In the mid-oughties, the city had just one literature festival, part of the larger Kala Ghoda Arts Festival. Then, when the Jaipur Literary Festival started bringing in the crowds and sponsors, the Times of India launched one, which in a complicated way gave birth to another, Literature Live; and last year, poet and publisher Hemant Divate launched the Mumbai Poetry Festival. Granted, we’re a large city, but what gap could a YALF (Yet Another Literary Festival, as some on the circuit tiredly term them) fill?
Jennifer Robertson, curator of the Bandra Poetry & Literature Festival, organised by PEN All-India Centre and Celebrate Bandra Trust, which opens today, delicately circles the question. “I don’t think the festival developed from a gap. Culturally, Bombay has always been rich, vibrant. And in different capacities, I’ve been part of many of [other festivals]. Each has their own USP.” What Robertson wanted to do, is to build synergy — between generations, mediums, and traditions — to create an inclusive space without compromising on quality. Another ingredient is her own poetry practice, nurtured through a career in banking and then as a CSR consultant. That poetry finds its place in the name is not to indicate that it’s not literature, but that poetry will be centre-stage. “I want to see more poetry at festivals, more poets on panels, more discussions. More engagement across media. And I don’t think in a generic festival it gets or warrants that kind of space. That’s one reason why one thought that one could expand that space here, when the opportunity presented itself,” she says.
This festival happened very quickly, from the seed of the idea when Robertson was part of the Celebrate Bandra festival’s literary committee in 2017, to a proposal to the Celebrate Bandra Trust in November — let’s bring many young voices and pair them with a few established voices — to the formation of a think-tank of friends, to getting a final go-ahead in early December, and then the flat-out sprint that was putting it all together in less than two months.
While Robertson was given a free hand, the process of curation she describes is consultative. “We wanted to look at what young poets would enjoy in a festival. What excites them? Can we do conversations differently? What can we change? The answer would only come if we asked them. And that’s really the theme of the festival: let the zeitgeist speak,” she says.
The resulting mix is eclectic: a session on how to read poetry rubbing shoulders with one on how millennials critique, a discussion on mental health and another on women’s voices that have been lost, one panel has the word ‘sfumato’ in the title, another has ‘chiri-miri’. There are workshops and book launches too, a poetry walk with spoken word poets reading Bombay poets, and a transcontinental performance with poets from the USA participating via live web video, and a remembrance of the late Eunice de Souza. Among the genre-mixing performances are a dance interpretation of a text, and a session that intersperses sets of short readings with jazz interludes.
Will this be a one-off? Robertson hopes it will make its place in the city’s literary calendar, and that future editions will be even more inclusive, bringing in not just ideas that could not be accommodated this year but new ones as well. Perhaps there will be more from other branches of literature, “but you’ll have to check.”
Reactions to the schedule, which came out this week, have been overwhelmingly positive, she notes with relief. “People have been commenting in our page saying that it it’s like a candy shop, and they want to eat everything.”
For More details about the festival see: facebook.com/LeSutraBandraLiteratureFestival