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Celebrating the word across India

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By Dr Sanjeev Chopra

Most literature festivals are rooted to a city, and it certainly makes a lot of sense to ground a festival in a particular locale – for it lends continuity and a cultural connect and also affords an opportunity to young people to interact with the participants. Thus, we have the Jaipur Literature Festival based out of Jaipur, the Khushwant Singh Litfest from Kasauli, the Tata Litfest in Mumbai, the Bengaluru festival, Chandigarh Military History Festival as well as the AKLF, Kolkata, to name a few. In recent years, smaller towns – or Tier II/III cities (in marketing jargon) like Hoshiarpur and Kolhapur have also tried their hands at organising events in their cities. This has not only been good for the publishing industry – it has also encouraged many young authors, readers and critics to ‘demystify’ the world of books and literature. Till the turn of the century, a published author was ‘held in awe’, but over the last decade, one has seen a very positive trend of teenagers and even children below the age of five publishing their books and participating in festivals and events. Valley of Words (VoW) has been witness to this change, and has also been invited to support these events through our (limited) resources, though our anchor city has always been Dehradun (so far!)

Meanwhile, last year, thanks to the challenge of the pandemic, VoW had to bring about a major change in the format of the festival. As social and physical distancing made it virtually impossible to organise ‘physical events’ especially with the possibility of last-minute cancellation of flights and restrictions on the number of attendees, we moved to what our event management partners, Wizcraft, describe as a ‘phygital event’. A phygital event is one in which there is ‘limited physical interaction, but the online presence makes the ‘world a stage’, and it is possible to get panelists and participants from across the world. The ‘phygital’ also ensures that everything is achieved forever – something which is obtrusive, and not in the natural order of things in an offline mode.

This year, even as we were getting ready for the fifth edition, the thought came up that given the new opportunities which technology has opened up, why not do this phygital event across the country in four or five locations so that the experience can be shared by many more people. It would also be a unique experiment in which the knowledge verticals of the festival are held in different cities – because even when the festival is held in one city alone, there have to be multiple venues. Now these venues will be in different cities – with Baroda’s Railway Staff College agreeing to host the sessions related to Hindi fiction and non-fiction. As a city, Baroda has always been a patron of the arts, and the best paintings of Ravi Verma were not only made in this city, but are also displayed in the Baroda Museum. The Westin at Kolkata will facilitate the cerebral outpour in early November as it will be the venue for English fiction and Non-Fiction verticals of the festival! Hyderabad will play host to authors shortlisted under the English Translation and Young Writing for Adults vertical in mid-November. Contemporary writings and translations from Indian languages to Hindi sessions will be held in Panchkula, with the finale scheduled to be held in Dehradun towards the end of November.

Issues concerning Military History are perhaps best discussed in cantonment towns and regimental centres. VoW was therefore delighted to extend its support to the proposition of the United Services Institution of India and will be hosting this session in New Delhi in early October. The MHS sessions have been done in collaboration with the Institution – India’s oldest and most prestigious think tank on defence and military matters. This year, the theme of the discussions will be the war of liberation of Bangladesh – an epochal event in the history of the sub-continent!

Tributes will be to Padma Bhushan awardee Sunderlal Bahuguna, the environmentalist known for having steered the Chipko and the movement against large dams in his native village in Tehri Garhwal, and the doyen of Hindi literature, Narendra Kohli, whose ten volume Maha Samar is a contemporary transcreation of the Mahabharat, and explains the context in which the literal text has to be read.

Last, but not the least, the festival will also have a knowledge vertical on the history of science in India. Unlike the West, where they look at science, material, commercial and spiritual worlds in different silos, the Indian tradition is different. There is no divorce between the spiritual and the temporal, or the material and the ethical. The Uttarakhand Council for Science and Technology will curate sessions on the history of science in India, and pay tribute to Indian sages who were masters and pronounced no artificial distinctions and took a holistic view of human life in the larger eco system of the universe.

Meanwhile, the monthly webinar series, ‘Afternoons with an Author’, is gaining traction. VoW has had Rajeev Mantri and Harsh Madhusudan’s book, ‘A new Idea of India: Individual Rights in a Civilizational State’ in conversation with Makarand Paranjape, Director of the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, and Aroon Manoharan of the University of Boston, take up the core issue of this book – how does one place a nation in the context of a civilisation? On 20th June, ‘The Buddha: The Light of Asia’ by Jairam Ramesh was discussed in conversation with Professors Malashree Lal and Siddiq Wahid. General PJS Pannu in conversation with General Ian Cardozo took us through General Cardozo’s latest release ‘1971.’

May I urge the readers to log into www.valleyofwords.org to stay connected with this unique festival!

(Sanjeev Chopra is a historian, public policy analyst and the Festival Director of Valley of Words, an International Literature and Arts festival based out of Dehradun. He was a member of the IAS, and superannuated as the Director of the LBS National Academy of Administration).