Edinburgh to Kozhikode: how Kerala got onto UNESCO’s City of Literature list

Home to some of India’s best-known writers, including M.T. Vasudevan Nair, Vaikom Muhammad Basheer and S.K. Pottekkatt, the city also has a vibrant theatre tradition, several publishing houses, many libraries and bookshops, and hosts the popular Kerala Literature Festival

November 16, 2023 08:30 am | Updated 08:49 am IST

The decorated entrance of the 2018 Kerala Literature festival at Kozhikode beach.

The decorated entrance of the 2018 Kerala Literature festival at Kozhikode beach. | Photo Credit: RAMESHKURUP. S

Over four days in the coming month of January, the Kozhikode beach will witness a sea of people braving the blazing sun to listen to some great minds, from across the country and overseas, speaking mostly on literature.

The seventh edition of the Kerala Literature Festival (KLF) should attract hundreds of thousands of book lovers, as in previous years. It will be the first since UNESCO named Kozhikode a City of Literature, a fortnight ago.

The massive attendance for the KLF — there was a five lakh footfall at the last edition, according to the organisers — has, in fact, become the most visible symbol of Kozhikode’s love for literature. UNESCO’s recognition is richly deserved by this historic city.

Kozhikode is India’s first City of Literature. It was in 2004 that UNESCO launched the Creative Cities Network to promote cooperation among cities that have identified creativity as a strategic factor for sustainable urban development. Edinburgh was the first City of Literature.

Celebrating creativity

Besides literature, the UN agency also recognises cities for their association with other creative fields like film, crafts, folk arts and design. This year, Gwalior has been named a City of Music, an honour that was achieved before by two other Indian cities, Varanasi (2015) and Chennai (2017). A city has to submit a bid explaining why it deserves to be considered.

The Kozhikode Corporation acted, in all seriousness, on a suggestion by the Kerala Institute of Local Administration. A study was conducted by the students of Architecture and Planning at the National Institute of Technology, Calicut (the anglicised name of Kozhikode).

A study by a research scholar from Prague — the Czech city that got UNESCO’s tag in 2014 — also helped. As did the presence of 500-odd libraries, several publishing houses as well as literature festivals like the KLF.

The city’s love affair with letters becomes evident during the KLF. You will find large gatherings listening attentively to writers talking about their work or sharing their views on multiple topics during the hundreds of lively sessions over four days of the festival, the first edition of which was held in 2016.

You will also find the authors being treated like stars, with fans requesting them to pose for selfies or sign autographs, often on the books they penned. The KLF may have given Kozhikode a boost to its literary scene and the recognition from UNESCO may be an icing on the cake, but the city has always loved books and the men and women who write them.

Master storytellers

Kozhikode is home to one of the greatest writers of our time, M.T. Vasudevan Nair. It was also home to another much loved legendary author, Vaikom Muhammad Basheer. S.K. Pottekkatt, yet another master storyteller, also lived in this city.

Kozhikode also has a vibrant theatre tradition, best represented by the likes of K.T. Muhammed and Thikkodiyan. It has also produced one of Malayalam cinema’s finest scriptwriters, Ranjith.

There have always been romantic notions about Kozhikode and its literature. Writer Anees Salim once ran away from home to Kozhikode so that he could become a disciple of Basheer. M.T.’s postal address is among the most famous ones in the city.

The world may know M.T. for his novels such as Randamoozham, Asuravithu and Manju, short stories like Sherlock, Vanaprastham and Kazhcha, and screenplays like Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha, Amrutham Gamaya and Panchagni, but he has also been an exceptional editor of a literary magazine and has nurtured several new writers. That magazine, Mathrubhumi Weekly, is printed from Kozhikode.

The Kozhikode station of All India Radio has contributed significantly to the city’s culture. The station boasted talents such as poet and lyricist P. Bhaskaran, composer K. Raghavan, author Uroob, poets Akkitham and N.N. Kakkad and Thikkodiyan.

Until UNESCO’s recognition became national news, it wasn’t literature, though, that people usually associated Kozhikode with. The city has been celebrated more for its love of music, football and food. Kozhikode has always offered a wide array of food, catering to different tastes. Some of its eateries are known well beyond the borders of Kerala.

The venue of the KLF, the Kozhikode beach, has also played host to some of the biggest singers of the country. Excellent crowds would turn up at the Town Hall or the Tagore Centenary Hall for shows featuring lesser-known or even unknown singers.

Kozhikode has produced some of India’s finest footballers like Olympian Rahman and hosted several major tournaments in front of full houses. It also boasts of some of the most passionate fans of the beautiful game you would ever come across.

Thriving publishing houses

UNESCO’s approval of Kozhikode should be seen from a wider perspective. It isn’t the only city in Kerala that celebrates the written word. You would find serious readers across the State — in Thiruvananthapuram, Thrissur or Kottayam (the first town to become a 100% literate town in India in 1989, and the publishing capital of Kerala).

Even in this era of e-books and mobile phones, publishing thrives in Kerala. More and more books from Malayalam are getting translated. And the Malayali has welcomed warmly translations from all languages.

Marqeuz was once called the greatest novelist in Malayalam.

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