The three-day Lit Fest in Chennai lived up to its reputation of being one of the most eagerly awaited literary events of its kind in the country, with writers and audience engaging in lively exchange.

With the beat of the thudumbu welcoming literati at Sir Mutha Venkatasubba Rao Concert Hall, the fourth edition of The Hindu Lit for Life saw a lively audience engage with a formidable line-up of authors, poets, savants and artistes. Over three days — January 11, 12 and 13 — Chennai’s bibliophiles were spoilt for choice as they attended discussions and workshops, meandered among handicraft and food stalls, and showed up at book signings and plays, while a book cart on three wheels roved about the premises.

What’s a Lit Fest without some drama? As authors Madhuri Banerjee, Mamang Dai, Nandini Krishnan and Radha Thomas discussed the coming of age of the Indian woman, an exasperated gentleman from the audience asked, “So what do women want?” and one of the panellists replied (tongue firmly in cheek), “How much time do you have?”

The nice thing about the Fest was the abundance of areas that was covered in the space of three action-packed days. Danseuse Anita Ratnam brought the disappearing flora and fauna of the South to life with a melange of contemporary and classical dance, even as people milled around writer Pavan K. Varma and Gulzar after the former launched Pluto, the legendary Urdu poet’s latest book of verse. They craned for a glimpse of Gulzar and rushed to get their books signed. Along the way, they had to take time off to catch some of the plays that students of various city colleges put up based on the books shortlisted for The Hindu Prize 2013. They thronged the session of historian Romila Thapar who, talking of the historical traditions of early North India, said, “I’m not going to recite a narrative of history, because all abstractions are based on narratives, and all narratives are based on abstractions.”

According to one participating author, the highlight of the day was “Pablo Bartholomew’s deeply disturbing Bhopal Disaster picture show offset by his ponderous, dispassionate commentary, (and) Barkha Dutt talking of women in India getting pawed everyday, and claps echoing around the hall, making Naomi Wolf’s jaw drop.”

“Give me excess of it…,” said Shakespeare, and Lit for Life 2014 took it seriously. There was a surfeit of good things. “I loved (William) Dalrymple’s session! But I really wished I could attend Piyush (Jha) and Sabrina (Dhawan)’s discussion on screenplay writing too,” bemoaned a visitor. The parallel sessions in the courtyard made for more intimate gatherings. Smaller groups enjoyed Hill Vale and Many a Tale, a film on writers in Mussoorie and Dehradun; an evening with Vidya Shah’s renditions of recording artistes in the 1930s; a session of Gulzar’s poetry; and literary discussions that revolved around contemporary literary trends, the relevance of the playwright in today’s world, and journeys into the heart of the conflict zone.

In the heart of the music season in Chennai, what would you expect but music to be infused into the Lit Fest as well, in its classical and contemporary forms. A morning’s thudumbattam, a jazz evening with Radha Thomas and the UNK, and T.M. Krishna’s clear tones explaining the difference between the written word and the sung verse.

As was to be expected in this cinema-crazy city, vast crowds poured in to hear Kamal Haasan and K. Hariharan discuss moral policing in Indian cinema. Meanwhile, writer Naomi Wolf was subjected to something more amusing. As Sheila Kumar, a member of the audience, says, “Naomi got more than she bargained for when she threw open her session to comments rather than only questions and a strange and creepy gentleman deluged her with information, if one can call it that, about the ‘Indian perspective of the vahjeena’.”

Valmik Thapar, tiger conservationist and writer, captivated the audience with a presentation on the magnificent beast — the book stall at the venue was overrun with people rushing to buy the ‘tiger man’s’ books.

The workshops, this year even more diverse and interesting, ranged from yoga to the art of writing biographies; and found a bunch of eager participants, including tots under 10. Vikram Sridhar’s workshop on theatre-based storytelling was a hit with children, who came out of their shells and let their imaginations run riot.

Of course, the culmination of the festival was the awarding of The Hindu Prize 2013. Writer Jim Crace announced, and very nearly mispronounced, Anees Salim as the winner for his Vanity Bagh. The reclusive writer, who did not attend the festival but watched it live online, said later that he was initially incredulous, but the members of the audience were clearly wild with excitement.

In another first, the festival, over the three days, got more that 5,000 views of its live stream, more than 81,500 hits on RebelMouse (a social media aggregator), and more that 15,000 online engagements (likes, shares, tweets and re-tweets).

The Hindu Lit for Life 2014 was inaugurated by N. Ravi, Editor-in-Chief, The Hindu, and Nirmala Lakshman, Director, KSL, and also the curator of the Fest. It was presented by the House of Hiranandani and powered by VIT University.

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It’s a wrapJanuary 15, 2014