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Literature Festivals in times of Pandemic

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VoW 2020: Fourteen weeks to go!

By Dr Satish C Aikant
In the second part of the series, Prof Aikant says that it is cultural events like VoW that expand and deepen our understanding of the human predicament and of the sense of community.
The Corona virus has devastated not only the health services and economies around the world; it has severely impacted our cultural life. Arts and their celebration, therefore, are needed all the more to bring us solace and heal the psyche. It is the cultural events that expand and deepen our understanding of the human predicament and of the sense of community.
Literature also makes human beings conscious of the need to assert their unique individuality in the face of a world growing increasingly impersonal under the pressure of technology and consumerism. It is also about creating and recreating imaginative worlds and crafting stories. Indeed, it would be impossible to imagine human civilisation without stories, whether recorded in writing or passed down orally in the form of legends or myths. The usefulness of literature has to be seen in a wider context of its production, dissemination and consumption. Literature’s capacity to influence political and societal opinions and developments, its shaping of public culture, its place as a commodity in the marketplace, and its educational value in developing creativity and intellectual dispositions are all part of its value and its place in society and in the life of the nation.
Of course, there are critics who feel that festivals of literature are driven entirely by market forces. Australian critic Caroline Lurie’s infamous and oft-quoted article ‘Festival, Inc.’ condemns literary festivals as uncritical sites of mass cultural production in their departure from traditional literary values, and decries their circulation of the literary celebrity as a replacement for the text itself. Lurie discusses the changing nature of literary festivals which, she argues, have become so fashionable that they are a tourist attraction in many towns. She goes on to say that the writers’ festival today ‘is a supersized, big-business blockbuster affair, with spunkier writers, sexier topics and a crowd who will have a latte with that. It’s great for books and great for publishing, but has it lost its soul?’
One could perhaps argue that literature festivals are market-driven spectacles and often turn out to be promoting a celebrity culture. But then we overlook the fact that these spectacles happen in a democratic space which thrive on the support for popular culture where speakers and audiences break through all hierarchies and share a common cultural experience, unlike what happens at exclusively elite events. In this sense literature as a moving human gesture is empowering and enfranchising to individuals and to communities. During such interactions, we open a space of deliberation where we encounter our human selves.
Seen in this context, Literary Festivals provide us opportunities to actually see and talk to authors we may have only heard about or read their works. We can see them at close quarters, interact with them and have signed copies of their books. Let me refer to the Valley of Words, the International Literature and Arts Festival (VoW), which has already been through three successful editions and now will run its fourth edition in November this year in Dehradun. The events held so far were marked by impressive colloquia of authors, poets, translators, social scientists, military historians, musicians, teachers, students, environmentalists, book publishers, civil servants and social activists. There were sessions devoted exclusively to Hindi writing. Through the three years of its existence, VoW has expanded its initial function as an event for creative writers to meet, to become an important site of public culture that addresses the issues of creative writing as well as broader issues of social interest.
What actually sets VoW apart from other literature festivals is its convergence of literature and arts with emphasis on regional culture and its environment. What is significant about it is that it does not delegitimise popular culture. Such festivals serve to enhance appreciation of literature through building knowledge, learning about the genesis of works, or supporting critical reading practices. Literary festivals give us an experience which is subliminal and elevating. The audiences may be attracted toward the festivals for various reasons. Commercial publishers use them as marketing exercises, schools and universities use them to promote intellectual, educational, and institutional development. Further reasons why people attend festivals might be – to be entertained, to explore ideas, to be informed about issues, to gain a sense of community by being part of the festival performance – responding and being responded to, the feeling that as a reader or fan you have a stake in the work of an author, the desire for less mediated access to an author and his ideas, a wish to experience the unique timbre of an author reading his or her text, and finally, for writers, to get useful feedback for their own writing. A wide range of urgent issues are debated and discussed at the festivals; issues ranging from language to religion, sexuality and gender, market to modernity. Audience members attend them seeking affective engagement, intellectual and cultural development, social connection, and political direction.
The forthcoming edition of VoW may have some altered features in view of the prevailing Covid-19 situation and the organisers will perhaps go for a dominantly online format. While it has its limitations, the advantage is that digital/ online events are not ‘located’ in a specific, singular geographic sense and can provide free access to literature enthusiasts. It also helps universalise the artistic experience to promote local culture for a global audience.
Although Auden in his elegy for Yeats had written ‘poetry makes nothing happen,’ the line is often taken out of context as a critique of literary culture in general though a subsequent line of the poem disavows this interpretation with the affirmation that the arts are crucial to the survival of human culture. To reduce literature to its usefulness, in a normal sense, is to miss the sheer pleasure of the word and sound that make it literature in the first place. The life that literature really equips us to live is not the one Wordsworth derided as devoted to ‘getting and spending’, but the other life of inwardness and imagination. For those who do not believe in the reality of that other life, no amount of insisting on the usefulness of literature will justify it; for those who live it, no such insisting is necessary. And with this, let me welcome you to the online edition of VoW!
Next week, the column will feature Dr Jaiwanti Dimri on Literature in Translation and VoW’s efforts in mainstreaming this genre in the festival.
(The writer is former Professor and Head of the Department of English, HNB Garhwal University)