Literature festivals caught in a Covid-19 crossroads

Namita Gokhale, Anil Dharker, Manjiri Prabhu, Malavika Banerjee

As India moves between phases of lockdowns and “unlocks” in different cities, the key adjustment we have had to make is to accept the inability to assemble for events and festivals. Across the world, festivals on art, culture and literature have also had to reschedule their dates and their formats, considering that the pandemic doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon.

The literature festival scene in India usually starts in August, with the Bhutan Festival of Literature, Art & Culture, and goes on till the Delhi Literature Festival which takes place in late February or early March. I recall when the first few of these festivals had started, taking tiny steps one at a time. This beginning, however humble, had been possible only with the help of enthusiasts, distributors and publishers.

Over the years, these festivals have become a big congregation of some of the biggest and brightest minds in the worlds of literature, films, art and culture. And each year they draw lakhs of book lovers, deeply interested in reading, writing and high-voltage conversations around them. These festivals also see a lot of people, keener on updating their social media check-ins and taking selfies with well-known personalities and international celebrities.

 For the writing community, it is an opportunity to network with publishers, regional media, other writers and their readers. Writers, therefore, look forward to travelling across the country during these eight months. For serious readers, it is also an opportunity to engage in conversations with their favourite writers and attend some immersive and challenging conversations. Publishers view these festivals as a platform for business networking. They go scouting for writers and writers come loaded with their writing ideas looking for publishers in these spaces. Some of these festivals also provide opportunities for striking business partnerships between international publishers and smaller regional publishers. Literature festivals also provide a ground for the media to be able to get all the brightest brains in one place and get their opinions on urgent social and political issues.

In India, by the time the pandemic hit, we had just about wrapped up the 2019- 2020 series of literature festivals. In this changed world — with only a few months to go — the fate of literature festivals in 2020 looks a little unpredictable.

 I reached out to the directors and organisers of some of the oldest and most prestigious literature festivals in India to find out how they plan to host their festivals this year and continue to remain connected with those who wait in anticipation for these annual galas.

Namita Gokhale, the doyenne of publishing and founder and director of the Jaipur Literature Festival, shared, “We are hosting our international festivals on digital platforms this year.” Jaipur Literature Festival, one the biggest Indian literature festivals, which has spread its arms across the globe, seems to have sorted its schedule as it has announced the dates for India from the 28th January 2021 to the 1st  of February 2021. Gokhale adds, “JLF at the British Library runs from 11th to 13th September. The virtual London edition will be followed by the American editions of our festivals in Houston, New York, Boulder and Toronto.” Interestingly, the festival had announced a change of venue, given the growing need of a much larger space due to the crowd that pours in, sometime towards the end of 2019. Recently, it had also become a ticketed event.

Anil Dharker, founder and director of Tata Literature Live, another popular festival held in Mumbai every year, shares that they are exactly 3 months away from the dates of the festival and it is still unclear how the situation would pan out by then. “We are in a world which is not leaving us with any option but to have a limited audience and go digital for most of the conversations as most of the international writers wouldn’t travel. Depending on the situation, we may have local and domestic authors travel for the festival, but it is all too unsure at the moment.” The festival takes place in Mumbai, which is one of the worst-hit cities in this ongoing pandemic, and Dharker feels that the situation is going to worsen if and when the local trains, the lifeline of Mumbai, resume their services.

The Pune International Literature Festival, among the oldest festivals running in India, used to take place in September every year. However, as Manjiri Prabhu, founder and director of the festival, says “The monsoons have played havoc with the organising of the event for the last three years. That is why from this year onwards, we had already planned to host PILF in December. Now with the coronavirus situation, we hope to take some major decisions soon.” The Pune International Literature Festival intends to announce its final dates by the end of September.

 The KALAM Festival curated by its director, Malavika Banerjee, is another festival which is yet to announce its dates for the next season of both their Kolkata chapter as well as the Bhubaneshwar one. Banerjee says that it’s hard to plan ahead for several reasons: “First the uncertainty, second, even in a miraculous scenario where a live event is possible, authors will be wary of travel. Third, even if they do come, gathering in large numbers would not be permitted.” She adds that while they hope to have the festival at some point in 2021, January seems unrealistic.

But all is not grim as most of the festivals have already started regular interactions under their banners, focusing their energies on digital platforms. It is a good move given that even in the best of circumstances, and if the situation improves, many writers may not be able to travel and, therefore, some festivals or parts of these may have to look at digital events.

Jaipur Literature Festival has very aptly named its series under this effort, Brave New World, where it has been regularly conducting live interactions on YouTube and other digital platforms, between writers, artists and thought leaders both within India and living abroad.

Gokhale elaborates that the JLF Brave New World looks at the planet through the lens and perspectives of our challenging times. She adds, “It has hit a chord with audiences across the continents. The first hundred sessions of this digital transition have over three million views. Some of the greatest writers and thinkers in the world, from Margaret Atwood to Orhan Pamuk, Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee to Neil Gaiman, George Saunders to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, have joined us to share their thoughts on JLF Brave New World.”

Dharker too confirms that the digital transition of the ground events that they had under the Tata Literature Live events has been getting a great response, with every event seeing an average of 5,000 to 6,000 views. They plan one event a week and so far the response has been very encouraging.

  Malavika Banerjee of the KALAM festival which is also conducting a series of live conversations shares that while webinars are interesting and inclusive, the live event is a different beast and a far more attentive one. She mentions, “We have always had 10-12 events through the year but these were live events typically revolving around book launches. We’re doing these but also occasionally adding a topic like (the cyclone) Amphan or Black Lives Matter.

” Prabhu adds, “I guess, everyone is making the best of a given situation, to the best of their capacity. But as far as PILF is concerned, we would like to continue to maintain and enhance the spirit of the event and the excitement and anticipation of attendees towards an annual event — but as I said before, it remains to be seen if it will be an online or a physical festival this year.”

Gokhale shares that the transition to digital programming has been full of learnings. “There is perhaps, paradoxically, a greater intimacy to the virtual medium, and geographical constraints have given way to the liberating freedom to reach out to international speakers and to engaged audiences everywhere.” She also cites that a new community of book lovers has aggregated around JLF Brave New World.

While literature festivals helped bibliophiles rejuvenate their thoughts and ideas, they also brought about an atmosphere of festivities with literary soirees, big publishing revelries and musical evenings. It is the collective impression that made these festivals popular among people, publishers and brands.

Dharker shares that while the digital world definitely provides easy access and technology always meets a certain need, which in this case has arisen due to the pandemic, what is missed sorely is that festive atmosphere.  “This is why they are called festivals and not seminars!” reasons Dharker.

Putting together a physical festival also requires humongous efforts. There are aspects of the venue, the core theme of the festival for a year, curating an interesting series of different and unique topics that set it apart from others, drawing up and identifying personalities fit for these conversations who  can be invited from across the world and taking care of the minutest details of their travel, stay and food preferences. All this throws open the requirement of resources, especially huge funds, and thereby, sponsors.

While some of the big festivals grew bigger, both in size and stature, several smaller ones too were able to work as a bridge between readers and writers in their respective regions. Yet there were a few which staggered and stopped due to lack of funds and sponsors. When asked how sponsors would respond to a probable shift to the digital platform, Anil Dharker shares that sponsorships are always a challenge even with the physical festivals. “Raising money is always a challenge. Tata is our title sponsor but we still had to look for more sponsors every year to cover the costs.”

 With the transition to digital platforms, the perceived costs are less, but what sponsors fail to understand is the effort and time is the same. And international writers have realised that this new norm will limit their travel so they expect a speaking fee. Gokhale opines, “We live in an uncertain world, and most people and institutions are challenged by the broken economies around them.” She adds “Sponsorship for creative events is not always a priority in these times, but keeping in mind the enormous goodwill the Jaipur lit fest carries, I am certain things will work out.”

 Banerjee feels that if KALAM decides to hold an event later in the year, she is sure that their sponsors will back them as always. She adds “We need to be honest with our partners as they have been unquestioning in their support so far.”

Over the last decade, the festivals on literature have moved from too few to far too many, with almost every big city planning one locally. For writers and their publicists, it was a case of the more the merrier as it provided a platform to connect with audiences in different parts of the country. And probably, this is one of the reasons that up until 2019 we had grown to have over three dozen literature festivals across India.

The popularity of physical festivals and the resources that it consumed saw minimal effort being put towards digital platforms. But in current times, something that wasn’t the primary focus of festivals has suddenly become the most important aspect of their operations. This move to digital platforms definitely provides much wider access to readers and enthusiasts beyond boundaries. It would definitely mean a greater focus on content packaging and presentation and upgrading marketing skills to capture the attention of a floating digital audience. But if the festivals are able to develop a digital model to sustain them through innovative ways, festivals online may prove to be a strong addition, both in terms of reach and revenue, to the physical festivals in the longer run.

The Covid-19 situation has certainly put a pause on a lot of things and has changed the definition of normal but it is encouraging to see that those behind nurturing and promoting the idea of reading and creative confluence are ready to face this new world bravely.

 Lipika Bhushan is the founder of leading PR and Digital Marketing firm, MarketMyBook, and hosts ‘Between The Lines’ on YouTube.