Given that there must be at least 40 literature festivals in the country today, how can they be distinguished from each other? That is probably the most troublesome question confronting festival directors, as it affects audiences and sponsors. Only those few which are extremely well established like the Jaipur Literature Festival might be able to sail along smoothly. How can the others manage? Especially with new festivals popping up relentlessly, there is a danger that interest from sponsors and media might get seriously squeezed.
The ideal way to generate enthusiastic response is to invite really top notch internationally renowned authors, which few festivals can afford. But another way success can be garnered, inadvertently, is if the invited author happens to hit the headlines. It is a double-edged sword of course, as happened when the controversy over Salman Rushdie's participation at the Jaipur Literature Festival took place a few years ago. Suddenly, the world woke up and took full note of the happenings at JLF. But it also meant enhanced security with significant political overtones.
I saw the same thing happen recently at the Apeejay Kolkata Literature Festival. What could have been just another panel discussion or a book launch turned into a media frenzy when a high-profile author and politician arrived. The festival immediately became 'breaking' news all over the country, as the MP whose wife was allegedly murdered (according to the police) was asked all kinds of questions, not all of them of a literary nature.
The festival organisers, including the elegant Priti Paul and the mild and gentle Maina Bhagat and Anjum Katyal, managed to control a potentially combustible situation extremely well, along with some help from the local government. However, it just showed again that literature, when singed by a possible scandal, can give you what a thousand advertisements might not be able to.
This accidental spike in interest can occur for a variety of reasons, and organisers are getting used to minor and major upheavals along the way. For instance, Priti Paul recalled how one year a senior literary figure had to be hospitalised, and another year someone fell off the stage! All these accidents, some serious and some amusing, mean that literary festivals require immensely good organisation, and cool heads.
Thanks to their rising number, festivals are also striving hard to strike a chord with the reading community that attends festivals, as well as the growing number of school and college students who are interested in connecting with 'real' authors. Success stories, especially those of younger authors like Chetan Bhagat or Amish Tripathi, also mean that youngsters are actually considering writing as a lucrative, if risky, profession.
Thus, in both Kolkata and Jaipur, there are strong initiatives to connect the festival with schools and colleges, through outreach programmes or by ferrying students to the venue. It's obviously no longer enough to simply create a literary space, and each festival has to throw in generous doses of community service, entertainment and provocation. Political leanings also have to be carefully balanced, keeping in mind the powers that be.
Namita Gokhale, who is possibly the mentor and director of more literature festivals than anyone else, says that for her it's really humbling to see the audience engagement, and the shared space festivals like JLF have created. As smaller and smaller towns put together their own festivals, she finds it "immensely satisfying to see the forging of a literary community, sharing concerns across languages and disciplines".
For others, it is a relief that Indian audiences are moving beyond Indian cinema or television, and looking at entertainment, enjoyment and discussion based upon the world of books. But, as these festivals grow in number, they will also have to create newer identities. Either they can scale up and go beyond the written word to encompass music, dance, cinema, theatre as Jaipur has done, or they can become niche festivals.
Another way literature festivals will and are evolving is by co-operating with each other, especially by inviting famous authors from abroad, jointly. Sharing authors means that not only do costs come down, but that writers can also maximise on a single trip by visiting more cities, and engaging with more diverse audiences than they would have normally done.
Festivals continue to grow in number with a positive impact on book sales - both in shops and online. One can visualise a time when smaller and smaller cities will have book festivals and clubs, entirely funded by the community. We haven't reached there yet, but it will happen!