ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Institutions, Crisis, and Talk-culture

Literature Festivals

A prologue to a debate on the cultural phenomenon of literature festivals in India, this essay offers ways to think about them by beginning within the event. Turning to events that are frequently either rubbished or valorised, it is shown that they point to an anxiety and a negotiation about how we think about literatures, and their production and circulation in the subcontinent.


A 2012 blog about literature festivals by novelist Amitav Ghosh stages anxiety about writing, reading, and inter-pretation among a text–public sphere on the internet.1 Ghosh reveals his lack of taste for such “tamashas” because to him, books “were a refuge from a world that seemed to be at war with the very idea of an inner life.” The literary belief system Ghosh endorses is based on the conviction that “performances are secondary and inessential to a writer’s work” because what makes books “democratic and accessible” is the impersonal nature of circulation itself. I am not interested in arguing if Ghosh’s position is correct or not. What should instead interest us, is how the post throws into sharp relief questions about the institution of literature in India. It raises questions about values we attribute to reading, writing, and interpretation, about the public and private, and about the spaces that transact with the literary.2 At the same time, it also makes me wonder why some of us are so frightened of the performative nature of these events, of the genre of the mela (meeting, assembly, or fair).3

I want to suggest that the literature festival scene is more complicated and entangled with the nature of the literary field and “literature-worlds” that compete and cooperate for meaning in the subcontinent.4 Meaning is in the process of being made at these events that influence public taste, rewire values we attribute to literature, and evoke conjunctural genealogies about the institution(s) of literature(s) in South Asia. Following this discursive process and practice can tell us more about the state of these literatures, their legitimation, and what I call the production of public criticism and critique through “talk-culture.” The public debate about literature is both an object of study and a way to be in popular culture—to embrace the mentality of the bazaar, the voices in a teeming and chaotic public space—and produce critique through praxis.5

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Updated On : 7th Oct, 2019


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