Whose festival is it?

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Rishi Majumder

Let’s begin with the obvious. South Bank, a famous Central London entertainment and culture hub, is not Jaipur. And so, the Jaipur Literature Festival (or simply JLF) at Southbank Centre is not the Jaipur Literature Festival.

The latter, the ‘greatest literary show on earth’ in the words of Tina Brown, sweeps up the pink city in a whirlwind that appears to prompt every taxi driver in town to ask a tourist enthusiastically on the day of the festival, ‘JLF?’ Ask someone, even at Southbank Centre, where the JLF is, and you’re likely to be met by a quizzical stare.

At the entrance to Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room, where the festival is being held, you`re greeted by an installation of a Pakistani tailor shop. ‘Darzi Gully’, a sign next to it reads. The installation belongs to an exhibition on Pakistani street art dedicated to Pakistani rights activist Sabeen Mahmud who was shot dead on Apr 24 this year, and whose brainchild the endeavour is. The exhibition is one of many at Alchemy 2015, an annual Southbank Centre festival which showcases culture from the UK and South Asia (which many in the area have heard of). JLF, at South Bank, is a part of this.

If JLF’s bonsai UK edition of two days with two to three sessions taking place alongside (the Jaipur festival this year lasted five days with six sessions together and music events every night) had been set, on its own, in a small English town, perhaps, it would have offered visitors a win-dow into what the actual festival looks like.

Instead, even with Rajasthani musician Kutle Khan clicking up a storm with his khartaal, making a few Londoners dance quite vigorously to folk music, it has managed to provide only a peephole.

There are other key differences between the two avatars of the festival. The festival at Jaipur is free and the one at South Bank a ticketed event. Thousands of Indians throng to JLF at Jaipur to be exposed to an amazing gamut of writers and thinkers from around the world. JLF at South Bank appears to be aimed, rather, at exposing Londoners to the Indian literary and intellectual scene. I say Indian literary and intellectual scene, because it would be safe to say that of the 55-odd speakers at the festival over 80 per cent were Indian residents, or of Indian origin, or people who have researched, reported or written on India (such as Andrew Whitehead, Jeff Koehler and Lance Price).

Tahmima Anam and Sadaf Saaz seemed to represent Bangladesh at this JLF. Moni Mohsin and Qaisra Shahraz Pakistan. For Sri Lanka there was Romesh Gunesekera, and academic Michael J. Hutt was the JLF Southbank panellist who was an expert on Nepal.TheorganisershadinvitedBhutanese politician and author Lily Wangchuk, but she couldn`t make it at the last minute, possibly because of visa troubles. Distinguished Indians at the festival included Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul and social worker Tara Gandhi Bhattacharjee.But let`s talk of the audiences, mostly South Asian. There were many Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi visitors at the festival and some from Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka. Most of them seemed enthralled by the sessions. And engaged. Hands shot up at the end of every talk for questions.

Some, for opinions.

Particularly heated sessions included one on Narendra Modi, with journalists John Elliot Rajdeep Sardesai and Swapan Dasgupta, and Lance Price who authored a book on Modi’s campaign last year, battling it out on whether the Indian prime minister had done well in the first year since he took over and on what he should do ahead.

Particularly insightful sessions included one titled Whose Feminism Is It Anyway? with journalists Salil Tripathi, Anita Anand and Pragya Tiwari, publisher, writer and activist Urvashi Butalia, author Janice Pariat and brand and marketing professional Suhel Seth. The panellists attempted to analyse how feminism differed from country to country and whether India had succeeded in creating its own ways and means for the freedom and empowerment of women.

On female infanticide, for instance, Butalia said, `The situation is very bad.

Particularly in North India Punjab, Haryana and Delhi. However, there are some changes in particular states. In those states where people now have no women to marry… In Punjab and Haryana, things are turning around in some villages because ofthe efforts of women’s groups, civil society groups and religious leaders, quite interestingly.

“People will talk about the Land Acquisition Bill in India, but there will be very little written about how it affects women or Dalit landless labourers who are women, or on women’s consent while taking land,” said Tiwari. “When we talk about the Public Distribution System and Right to Food, we will not talk about how cash transfers may exclude women (in a household) from how that money is spent”.

Lily Wangchuk was supposed to be on this panel which, going by its description, was supposed to address “the models of freedom and creative empowerment” in South Asia. If she had been there one may have gathered an idea of whether and how feminism had redefined itself in Bhutan, a South Asian country other than India.

In fact, quite a few of the on and off stage discussions at the festival, among panellists and audiences, revolved around whether South Asia was adequately represented in certain panels or not, or around the equation South Asian countries had with one another.

After JLF’s final debate on whether the Westminister model of democracy had taken root in South Asia, there were some complaints about the fact that the model didn`t apply to certain smaller South Asian countries (Sri Lanka and Nepal, for instance)in the first place.

In another discussion on Bangladesh, one audience member got up, rather excitedly, at the end, to ask why Bangladesh was not ‘more grateful’ to India for aid provided in its war of independence. The talk was on the Bangladesh war of 1971 and closure for rape victims of the war, each known as a Birangona (meaning ‘brave woman’ but which has grown to become a stigma for the same) as well as the killing of bloggers in Bangladesh in recent years. It comprised sociologist Mukulika Banerjee and authors Anam, Tripathi and Saaz. “It’s a bit much to expect Bangladesh to continue to be grateful over 40 years after India helped it,” Tripathi replied.

‘As a Bengali Hindu growing up in India and having lived and worked in the [then] North West Frontier [Province] in Pakistan, I think of South Asia very differently,’ said Banerjee. `Not just from Delhi but also from Charsadda, from London, I think about South Asia as a region, not just as nationally bound entities of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh…

Perhaps what Banerjee says rings true in a manner beyond the obvious. It rings true in the context of Indian writers such as Tripathi (author of The Colonel who would not Repent: The Bangladesh War and Its Unquiet Legacy) writing on other South Asian countries and vice versa, sure, but also in simpler ways.

In a panel on Partition, for instance, a Pakistani audience member living in London spoke about how she would sooner leave her child at an Indian friend’s house, if she had to travel somewhere, because of shared cultures. Another Pakistani nearly broke down while speaking of a meeting, after many years, with an old friend he had left behind since the Partition. These voices emerged despite the fact that the panel itself had no Pakistani or Bangladeshi author on it. They emerged from a South Asian diaspora audience bent on infusing an otherwise largely Indian literature festival with its own character.

They emerged, also, in a talk called The Gaze: Here’s Looking At You India, for instance, which dissected the representation of the country in literature, films and journalism. Nodding at how foreign writers, filmmakers and media, especially from the West, sometimes missed nuances about one`s country seemed very much a shared sub-continental experience.

Or in a talk named Shakespearewallahs where Tiwari, Seth and theatre director Tim Supple examined, among other things, Bollywood’s relationship with Shakespeare.

(“Vishal Bhardwaj is not taking the soul of Shakespeare,” said Supple, “but the source. He’s doing what Shakespeare did, with Shakespeare.”) Being in that room, withaudience members from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan and India, would leave anyone with little doubt that both Shakespeare and Bollywood formed key elements of the South Asian experience, rather than an exclusively English or Indian one.

And they definitely emerged in a session called What Makes South Asians Smile, with Seth, Pakistani writer Moni Mohsin, Indian writer Sidin Vadukut and publisher Malvika Singh.

And so, while the halls of the Southbank Centre did stand out in contrast to the open lawns and tents of Jaipur, perhaps it was just as well that the festival was held here, a celebration in many ways of London`s multiculturalism. Not far off from the venuewas a café with a splendid view of the Thames that, in keeping with Alchemy 2015, was playing old, sometimes unheard-of Hindi film songs. Further, if one would venture a walk through the wind and rain, was a South Asian street food bazaar.

One particularly intriguing audience member was an elderly lady in old-fashioned attire and a pink and white Victorian hat. She would raise her hand at the end of each session she attended, then proceed to read out relevant quotes by or pertaining to Indian statesmen and authors, which she seemed to have noted previously in preparation.

And finally, a session on Urdu, Hindustani and Hindi on the second day. Here, Francesca Orsini, professor of South Asianliterature at SOAS, read out a chapter from Urdu writer Intizar Husain’s Basti which spoke about a boy being acquainted with two myths of how the world came into being from a Muslim and a Hindu. Orsini chose to speak in (impeccable) Hindi and Urdu for most of the session. Achala Sharma, former head of BBC Hindi, recounted how the service was originally called BBC Hindustani (a language that is a mix of Urdu and Hindi), in 1940. She said she had looked up some old records for this talk, which told her that after Indian independence the service was broken up into Indian and Pakistani divisions and it was decided that those working in the Pakistani division should strive to use more Urdu and Persian words, and those in the Indian division should strive to imbibe words which had roots in Sanskrit. Yet, eventually, people realised that this led to the language of each BBC service being the “language of files or high literature perhaps”, but “not something which common people would understand”, and so each went back to using words that were closer to the original Hindustani. Another panellist was British Pakistani novelist Qaisra Shahraz, who writes in English. Here, for the first time, she read out a passage from her work which had been translated into Urdu. In English, she read this couplet by Faiz Ahmed Faiz:

“The door opens on my sadness; there they come, my guests.

There she is, the evening to lay a carpet of despair.

There goes the night to speak of pain to the stars.

Here comes the morning with its shining scalpel to open the wound of memory.”

Rishi Majumder, “Whose festival is it?,” in Dawn, May 30, 2015. Accessed on June 7, 2015, at: http://www.dawn.com/news/1183944/whose-festival-is-it

The item above written by Rishi Majumder and published in Dawn on May 30, 2015, is catalogued here in full by Faiz-e-Zabaan for non-profit educational purpose only. Faiz-e-Zabaan neither claims the ownership nor the authorship of this item. The link to the original source accessed on June 7, 2015, is available here. Faiz-e-Zabaan is not responsible for the content of the external websites.

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