JAIPUR LIT FEST Going to find answers for society's complex questions, NIHARIKA M. came away more aware and with a lot more questions in her mind.
There is on overbearing sense of trepidation to live in the confines of this expanding world. And the fear is more so when you are right in the midst of those, who observe these very complex changes and transform them into comprehensible art forms! Is truth stranger than fiction? Or is past deception, present reality? Or is it vice-versa? We did not find “answers” to these questions simply because the number of dimensional evaluations that were made taught us — everything isn't black and white. When literary stalwarts with fiercely opposing views are put in one place, you don't go out with answers. There is amplified knowledge, and there are more questions.
A literary “festival” as the Jaipur Literature Festival is often referred to, is a celebration (also read promotion!) of art — music, theatre, cinema — and encompasses writers from all around the world. And that is what makes the conceptualisation of this festival a wholly unique experience. Started in 2004 this festival has been around for five years now, expanding each year and bringing India into the literature limelight. And isn't it high time; considering how many Indian writers today have been at the top or are heading there? Quite ideally, the festival not just brought together these but gave the attention to the upcoming, the Diasporas and the neglected. The climate however, was less empathetic to this cause! There was a slight hitch at the start, with the fog playing havoc and resulting in delays, rescheduling, running around and other confusions. But after that thankfully, it sailed smooth territory. I have tried to zoom in on the events that have a contemporary relevance but rarely get their due.
Writings from a special territory
The highlight of this year's festival was the focus on Dalit writing. Perhaps it has been a genre of literature that was either unheard of previously or dismissed in the excuse of elitism that is the prerogative of literature. Though mostly composed in the vernacular, the translations have made sure that the voice of the Dalits has reached the world. Statistics claim that 17 per cent of the Indian population is Dalit and of this, one Dalit is assaulted every one hour and a Dalit woman is raped every two hours. These are some of the troubling facts that came out in one of the early sessions of the ‘Bhaskar Bhasha Series — The Search for Public Conscience', consisting of O.P Valmiki, Kancha Iliah and P. Sivakami on the panel.
Is Hinduism a form of spiritual fascism? One has heard a lot about the caste system and its atrocities. That is the primary reason for the emergence of this form of literature. But having said that, it is rather strange that no other literature is named by the caste of its writer; then why is this genre termed Dalit literature? Therefore, it seems that the lower caste is not only “outcaste but also outwrite”. The writers talked about the difficulties they faced as humans and subsequently as writers, given social prejudices. Society is governed by the caste conscience and not public conscience, stated Sivakami. She views caste as a social construct whose conditioning starts very early in life. Therefore, the only way to ensure change is to put into words the glaring, senseless discriminations that stare at us today.
In one of the other sessions of the same series titled, ‘Of Women, Rebels and Peasants' based on Mahasweta Devi's book of the same name, there came out the issues of the tribals and Naxalites who form a good enough part of the Indian conglomeration. Devi calls the SEZs “senseless development work” and feels “India should be judged by poverty level and not on the basis of caste, community.” She also feels that not enough about India has been written. This session had Nandini Sundar and Dilip Simeon as panelists. The latter, a historian who was involved in the Maoist insurgency and later became a Gandhian, rightly said that ultimately the overriding, principal goal of writing is to create peace. On the verge of publishing a book, he says “Literature is one way of evoking the truth. It is a representation of chaos”. And that couldn't be better coming from a person whose own personal experience suggests a complete reversal of ideology.
Entertaining yet provoking
In a lighter session, with Nayantara Sahgal, Meghnad Desai and Chetan Bhagat, the three set out to explore the ‘Rediscoveries of India'. The talks ranged from admiration for Hindi film songs to multiple identities to growing freedom of the Indian youth to the undeniable “wild imaginations of young boys” even in those days! India today is divided into the rural, urban, semi urban and high urban on a broad based categorisation. This gives rise to a secular, multicultural identity and that reflects in its literature. The emerging strong points of Indian writing absent in the earlier era are Dalit, Women's and young writing. This discussion represented the fight we are facing on our own motherland not to overthrow an external power but our own diversifications that have not found common ground. These differences make us unique, but they are also the crux of our problems.
And to move on to our colonial history that still has a powerful bearing on our present, Girish Karnad delivered the perfect key note address; ‘Entertaining India'. He brought in the idea of class and caste in Indian Art that is so rarely realised or acknowledged. We have had people tell us that everything about India is 2000 years old. But it was quite a revelation to know that the famed Bharatanatyam was incorporated as part of our culture only in the 1930s by the Madras Musical Association! It was originally the tradition of the Devadasis or temple dancers whose art form found social glory during the reign of the kings. With dethronement, they took to prostitution. The British were also instrumental in changing the forms and notions of theatre, painting and music. From theatre being just a form of entertainment of and for the lower classes, it was made an urban franchise. Shakespeare came to India translated into Marathi, other regional languages and just like that, theatre became serious business. Yes, from the artistan of pre-colonial India to the modern British educated artist, India has come a long way. It seems like it was mostly the middle class that extracted the positives of the Colonial period.
Though Mahasweta Devi couldn't be there in person due to a surgery she had to undergo recently, her presence on the T.V screen made up for it.
Honest, independent, gutsy, humble are rarely perceived as qualities predominant in one individual. ‘Talking Writing - Four Conversations with Mahasweta Devi‘ brought out all that and much more. Evident in this documentary are her passions, her suffering, her failures all in her own profoundly strong words. Devi has been known for her rare ability to transcend the clichéd and see beyond; the short film has clearly highlighted that brilliance. “Through my writing I could be myself”, she says. And through her life, it seems like she never let an external influence baffle her. She was always writing and with that she created an identity not just for the world, but for herself too. But admiration is not her cup of tea. She finds it rather “uncomfortable”! As simple as the literature she writes and as effective as the message she sends out, it is meaningful times like these that help find a reason to cherish humanity's existence.
The C factor
Without commercialism, where are the crowds? Both Cs are equally important, after all. There were the glitterati like Shabana Azmi, Javed Akhtar, Neena Gupta, Rahul Bose and the excitement around them was electric. Social Activism in the Arts was one such event, which discussed celebrity contribution towards empowerment. There was of course Shobha De, in full swing with opinions on everything from child abuse to Raj Thackeray! One crucial point that she made in the subject of her comfort was that the role of women in middle class families is still quite complicated. The feminist model of the West is different from the one brewing here and it is not a political movement as in the former. Acceptance, then, takes a beating. The overall sexual repression in India is still the same, despite a lot of effort being taken to curb it. Therefore, in her opinion, India is fighting a different kind of war — a subversive war. She has broken stereotypes, notions and come forth with a charm that cannot be ignored and a grace that is sometimes intimidating. But whatever it is, her presence is a symbol for women to envision.
Religion has been a virtue of faith, but what when the institutions that preach these very ideals let you down? Or what when in literature, identity and writing is branded based on the caste you hail from. This session with Sr. Jesme and P. Sivakami explored confessional writing, truth, hypocrisy, double standards, moral failings, acceptance, patriarchy, separatism. Most importantly, it highlighted the courage of these women who are standing victims of societal shames and yet strong enough to bare open to the world their experiential realities.
Sister's reading of excerpts from her book, Autobiography of a Nun exuded an authenticity that was hard hitting and at the same time a very personal account of uncomfortable truths that plague the four walls of the Holy Abode. It exposes the disfunctionalities of the convent life at all levels from homosexuality and molestation to bribery and institutionalisation.
It would be unfair not to mention the other great writers who graced this event. Therefore, here goes — Wole Soyinka, William Darlymple (festival director), Andrew O Hagan, Anne Enright, Roddy Doyle, Hanif Kureishi, Esther Freud and Anne Applebaum.
Niharika is a II year student of B.A. Literature at Stella Maris College.