What explains the sudden boom of literary festivals in Kerala?
Leonald Daisy Mathew—25, literate and jobless—was one among the tens of thousands who headed to the beach in Kerala’s Kozhikode district to attend the recent Kerala Literature Festival (KLF), an annual marque event, organized by the region’s largest publishing house, DC Books.
“Last year my friends attended it, but I couldn’t. So I didn’t want to miss it this year,” said Mathew, who has a post graduate degree in journalism, over the phone. Some of the sessions bored him a little, he added, but he was fascinated by the overall ambience.
Kerala is seeing a boom in literary festivals, with over six events happening in the state this year alone, and all of them are attracting book lovers in droves. More than 100,000 people attended the four-day KLF, between 8 and 11 February, according to estimates by DC Books.
KLF was held in tandem with a 10-day National Book Festival, organized by the Kerala chapter of the Sahitya Akademi in Thrissur, and came a fortnight after another big festival, held early February, put together by a rival publishing house, Mathrubhumi Books, in the capital, Thiruvananthapuram. Next month, from 6-10 March, Sahitya Pravarthaka Sahakarana Sangham (SPCS), a cooperative society for writers in Kerala, will organize an 11-day book fair and a literary festival, partly sponsored by the state government, in Kochi.
In the months ahead, Kerala will witness a poetry carnival in Palakkad district’s Pattambi region, and an annual literature festival at the government-run Thunchan Memorial Trust and Research Centre in Tirur in Malappuram district—apart from the numerous other smaller festivals organized by colleges and cultural forums.
So is Kerala seeing a rise in literary festivals?
To begin with, unlike well-known major literary festivals organized in other parts of India, such events in a state like Kerala give space to regional writers and intellectuals, many of whom are household names but not as well known outside the state.
KLF had around 500 speakers, roughly twice the number of speakers at this year’s Jaipur Literary Festival (JLF), arguably India’s best-known annual literary event.
Some of the participants at KLF, including K.R. Meera and S. Hareesh, have become household names, thanks to the tremendous reception of their work in Kerala. Others have made records in the publishing industry—for instance, writer Perumbadavam Sreedharan, who released the 102th edition of his popular novel based on Russian writer Dostoevsky’s life, Oru Sankeerthanampole (Like A Psalm), published by Kollam-based Sankeerthanam publication, at the latest edition of KLF.
KLF also came to be seen as showcasing left of centre politics. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader and minister of state for tourism Alphons Kannanthanam hit out against KLF for mostly having writers like Noam Chomsky (who was logged in via video conference) and Arundhati Roy, both believed to be left of centre in their politics, as speakers, even though he was one of the participants as well.
Kannanthanam made the remark on the sidelines of KLF, in response to KLF director and poet K. Satchidanandan’s remark to the press earlier that the event will not host people from the far right who undermine democracy.
Interestingly, since 1997, Kerala has been hosting an annual book fair in Kochi, which gives prominent space for right of center books and ideas. Catapulted into a literary festival since November 2017, the book fair, known as Kochi International Book Festival, held by a non-profit Antharashtra Pusthakotsava Samithi (International Book Fair Committee), has been largely devoid of any left-leaning speakers.
Kerala has one of the highest literacy levels (96.11 % for men and 92.07% for women, as per the latest 2011 census) in the country. The pursuit of education, clubbed with a long history of social renaissance, has infused the land with a thriving literary tradition.
The state economy is also one that is characterized by high income, expanded individual choices and the highest unemployment rate in the country (12.5% as against an all-India average of 5%, as per the state economic survey, 2018).
“My rural cousins were reading in the late 1960s—Malayalam translations (unauthorised, no doubt) of Sartre, Camus and Pasternak, printed on flimsy paper with bindings ready to fly apart at the turn of a page, but awakening Keralites to ideas and literary experiences unavailable to other Indians who could not even read English,” wrote Shashi Tharoor in an article in Condé Nast Traveller in 2010, on why he sees Kerala as a natural fit for lit fests.
Poet S. Kalesh, who was one of the speakers at KLF, sees the popularity of such events as a direct consequence of Kerala’s “evolved” literary tradition. Speaking on phone, he recalled how the hour-long sessions at KLF went beyond merely discussing books—to deplore the so-called Hindutva agenda of the BJP-led Union government, lament the murder of journalist Gouri Lankesh, debate recent movie censorship controversies, and so on.
“In many ways, literature and social responsibility have become somewhat inseparable in Kerala. That is perhaps a major reason why events like KLF are appealing to the local people. They were collecting ideas (at KLF), as a farmer would collect his seeds,” said Kalesh.
Writer Manu S. Pillai, who is a columnist with Mint Lounge, was a speaker at the festival organised by Mathrubhumi Books. He echoed similar thoughts, adding that he felt he had “participated in a real exchange of ideas”.
“The striking thing about literature festivals in Kerala is not so much the number of people who attend, which is large, but how utterly involved this large audience is in the process,” he said in an email. “I was at KLF last year, for instance, and two things stand out in my mind—the sight of young people taking notes and a conversation with a man who works in Chennai as a nurse, who had travelled all the way just to attend some of the discussions that had been advertised. He reads, he said, between shifts at work, and makes it a point to go to as many literary gatherings he can when in Kerala,” he added.
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