Celebrating plurality @Kerala Literary Festival
Kerala is witnessing a boom in literary festivals, with over six events happening in the state in a year alone, and all of them are bringing book lovers in droves. More than 150,000 people attended the four-day Kerala Literature Festival, held at Kozhikode Beach between February 8-11, 2018. Kerala literature Festival (KLF), organized by DC Kizhakemuri Foundation and supported by DC Books, had around 500 speakers, roughly twice the number of speakers at this year’s Jaipur Literary Festival (JLF), arguably India’s best-known annual literary event. Kerala Literature Festival was launched in 2016 with over hundred speakers and it has grown through the years to be the second largest in India.
KLF brings together speakers from an array of fields — creative writers, critics, painters, architects, film makers, social activists, public intellectuals, environmentalists, economists, historians, scientists, media persons on a common platform. The topics of the sessions are so customized as to address contemporary issues in every filed of knowledge and art. The permanent venue of KLF is the Kozhikode beach. Kozhikode, known as Calicut in the colonial times, has played a pivotal role in the history of Kerala. Kozhikode has been named “the City of Spices” as it was the major trading point for eastern spices. The people of Kozhikode have been traditionally ardent lovers of literature , music and visual arts besides sports like football. The city has produced several singers of repute and either given birth to or nurtured major fiction writers and poets like Vaikom Muhammad Basheer, M T Vasudevan Nair Balamani Amma, Kamala Das Surayya, Punathil Kunhabdulla and M T Vasudevan Nair. The Director of the Kerala Literary Festival is the well-known poet, critic, translator and public intellectual, the former Secretary of the Indian Sahitya Akademi, Prof. K. Satchidanandan and the Chief Co-ordinator is Ravi D C, one of the leading publishers in India . The logo for the festival has been designed by the famous artist Riyas Komu. The first two editions had seen several eminent participants including the likes of Prathibha Ray, Ashok Vajpeyi, Sadhguru, Shashi Tharoor, Taslima Nasrin, T M Krishna, Ramachandra Guha, Jaisree Misra and Anita Nair besides leading writers from Kerala and a few from outside India.
The 2018 edition…
In many ways, literature and social responsibility have become somewhat inseparable in Kerala. Writers here are not only read widely, but their opinions on significant social issues are heeded to even by the governments. The popularity of KLF is a direct consequence of Kerala’s highly evolved literary tradition that has brought ethics and aesthetics together. The 2018 edition had over 250 brainstorming sessions spread over four days in five venues. It showcased Irish literature, with seven writers of various genres from Ireland including Gabriel Rosenstock, Conor Kostick , Liam Carson and Paddy Bushe, reading, talking and discussing their writing in the specific cultural context. Besides,there writers from Spain, Latvia, Germany and Australia who presented their work and discussed the idea of ‘European’ literature. Then there was a whole contingent of writers, intellectuals and activists from different parts of India that included among others, Romila Thapar, Upinder Singh, Arundhati Roy, Ashis Nandy, Vandana Shiva, Teesta Setalvad, Jairam Ramesh, Ashok Soota, Pranay Lal, Sagarika Ghose, Ganesh Devy, Prakash Raj, Rishi Kapoor, Kancha Ilaiah, K S Bhagavan, Bama, Jerry Pinto, Anita Nair, Kavita Lankesh, Shabnam Hashmi, Anita Dube, Aseem Trivedi, Bala, Kanhaiya Kumar, Rajdeep Sardesai, E P Unny, BRP Bhaskar, MGS Narayanan, Rajan Gurukkal , M Mukundan, Sethu, K R Meera, Benyamin and a whole array of younger writers from diverse genres – altogether more than 500 participants . The central theme of the Festival as coined by the director was ‘No Democracy without Dissent.’
KLF was inaugurated by acclaimed writer and Jnanpith laureate MT Vasudevan Nair along with Romila Thapar and Arundhati Roy besides other dignitaries. One principle that the festival has always adhered to is that it will foreground Malayalam literature and Kerala’s culture even while accommodating various voices from other Indian and foreign languages. That is also one reason for the immense popularity of this Festival as different from many others where the region gets only meagre representation.
KLF also had a special venue for a theme-based film festival curated by Bina Paul where films from all over the world were screened and discussed and it also had cultural programmes every day like Flamenco dance from Spain and Qawwali and Ghazal singing from India. The leading protest-music band of Oorali was a highlight at the KLF that attracted thousands. The festival also had an exclusive session for publishers, writers and aspiring writers, a business conference conducted with the co-operation of FICCI. Topics related to various issues like Managing Copyright in Publishing, Content Sourcing etc were discussed here.
The session including the ones with Kanhaiya Kumar, Ashis Nandy, Prakash Raj, Rajdeep Sardesai, Jairam Ramesh, Romila Thapar, Shabnam Hashmi, Arundhati Roy, Jerry Pinto, Vandana Shiva, and Teesta Setalvad grabbed great attention for the questions they raised as well as the answers they proposed. The interactive sessions after each session helped involve large sections of students, teachers and lovers of literature and arts in active discussion.
The popular writers of Malayalam who have never been acknowledged by the literary mainstream were also given their due through a session on popular fiction. The presence of popular writers Kamala Govind and Batten Bose was a new experience for the readers. Gender disparity on campuses in the State was the topic for one of the most heated discussions where student leaders and teachers called for campuses free of gender-based discrimination. The freedom of expression in peril under the present dispensation, resistance in the campuses, the politics of hate, the challenges to the constitution and to democracy at large, problems of translation, languages within languages, the mass psychology of fascism, poetry and protest, fiction as a social intervention, the uses and abuses of social media, blog writing , the politics of water, the ecological issues involved in development, the new cinema, theatre as a social medium: these were just a few of the widely discussed themes.
A very interesting conversation between noted author K.R Meera and the renowned Kannada rationalist Dr KS Bhagavan (who has narrowly escaped a murder-plan as revealed recently) saw the latter claiming that the age of religion is over, and we live in the age of science and technology. His ideas on the no- religion policy and one- religion policy and his repeated declaration that no god is going to save us and hence we, humans, will have to save ourselves provoked a lot of discussion. Well-known linguist and critic, Ganesh Devy stressed the real hope of the country lies in literary imagination and art. While explaining how 250 languages have perished in India within the past 50 years, he expressed his anxieties about how the silencing of the people who think differently are silenced in this country, taking the murders of M M Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh as its gruesome examples. In a lecture on Dalit Capitalism, Chandra Bhan Prasad, entrepreneur and dalit activist, spoke on the relevance of developing a form of Dalit Capitalism that will destroy the feudalism of the village republic and the caste order. “Equality is not my agenda: Freedom is. Freedom from all caste orders,” he said. The threat of Nuclear shows a sharp increase these days, said Noam Chomsky in his video conference at KLF. Chomsky expressed his views on climate changes, Nuclear war, Artificial Intelligence, America under Trump, Neo-liberal Capitalism and other issues of wide relevance. He also expressed the necessity of human labour as the automated system in the different economies has decreased productivity while in the past 50 years.
The final day of the festival was marked by the presence of writers such as Antara Dev Sen, Shobhaa De, Alan Titley and Anand Neelakantan, and political thinkers MA Baby, Kanam Rajendran and Binoy Viswam and the bureaucrat-turned politician, Alfons Kannanthanam. The valedictory session that was defined by a critical appraisal of this year’s festival also witnessed the announcement of the dates of the next festival in January 2019.
The Kerala Literary Festival 2018 in short turned out to be a celebration of India’s cultural diversity that militates against any monolithic idea of the nation. It interrogated set notions in aesthetics and politics and firmly upheld the value of art and literature in a dark time of declared and undeclared proscriptions and censorships.