India's Literary Festivals Tap into Anxiety ; Annual Events Multiply Even as Writers See Threat to Free Expression

By Sharma, Vaibhav | International New York Times, February 25, 2016 | Go to article overview

India's Literary Festivals Tap into Anxiety ; Annual Events Multiply Even as Writers See Threat to Free Expression


Sharma, Vaibhav, International New York Times


A festival in Jaipur drew 330,000 people, testifying to the popularity of what is proving to be a lightning rod for politics and emotions.

Literary notables including Margaret Atwood, Aleksandar Hemon and Thomas Piketty came to this northern city toward the end of January, appearing before large crowds at the Diggi Palace, an 18th-century complex temporarily filled with tents, food kiosks and bookstores. Some 330,000 people showed up, breaking the attendance record and once again making the Jaipur Literature Festival the largest event of its kind in the world.

The event began nine years ago, and its increasing size is a reminder of the seemingly limitless growth of literary festivals in India. There are nearly 100 of them, although not long ago the concept was virtually unknown here. They have sprouted in cities large and small, in the Himalayas and at beach spots, with some dedicated to specific genres like crime writing or children's literature.

As the festivals have blossomed, they have also turned into something more than strictly literary: a mixture of the public square and the television studio, forums where India talks to itself.

"What tends to happen is that the tamasha, or spectacle, is a large part of the festival," said Aakar Patel, a prominent writer and columnist, using the Urdu and Hindi word. "We have sessions that are deeply political, and they are colored very strongly by emotion and feeling and the politics and divisions of our time."

The final session at the Jaipur festival this year was a debate on freedom of expression, a subject of anxiety among Indian liberals and thus an almost inevitable theme at literary events here. (The subject is especially pertinent to this festival because Salman Rushdie pulled out of attending it in 2012 amid reports that he had been physically threatened over his book "The Satanic Verses," a 1988 novel that angered many Muslims and is still banned in India.)

One of the panelists at this closing session was Anupam Kher, a popular actor and vocal supporter of Narendra Modi, India's prime minister, whose government has been faulted for failing to protect free speech. Mr. Kher's presence led to scenes rarely seen at a literature festival: The language frequently descended into something less than parliamentary, and Mr. Kher found himself booed and cheered in equal measure.

Increasingly, literature festivals in India are being thrust into wider culture wars. In November, Vikram Sampath, director of the Bangalore Literature Festival, resigned just a few days before the opening after participating writers threatened to boycott the proceedings. They were angry that Mr. Sampath had criticized dozens of writers who had returned awards to India's national academy of letters to protest what they saw as a rising climate of intolerance under Mr. Modi.

At the closing session in Jaipur, Mr. Kher's supporters chanted Mr. Modi's name as other speakers tried to talk. Conversely, Mr. Kher was roundly booed in December at a festival in Mumbai for suggesting the audience had been paid to heckle him. …

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