Literary festivals might present opportunities for authors to take their work to a large audience and court new readers. But these events also provide an excellent platform for readers looking to interact with their favourite writers.

Reading, writing and getting an autograph from one’s favourite author is now easier than ever as lit fests around India invite more footfalls every year. Right now, Namita Gokhale, co-director of the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), is in the middle of mixing the brew for JLF 2018, with feminine voices at the fore. Bachi Karkaria, eminent journalist and curator of the The Times Literary Carnival, Mumbai, also has it all worked out with her event’s theme: “All the world’s a story”. Damodar Mauzo, co-curator of the Goa Arts and Literary Fest (GALF), along with Vivek Menezes, continues to explore “different ways of belonging”, the inherent theme of their fest.  

Observing the significance of these fests, Ajay Mago, publisher, Om Books International, says, “India, with its very rich literary heritage, has always had a very vibrant adda culture. Literary salons, mushairas and kavi sammelans. Literature festivals are natural carryovers of these activities in a more democratic space.”

“Lit fests are great platforms for bringing authors before their readers,” adds Poulomi Chatterjee, editor-in-chief and publisher, Hachette India. “Writing tends to be a solitary occupation, and it’s wonderful for authors to be able to interact directly with readers about their books or issues and ideas on which their books are based.”

“Also,” according to Simar Puneet, senior commissioning editor, Aleph Book Company, “Lit fests that have carved separate niches for themselves are now all an important part of the publishing ecosystem.”

Some of these festivals have become immensely popular, and successful brands in their own right. The JLF is one such example. “Through the year,” says Namita Gokhale, “I meet people who look forward to the fest as a time of renewal. There is an energy at work every year, and it’s my prayer that we—my co-director William Dalrymple and producer Sanjoy Roy—keep the magic, which descends all over the place, going. I never graduated from college, and curating the fest each year, is like doing an MA or a PhD. It teaches me a lot, and observing the magic play out each year is like an installation art, which happens spontaneously. For me, the fest holds deep, intellectual vigour.”

Bachi Karkaria, who started the Mumbai edition of the Times Literary Carnival in 2011, knew right from the beginning that the fest was going to be about the eclectic passions of Mumbai. “We were not sure how much pure lit would attract audiences,” she says. “We wanted to differentiate ourselves from being a pure lit fest, and so chose Mehboob Film Studio as the venue for its truly unique energy. Bollywood is part of the city, and our fest is where lit meets life. People relate to the theme, and last year, we had 14,000 visitors and are very happy with the turnout.”                          

“At another level,” adds Karthika V.K., publisher, Westland, “these lit fests have enabled authors to get to know each other.”

Ever since the JLF set the trend in 2006, there has been a huge impact on the way readers perceive authors in India. “Somewhere,” says Ajay Mago,“the Jaipur Lit Fest is responsible for taking literature and the reader to a democratic and interactive space, which in itself is a very fine achievement. Of course, it is another matter altogether that some authors and celebrities continue to remain the flavours of all seasons, and are almost permanent fixtures in some of the lit fests in the country. So, if one is a festival hopper, the charm of newness starts wearing thin from city to city.”     

“Being closely connected with organising the Taj Lit Fest and the Brahmaputra Lit Fest, I understand what goes into mounting a festival that is meant to be as close to perfect as possible. And you can trust the organisers themselves to keep tweaking the format with each passing year,” says Mago.                                                                                        
Understandably, then, festival organisers are always scrambling to get authors and speakers who are crowd-pullers. But, in their quest for topics and authors who will draw audiences in large numbers, are organisers of lit fests around the country doing justice to the nature and volume of literature that’s being written and published in India? “There are festivals—and segments of larger festivals—focused on Indian literature in translation, on non-fiction books and crime fiction as well. It’s difficult, I would think, to showcase all that is being published in India in English and in other languages—and there is an audience demand to see/hear/interact with overseas writers as well. Still, it would be good to see more debut writers being showcased at major lit fests and more children’s writers as well,” observes Poulomi Chatterjee.  

The Goa Arts and Literature Festival in many ways has been trying to promote little-known voices. “The idea of our fest came about because Goa is a hub for art and literature. It has evolved out of Eunice de Souza’s idea to put forth different ways of belonging. So we keep our festival intimate, and hold it in an ambience that helps the lit fraternity to come together. We try our best to keep sponsors out of the fest and keep our expenses minimal, as a result of which we invite a small volume of writers. Yet, we get a lot of requests from writers and publishers each year,” explains Mauzo.

He further adds: “Every year, we involve visiting writers in our outreach programme, and they interact with students in universities and colleges before the fest. Ours is a touristic state, and yet we don’t get enough support from the government like the Jaipur and Kerala fests do.”

“The endeavour for lit fests,” observers Ajay Mago, “should be a collective one to remove the barriers that separate the reader from the author—be these physical, cultural or linguistic. Today, if Tagore, Premchand, Rajinder Singh Bedi and Khushwant Singh were alive, they would be the key draw of any festival. These writers, among others, have shaped the thoughts of

While thoughts, iterations and diverse points of view in tandem with the trending socio-political scenario draw people in large numbers to lit fests, all this doesn’t essentially result in large-scale book sales. “A lit fest is primarily aimed at lifting the veil that separates the reader from the author to establish a first-hand connect between the two. If that can be mediated through a book and an autograph, it would be wonderful. However, that may not be possible when you have over 200 authors in a single festival. But one still hopes that readers go back home with books of their literary idols as the finest lingering memories of these meetings. The number of people who visit a lit festival never translates into an equal number of books sold. May be someday it shall,” adds Mago. 

“Unfortunately,” says Poulomi Chatterjee of Hachette, “we haven’t seen an increase in sales of books as such at lit fests where particular authors appear, or because of their appearance at lit fests—and this is true not just of India. Established authors or popular ones who have an existing readership tend to see a little bit of sales, but not in large quantities, barring very few. In fact, sometimes, you’ll see a packed venue for a certain segment, but sales of only a few copies of books by participating authors afterwards. Audience participation or presence does not seem to translate into book-buying. While it is true that real readers discover books and authors at festivals—as they would through the now very limited book reviews in magazines and newspapers—such readers are few and far between.”                                                                                   

So how can organisers tweak the format of lit fests to reach out to diverse audiences? “Being closely connected with organising the Taj Lit Fest and the Brahmaputra Lit Fest, I understand what goes into mounting a festival that is meant to be as close to perfect as possible. And you can trust the organisers themselves to keep tweaking the format with each passing year,” says Ajay Mago.                                                                                       

“One thing we miss at the big fests,” says Karthika, “is the opportunity for readers to meet writers and interact with them personally. I wish a way could be figured, to enable readers to interact with the authors, perhaps by creating special meeting areas.”        

For this year, the meeting point for readers and writers is set, and Karthika looks forward to hanging out at the not-too-packed sessions, reflecting on what’s being said, and having her “fan girl” moments. “Really, that’s what I did two years ago at the Jaipur fest when two writers from the Caribbean spoke, a poet and a novelist I had not read before. I rushed out to buy copies right after,” she says.                                

Mago, for this part, hopes to take back many signed editions, and lots of introspective moments about the future of books, good writing and their importance in a thriving democracy. 

Nirmala Govindarajan is an author, and co-directed the debut edition of the Times of India Literary Carnival in Bangalore in January 2014


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