Misplaced priorities at literature fete

Inadequate representation was given to the Kannada literature at the Bangalore Literature Festival held in December 2015.

The third edition of Bangalore Literature Festival (BLF) was organized from December 5 to 6 in 2015. Before you could say Jack Robinson, the director of the festival, Mr Vikram Sampath, was unceremoniously goaded into stepping down. His crime: his views on writers’ returning awards. The angry writers protesting against the so-called “intolerance” prevailing in the country had probably felt they had descended from heaven and thought he had no right to voice his views in a democracy. People had to take their word as gospel.

According to the director, some media persons including editors, apparently with vested interest, had prevailed on those writers (cut up about his stance on return of awards) to back out of their participation if he continued to be the director. Some independent observers saw this as villainous and playing dirty.

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Finally, the humbled director of the festival was said to be seen among the audience at BLF even as writer after writer were waxing eloquent on intolerance with no regard for keeping to the topic at hand. Relevance or no relevance to different sessions or panel discussions, most speakers’ buzzword of the day was “intolerance.”

The BLF’s official website proudly mentioned about “beautiful gardens and parks” and “salubrious weather” of Bangalore having “always inspired creative thinkers and authors.” Did the festival live up to these epithets? Or was the venue made stiflingly hot with intolerance of a strange kind? Did the BLF really celebrate “creative spirit of the city” and commemorate its “literary diversity”? Or did it bring pettiness or narrow political positions to the fore? Did it really focus on “rekindling the romance with literature and fostering fine reading and writing…”?

Did it serve as a national platform for Indian writing? How many established or popular Indian writers (representing regional languages) were invited to participate at BLF? These are all pertinent questions.

As the festival was organized in Bengaluru it was only fair to expect that a reasonably large contingent of Kannada writers/translators was present at the event. What was the importance given to the Kannada language? Wasn’t it legitimate on the part of Kannada writers/translators to expect a better representation than was witnessed?

Unfortunately, “intolerance” took centre stage at the festival as if it were completely new to society. Curiously, the vehemence with which certain writers and scholars spoke about intolerance in the run-up to and during the festival was never in evidence even during the Emergency, the darkest chapter of Indian democracy.
Was the idea of India suddenly on the verge of collapse, along with its civilizational values and intellectual heritage?

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Feigned outrage

This scribe found some wise and disinterested bystanders chuckling at the feigned outrage against intolerance expressed by writers at a forum like the BLF. Some observers felt there was needless negativity (return of awards, stinging rebuke of BLF director et al) and noise in the discussions. Was there more to it than meets the eye? Can propaganda dominate such literary events which essentially require a semblance of intellectual honesty? Yes, people expect only career politicians to have hidden agenda, not writers, authors or intellectuals. The country has more than its share of career politicians from all parties including the party that is ruling India today.

Adding a new twist to the intolerance debate (prevailing at BLF), Kannada writer and critic Narahalli Balasubramanya observed that the event had actually displayed “intolerance” of sorts towards Kannada. He expressed his concern about what he termed as inadequate representation given to the Kannada literature.

Literary festivals are held all over the world some of which seriously promote intellectual and academic engagement through healthy interactions and productive inquiries.

Ideally, a literary festival should be a rendezvous between different writers and readers exchanging ideas and learning about diverse writing styles and traditions in an atmosphere of bonhomie.

It should invite authors writing in different languages (along with interpreters in English) from different perspectives. It should promote books by authors and translators by arranging presentations and reading sessions and giving authors an opportunity to directly convey to readers their unique insights. In other words, such events should promote the love of literature, reading, writing and learning from authors’ experiences.

Far from stimulating awareness and understanding of trends in 21st century writing or conveying to readers the nuances of language or written word, the event ended up stirring up controversies by robbing the event of its focus on primary objectives of a good literature festival.

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

Whoever was responsible for this quotable quote it should be sufficient to inspire intolerant writers who think others have no right to speak their mind.

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