah at this year’s Kolkata Literary Meet. | Photo Credit: DEBASISH BHADURI

Increasingly, it’s not unusual for an author to do the “festival circuit” — plan their trip around one big stop, usually the JLF, and catch, before and after it, the other literary events during what is often referred to as the “festival season” (October to February). Mukund Padmanabhan, former editor of?The Hindu?and?The Hindu Business Line, has travelled to literature festivals from Kolkata to Kozhikode over the past few months with his new book,?The Great Flap of 1942, and attests to the varying nature of each event. “A lot of lit fests cater to an audience that is principally English-speaking and somewhat westernised. But at the Kerala Literature Festival held in Kozhikode, the audience diversity was phenomenal. I saw a Malayali author getting ‘mobbed’ by his fans, it was heartwarming,” he says.

Every such festival adds to the personality of the host city. “From the intimacy of?The Hindu?Lit Fest and the Hyderabad Literature Festival, which makes it easy to meet people, to the buzzing and active JLF to the well-organised Kolkata Literary Meet, which has the stunning Victoria Memorial as its backdrop, each festival has a character that is unique and must be retained,” says Mukund Padmanabhan.

?ISRO chairman S. Somanath at The Hindu Lit Fest 2024.

?ISRO chairman S. Somanath at The Hindu Lit Fest 2024. | Photo Credit: R. Ravindran

And while there’s no comparison with the footfall of an event like JLF, most of the other festivals too have found their target audience. Just like authors, literature enthusiasts too complete their “festival circuit”. “We have people coming from Bengaluru, Coimbatore and other places regularly. At this year’s festival, a woman from Madurai came up to me and said that she has attended seven editions of?The Hindu?Lit Fest,” says Lakshman. “And visitors are okay with the fact that the sessions are not necessarily only about books — it’s about ideas and about putting in words life’s experiences. We are looking at a wider understanding of what the literature festival is all about.”

Of course, running a literature festival is not without its challenges. Roy speaks about how, once the footfall at JLF grew, ticketing the event became a necessity to manage the numbers. And then, so did moving the venue from heritage property Diggi Palace to Clarks Amer. “One of the basic agendas we started with was to create value for built heritage,” he says. Post its JLF years, Diggi Palace is a 4-star luxury heritage hotel with room rates?starting at roughly ?7,000?for a night’s stay. It was once a hostelry letting out rooms and bedsits for ?750 per night. “Many heritage hotels have taken from the success story of Diggi Palace,” says Roy.

swati.daftuar@thehindu.co.in

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