Mapping how the Mountain Echoes festival has influenced Bhutan

Scenes from the previous edition of the festival

Scenes from the previous edition of the festival   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

In its 10th year, the arts festival is making a name for itself internationally and helping shape the country’s cultural landscape

“Bhutan is not an easy terrain to raise money for,” says Mita Kapur over the phone. The faint rustle of papers is audible in the background, as are snatches of conversations. Siyahi, the Jaipur-based literary consultancy of which Kapur is the founder-CEO, is understandably busy right now. They are the force behind Bhutan’s annual Mountain Echoes - Festival of Art, Literature and Culture — an initiative of the India Bhutan Foundation — and are gearing up for a milestone. The festival, which will take place in Thimpu from August 22 to 25, is marking its 10th year.

Mountain Echoes started off with a budget of ₹35 lakh, which went up to ₹1.5 crore last year. These include barter-based transactions that form a big part of the estimates for the current edition, says Kapur, adding that they’d be able to arrive at a final figure only once they start paying the bills.

Despite the logistical hurdles, the festival has grown in scope and prominence, both in cultural consciousness as well as holiday calendars. Last year, for instance, saw a footfall of over 10,000 people, with at least a couple of thousand more expected this year. Bhutan’s increasing appeal as a holiday destination has helped, despite its regulated tourism and visa policy. But has it succeeded in putting the Himalayan kingdom on the international map of art fests?

Filmmaker Imtiaz Ali at the 2017 festival

Filmmaker Imtiaz Ali at the 2017 festival   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Working the advantage

“When Mountain Echoes first came to Bhutan, there were some sceptics who felt it may be an Indian soft power bid to ‘culturally influence’ the country,” recalls investigative journalist Tenzing Lamsang, founder-editor of The Bhutanese, a weekly newspaper that is among a dozen operating in the country today. “But the reality is that the annual festival has, in fact, been a soft power advantage for Bhutan to influence and gain the appreciation of prominent writers, journalists, artists and activists from India and around the world,” he says. The festival, in its previous editions, has hosted best-selling author Markus Zusak, TV host and author Padma Lakshmi, popular slam poetry figure Sarah Kay, singer Usha Uthup, and author Jerry Pinto.

This year, the list of 62 speakers includes the likes of Aamir Wani, an Instagram star and Kashmir-photographer, Swapna Liddle, a historian specialising in Delhi’s past, Sanjeev Sanyal, currently India’s principal economic adviser, and Neil MacGregor, director of London’s National Gallery.

Jane Hancock, a local resident, however, feels it hasn’t got enough exposure. The photographer and educator, who is on one of the festival’s panels, says she hasn’t encountered much discussion about it in her professional and personal circles. “But some accomplished people are going to be visiting and speaking [this time], and from that I’d say it has gained a reputation for being a quality festival,” she says.

Usha Uthup with Kunga Tenzin Dorji

Usha Uthup with Kunga Tenzin Dorji   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Meanwhile, Bhutanese participation is on the rise at Mountain Echoes. Having the Royal Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, an author with three books to her name, as the festival’s official patron only helps. Kapur says that while they had an equal break-up of Bhutanese to Indian and international names in their initial years, this year more than 60% of the speakers are Bhutanese, with names like Tshering Denkar, the country’s first solo travel vlogger and Pema Choden Tenzin, editor-in-chief of Bhutan’s only women’s magazine. “It has definitely strengthened the literary space here,” Lamsang adds.

A festive spirit

The festival’s theme this year is ‘Many Lives, Many Stories’, the slight ambiguity affording them flexibility in the kinds of panels they’ll stitch together. “I don’t know how [given the shortage of funds], but we will do it... Everyone tells me it should be a cake walk now that it has been 10 years. But really, every year it’s a new challenge, with new lessons,” says Kapur.

Sarah Key (left) with Nilanjana Roy

Sarah Key (left) with Nilanjana Roy   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Cementing its role as not just a literary festival but a cultural fête, Mountain Echoes also has a new capsule: a day-long film festival where writers will engage with audiences before every screening. Additionally, Kapur has planned a one-day pop-up on August 17 in Paro, an hour’s drive from Thimpu. It will showcase Bhutanese lifestyle products, and will end with a night of performances by local artists. Kapur says “this pop-up is symbolic of the festive spirit of the 10-year celebrations of Mountain Echoes”.

Why you should pay for quality journalism - Click to know more

Related Topics
Recommended for you
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Feb 29, 2020 7:31:15 PM |

Next Story