December is infamous in India’s Pride calendar for the 2013 Supreme Court ruling that overturned a 2009 Delhi high court verdict reading down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. Overnight, the LGBTQ+ community was again criminalized. The scenario has changed since, with the historic Supreme Court verdict repealing Section 377 in September 2018. And now there’s a far better reason to mark the winter month: with the inaugural edition of the Rainbow Lit Fest, coming up in Delhi on 7-8 December.

Keynote speakers at the festival Onir .
Keynote speakers at the festival Onir . (Photo: HT)

Yet another literature festival, many may sigh, in a country where it’s hard to keep count of the number of such events organized through the year. In 2019 alone, there have been three queer literature festivals so far: in Kolkata, Chennai and Lucknow. Each of these events, in their own ways, amplified local voices and covered wide ground. The Chennai festival, for instance, had a session on inclusive children’s literature, while the one in Lucknow organized skill-building workshops, along with panel discussions. So, do we really need one more lit fest for the LGBTQ+ community?

In spite of what may look like a problem of plenty, the answer is yes. “I was disappointed that in the aftermath of last year’s judgement, no political party came forward to enable the community to create more public awareness," says Sharif D. Rangnekar, director of the Rainbow Lit Fest, on the phone from Delhi. Such apathy is particularly galling since several party manifestos made tall promises to uphold LGBTQ+ rights before this year’s general election.

A situation like this had been feared. Once a legal victory is achieved, the larger challenge of bringing about social change usually becomes less urgent. It’s conveniently forgotten that decriminalization is but the first step towards securing equal rights as citizens—the mindset of society is the biggest hurdle. For this reason alone, it is imperative to offer more platforms to members of the LGBTQ+ community to speak about their aspirations and experiences to a wider audience. Such interactions and dialogues, whether conducted in print or at a cultural event, can become catalysts of change and—for lack of better words—help “normalize" LGBTQ+ lives to the “mainstream".

The Rainbow Lit Fest is distinctive not only in bringing together high-profile speakers (both from the community and its allies) but also for its mixed-bag programming. Earlier this year, Rangnekar, who is a former journalist and public relations expert, published a memoir, Straight To Normal: My Life As A Gay Man. In June, he decided to organize the Rainbow Lit Fest, inspired by an idea proposed by Dibakar Ghosh, his editor at Rupa Publications. Rangnekar, who is also a professional musician, decided to bring in a range of personalities, instead of focusing solely on writers. “I wanted to explore the idea of storytelling through diverse media—songwriting, scriptwriting, and other intersections," he says.

The outcome is a programme that features film-makers, artists, writers, lawyers, activists and change-makers from different fields.

Four keynote speakers—musician Shubha Mudgal, writer and mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik, actor and director Nandita Das and film-maker Onir—are scheduled to address the audience next weekend. All of them, in their own ways, intend to grapple with the theme of the festival: “queer and inclusive". While Mudgal is going to speak about different levels of harmony and egalitarianism in musical forms, Pattanaik will expound on what Lord Ram says about the queer community in India. Das and Onir, who have worked in queer cinema, will share their thoughts on the power of storytelling on film. There will also be a number of screenings, panel discussions and readings over the two days.

While the programme is thin on conventional literary content—writings on LGBTQ+ lives in the regional languages are a notable omission—the larger aim of the Rainbow Lit Fest is to draw a line between the past and the present. This historical arc also gives it an edge over other queer lit fests. The journey from the early days of Pride marches in India in the late 1990s to the triumph of 2018 has been a long and arduous one, involving the tireless activism and personal sacrifices of many individuals and organizations. The Rainbow Lit Fest aims to commemorate their struggle by resurrecting a narrative that has been mostly erased from public memory.

Even its choice of venue is symbolic. The Gulmohar Park Club in south Delhi is where Naz Foundation, one of the pioneers of the LGBTQ+ movement in India, established its offices in 2001. A related highlight of the festival is the release of Q&I, a magazine that captures the trajectory of LGBTQ+ activism in India and the diaspora through the 1980s and 1990s. Edited by Pawan Dhall, Saleem Kidwai and Sandip Roy, the volume celebrates the work done by the Trikone Collective in the US, mostly comprising LGBTQ+ members of South Asian origin, and includes an iconic interview with mathematical genius Shakuntala Devi, and Roy Wadia’s piece on his late brother Riyad Wadia, a film-maker and key figure in the movement.

Finding sponsors and crowdsourcing funds were a challenge for the first edition, but Rangnekar hopes his project will grow in scale and ambition over the coming years.

For more details visit Rainbowliteraturefestival.com

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