Is the success of a literary festival directly proportional to how picturesque its location is? If Jaipur and Kovalam are any indication of the truth of this, then it’s fair to say that Mountain Echoes, the literary festival inaugurated last May in Thimphu and Paro by the India Bhutan Foundation, will one day be the most popular of them all.
“Let me quote William Blake to you,” Namita Gokhale, festival director of Mountain Echoes, says. “‘Great things are done when men and mountains meet / This is not done by jostling in the street.’” In the Himalayan fastness of the world’s newest democracy, a land so beautiful that colonialists once speculated it was the mythical Shangri-La, humans may dream at least as grandly as the landscape.
Nonetheless, Mountain Echoes, whose second edition will be held later this month, started out small. The festival’s first edition drew capacity crowds—but at the picturesque Tarayana Centre, this was just about 400-500 people per session. Bhutan’s Queen Mother, the writer Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, is the festival’s royal patron, so it’s not surprising that members of the court and government flocked to the readings and panel discussions. But most of the audience, says Mita Kapur, producer of the festival, were students, aspiring writers and readers who responded as enthusiastically to Gulzar as they did to Chetan Bhagat.
Landscape: The second Mountain Echoes fest will unfold in Thimphu. Thinkstock
Pavan Varma, India’s ambassador to Bhutan, says he thought of a literary festival as a way to bring the two countries culturally closer. “We have such close political and economic relations,” he says. “But the embrace has not always allowed for closer people-to-people contact. And Indians did come all the way to attend, just as ordinary Bhutanese showed up in large numbers.”
The Queen Mother may be one of Bhutan’s most high-profile writers, thanks to her Bhutan memoir, Treasures of the Thunder Dragon, but young writers such as Sonam Kinga (a member of Bhutan’s parliament), who translated the 18th century poem Gaylong Sumdar Tashi from Dzongkha to English, are increasingly better known in India, thanks to appearances at the Jaipur Literature Festival and elsewhere. The novelist Kunzang Choden, whose 2005 novel The Circle of Karma was published to international acclaim, remains a star attraction. Both Kinga and Choden will return to the festival this year.
The human themes of novels like Choden’s are universal, as Gokhale notes, but it’s impossible for a festival of this nature not to speak to the specific culture that surrounds it. Last year’s festival had extensive sessions on the poetic and mythical traditions of Bhutan. “The location is programmed into the consciousness of the festival in some ways,” Gokhale says. “There is an awareness of a Bhutanese model of life. There is a strong sense of the environment—and Bhutan is far ahead of the rest of the world when it comes to environmentalism—and conservation,” says Gokhale.
But the Indian brigade at Mountain Echoes represents a different sort of glamour. Among others, this year will feature a range of writers, from Shobhaa De (in conversation with Malashri Lal and Lily Wangchhuk), to Javed Akhtar and Imtiaz Ali, and Samit Basu and Indrajit Hazra.
“I think there are going to be a lot of laughs at that one,” Gokhale says about the last. “It’s a young festival, with a very young air—that, I think, is its essential vibe.”
Sessions to watch
The highlights of this year’s festival
•‘Tagore: A Tribute’ (20 May, 5.55pm): Gulzar reads his selections of Tagore poetry
•‘Stories of Earth and Sky: Folk Tales and Contemporary Themes’ (21 May, 2.30pm):
With Dasho Kinley Dorji, Lingchen Jurmey Dorji, Karma Singye Dorji and Tshering Tashi
•Concert (21 May, 7pm): The Vivek Rajagopalan Quartet
•Duet (23 May, 12.30pm):Kunzang Choden in conversation with Anita Roy
•‘Dawn of the Digital Age—Social Media and the New Bhutan’ (23 May, 4.15pm): With Tshering Tobgay, Gopilal Acharya, David Davidar and John Elliott
Mountain Echoes will take place from 20-24 May in Thimphu, Bhutan. For the complete schedule and travel packages, log on to Mountainechoes.org