Small Litfests are more endearing: Mitra Phukan


Photo: Ukiyo Litfest, Imphal

With the end of summer comes the beginning of the Litfest season. All across the country, on every weekend, there is a festival celebrating books, in all their glorious hues, and their authors. The actual activity of writing is a private occupation. But at these litfests, one gets to really see and hear the writers of books we have read, and loved, or maybe, why not, did not like at all and were disappointed with. After the panel discussions and conversations are over, the stage is thrown open to the audience, who can then question the writer.

Young people, especially school and college goers, are encouraged by the organizers to attend the festivals. Litfests, unlike many Music Fests, usually have free entry for all, and it is heartening to see a hugely heterogeneous mix of people throng these events.

Certainly, it is encouraging to see people coming to listen to authors they may or may not have read, may or may not have heard of. And it’s wonderful to watch them listen intently, and ask very pointed questions that show up just how attentive they are. For litfests, by celebrating books, celebrate ideas. They value creativity, and show the way to us all how important it is to open our minds to ideas and ways of life very different from the ones we are used to. They point us to books we may want to read in future, they allow us to interact on a one-to-one basis with writers. And this applies to writers, too, who may want to discuss things with authors of books they have read.

One of the reasons that a particular Literature Festival becomes very popular, and grows over the years, is the care that is taken by the organizers to curate a relevant and exciting mix of authors from very diverse fields, who have written with authority and empathy. The genre could be anything – poets, storytellers, travel writers, essayists, biographers, food writers, even bloggers and vloggers find a place in these panels, all of whom command loyal and engaged audiences. There are stars known to all, there are emerging new voices. And since litfests are democratic in nature, one may find a well known senior author on the same panel as a young, but brilliant new writer. Both are important in their own ways, both have significant things to say. And it’s heartening to see that no young author is ever in awe of the seniors. This, of course, is just as it should be.

Much depends on the skill of the moderator, of course. Hers is indeed a difficult job, for a moderator can make or break a panel discussion.  If he or she has done her homework well, she can draw out her panelists and make them talk about their works in ways that enlighten as well as, in fact, entertain.

For writers, the chance to meet up with other writers, many of whom become friends over the years, is valuable. Also precious is the chance to interact with readers. This is what makes Litfests exciting. In the past, the reader and writer rarely connected. These days, through litfests and electronic media, it is quite possible to connect. Book signings bring great satisfaction to authors, publishers and readers alike. And writers always relish answering readers’ questions, and value the insights they gain through this interaction. In any case, invited writers are always hosted very well, and it’s a pleasure to taste the varied cuisines around the country that are laid out at these events.

Because of these reasons, and some more, Litfests are now proliferating greatly across the country. One of the newest is the Ziro Litfest, the second edition of which was held in this picturesque town in Arunachal Pradesh on September 26 and 27. Held in the beautiful auditorium of one of the State’s premier colleges, the St Claret College, it was a fine blend of writers, artists, poets, filmmakers, artpreneurs, activists and others who spoke, discussed, and conducted workshops during the well attended sessions. It was a celebration of reading and thinking, creating and sharing. This edition focused on “local stories and creative expression”.

The first day began with the welcome by Dr Father Allwyn Mendoz, Principal, St Claret College, followed by the inaugural address by the Chief Guest Indra Mallo, IAS, Commissioner ICDS. She highlighted the importance of festivals of this kind, and its significance in today’s world. This was followed by the keynote address by this writer, in which she traced the importance of the tradition of oral literature of the State, and also contemporary writers who work in Assamese, English as well as Hindi and other languages, highlighting also the connect between Assam and Arunachal Pradesh since historical times.

This was followed by a brilliant conversation between poet novelist Jeet Thayil with journalist Nandini Nair, in which he outlined his work, and took questions from the audience. The first day’s programme ended with a screening of the Assamese film, the just released “Bulbul Can Sing”, written and directed by Rima Das. This was introduced by Moji Riba in a sensitive and layered talk.

The second day began with a broad-based conversation on “The Civic Role of Arunachal’s Arts Organizations, Relevance, Risks and Rewards”, in which the participants were Dani Sulu, Getem Apang, Jene Hai, Moji Riba and moderated by Ranju Dodum. This was followed by a Conversation on the topic “Local is Global: The Importance of Local Stories.” The participants were Minam Apang, Minchul Kim, Nandini Nair and this author. The poetry session had Amanda Bisaiawmoit, Dibyajyoti Sarma reading out from their poems, the session being moderated by Madhu Raghavendra.  The book of poems by Madhu Raghavendra “Stick no Bills” was released by Minister Tage Taki,

The Ziro LItfest was remarkable for the number of workshops that were also held. These were well attended, and had people notable in their own fields guiding the participants. These included the Art Workshop with Minam Apang and Madhavi Gore, the Graphic Novel Workshop with Parismita Singh, and interactive Climate Change Workshop conducted by Dr Anoop Mahajan, and a Zine making workshop conducted by Nandini Nair and Shiv Ahuja.

The famous Ziro Music Festival was going on at the same time on those dates, and the resource persons for the Litfest were taken to see this vibrant musical event on both evenings. This was indeed a beautiful experience for all. One hopes that in the near future, the Ziro Litfest will become at least as famous as the Ziro Music Festival, which now figures in the national calendar of musical events. Both musicians and audiences now come from across the globe as well as from many parts of this country, and this region. In this context, it truly proves that Local can be Global, with resounding success.

Litfests vary in size and scope across the country, depending on who is organizing it, and, importantly, how deep are the pockets of those who sponsor the show. Though the essentials remain the same, the fact of larger or smaller sizes means that the dynamics of the event will be different. The festivals themselves can range from two days to five, and the resource persons ranging from people who live in nearby places to international celebrities who jet in from around the globe, to interact with audiences. The bigger ones are organized by professional event managers. But the enthusiasm and excitement of the organizers of the smaller events is more endearing. The Ukiyo Literature Festival, for instance, the first edition of which took place in Imphal on October 11 and 12, at the Trade and Expo Centre, was one such. Organized by a group of young people with a love of books, one of whom is the owner of the bookstore by the same name, the enthusiasm and meticulous planning that went into this beautiful event was truly heartening.

The Big Daddy of them all is of course the Jaipur Literature Festival, which seems to be growing ever larger every year. With parallel sessions happening on all five days, and great dinner parties at night, this is a place whose energies can sustain participating authors for a long time. Though not as huge as the JLF, the other larger ones include the Pune Literature Festival, which is a fine mix of writers who work in Marathi and Hindi, as well as those working in English and other languages of India. There is also the Times Litfest held in various metro cities, with the Mumbai one being held in the iconic Mehboob studios. The Aapeejay Kolkata Literature Festival is as vibrant as that city of book lovers can be expected to be. The Goa Litfest is midsized, though growing, with the authors rushing off happily to the beach in between sessions. Other midsized ones include, among others, the Bhubaneshwar Litfest, our own Brahmaputra Litfest, and the charming Khushwant Singh Literary Festival held at Kasauli, a town dear to Khushwant Singh’s heart. This festival is run by the writer’s son, Rahul Singh, and is notable also for the fact that the last evening’s dinner is hosted by him in the house in which Khushwant Singh lived, and wrote. To actually see the desk at which he worked cannot fail to bring tears to the eyes of anyone who has read “Train to Pakistan.” There was also the beautiful CALM festival of Shillong, which however has now sadly become a thing of the past with the premature passing of its founder, Sambha Lamaar. And the Majha House Festival of Amritsar, curated by Preeti Gill, editor, and now literary agent, is full of beauty, because of its aesthetic settings, and also the scintillating discussions that take place on a variety of topics.

The First Ukiyo Literature Festival, was a heartwarming event, not least because of the enthusiasm of the organizers, all young people associated with the charming but well stocked little bookshop, Ukiyo. Inaugurated by the iconic theatre personality Ratan Thiyam, both days began with beautiful Manipuri dances. The two stages featured talks on Queer Literature (Kumam Davidson) and Children’s Literature (Devangana Dash). There were very interesting panels on “Making a Book” (Bonita Vaz Shimray and Rahul Soni with Rakesh Konjengbam) and “Water Conservation” (Vikramjit Roopral) The panel on publishing featured noted publishers and literary agents Trisha De Niyogi, Ravi Singh, Preeti Gill and Vishu Rita Krocha with Rakesh Konjengbam, was a fine mix of local and national, small and big. The day ended with a very interesting conversation between Jerry Pinto with Armstrong Chanambam. The former is a riveting speaker, besides being a fantastic writer, and it was to the latter’s credit that having done his homework so well, he could get the writer to speak on a variety of topics.

The second day opened with a conversation between Dhruba Hazarika and this writer, moderated by Ravi Singh, who has published both our books. This familiarity with the works of these writers showed in the empathetic and understanding with which he questioned both writers. The panel “Poetry in Northeast India” featured noted poets Robin Ngangom and Mona Zote with Shreema Ningombam, and was extremely interesting because of the many poems they read out from their works. The “Native Narratives” was a very interesting discussion between the well-known writers Mamang Dai and Easterine Kire with Natali Ningthoukhongjam, who, again, had put in extensive work. Several new facets of these authors were revealed. The “Fiction Starts where Non-Fiction Ends” session with Pradip Phanjoubam and Tayenjam Bijoykumar Singh, with Armstrong Chanambam was also a very interesting one.

The question and answer sessions on both days were vibrant, and showed how engaged the mostly young crowd was with the topic under discussion, and how familiar they were with the works of most of these writers. An encouraging sign, indeed!


Mitra Phukan

Mitra Phukan

Mitra Phukan is a writer, translator, columnist and classical vocalist who lives and works in Guwahati, Assam. Her published literary works include four children's books, a biography, and a novel, "The Collector's Wife". Her most recent work is another novel, "A Monsoon of Music" published by Penguin-Zubaan in September 2011. Besides, her short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies. Her works have been translated into several languages. She is the Northeast correspondent of the Chennai-based journal of the performing arts, "Shruti" and a member of the North East Writers' Forum.