Gateway Litfest: Letter and Spirit

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In the age of literary festivals, this one in Mumbai focuses on the anxieties, aspirations and richness of India imagined in Indian languages
English continues to be the preferred lingua franca for many litterateurs in India and a bevy of English literature festivals are proliferating across the country’s cultural landscape. However, Gateway Litfest, which debuted in 2015 to much success, has emerged as a mass literary movement to revive the rich and varied literary tradition of the country and provide a much-needed platform for language writers and literature aficionados. It provides a definite perspective to the present literary scene in the country, till now thought to have been dominated by Indo-Anglian writings.

What started as a coffee table discussion among a group of journalists (Mohan Kakanadan, Sabarinath M, Joseph Alexander and KJ Bennychan) became the country’s first regional literature festival last year. It has since helped promote writings in our mother tongues that are struggling for survival.

Gateway Litfest, the brainchild of Mumbai-based magazine Kaakka and communication agency Passion4Communication, has proved to be a catalyst in bringing about a change in the way contemporary literary writings are perceived and patronised. Unlike other literary offerings which are organised with much fanfare and are largely commercial, Gateway Litfest has challenged the established paradigms in regional literary trends by bringing together Jnanpeeth awardees, intellectuals and filmmakers from across the country.

Held at National Council for Performing Arts at Nariman Point, Mumbai, the recently concluded Gateway Litfest was attended by over 50 writers from 15 languages, and hundreds of erudite literature lovers.

Its popularity, according to festival director Mohan Kakanadan, can be attributed to the fact that it fosters a healthy tone for debate, discussion and dialogue with revamped programme formats and new areas of discussion.

“There is a bevy of English literature festivals in the country, with some concession given to regional writings. Gateway Litfest has broken from this tradition by fostering a culture of recognition for Indian language writers,” said Malayalam film director Adoor Gopalakrishnan.

Eminent personalities like Odia writers Pratibha Ray and Sitakant Mahapatra, Gujarati author Sitanshu Yashaschandra, Tamil filmmaker Leena Manimekalai, Hindi director Ananth N Mahadevan, Marathi directors Sunil Sukthankar and Paresh Mokashi, noted film critic Uday Tara Nayar and Bengali poet Binayak Bandyopadhyay have commended the festival. They believe it has been instrumental in breaking the glass ceiling within which Indian literature had been confined and made it accessible to common book lovers and literature aficionados.

The festival has become a reference point for discerning bibliophiles and art lovers who throng the venue to listen to their favorite authors, poets and critics. Gateway Litfest also proves that Indian literature is in an advanced stage of development, a fact endorsed by noted Bengali poet Subodh Sarkar who said, “In recent years, Indian literature has undergone a transient change with several new works published and written in an environment typically dominated by Indo- Anglian literature.”

“I have nothing against Rushdie, but [Marathi litterateur Bhalchandra] Nemade is hundred times greater than Rushdie,” added Sarkar.

A common myth that English writing has dominated the psyche of the Indian reader was successfully debunked at various sessions of the festival. Delegates suggested that the popularisation of Indian regional writings can be achieved by establishing a better cross-connect between authors of different languages and increased translations of popular Indian works into different Indian languages.

Terming the rise of Indo-Anglian writing as a ‘malignant growth’, celebrated Gujarati writer Sitanshu Yashaschandra said “Indian literature has survived for 3,000 years and it will survive longer. English writing cannot inflict any damage on it.”

The festival also dwelt on the state of women writers who have been largely sidelined by a powerful lobby of male publishers who have wrongly categorised popular women authors as ‘feminist’. In a session chaired by Open Editor S Prasannarajan, noted Indian women poets, writers and filmmakers such as Leena Manimekalai, Koushiki Dasgupta and Pratibha Ray unanimously agreed that the term ‘feminism’ was outdated and more women writers need to put forth their views aggressively.

A key area of concern at the festival remained the issue of Indian languages which are dying a slow death owing to neglect of indigenous populations and modern trends like urban migration. Data suggests that India—which is home to various communities and tribes—is likely to witness the extinction of innumerable languages and dialects by the end of this century. Eminent authors such as Purna Chandra Hembram and Uday Nath Majhi stated that the revival of these dying linguistic traditions could be expedited by including them in the cultural mainstream.

The festival also brought the hitherto ignored literature from the Northeast into the limelight. Talented writers like Manipuri poet Ibomcha Singh, Assam’s Pranay Phukan and Bengal’s Binayak Banerjee along with Subodh Sarkar offered a rich insight into the various issues plaguing Northeast literature.

Sessions on Malayalam and Marathi literature, the impact of modern phenomena like social media on poetry, the interspersing of real-life stories into reel-life cinema and English language seeping into the rendition of Indian mythological tales were the other focal points of discussion at the festival.

Anand Neelakantan, the author of best-seller mythological novel Asura: Tale of the Vanquished, said that he consciously chose to write in English when he decided to become a writer, while Tamil and Malayalam writer Jayamohan, the acclaimed writer of Vishnupuram, said he does not seek a wider audience but an ‘elite’ or ‘trained’ readership.

Writers, filmmakers as well as literary critics who formed part of this mass literary movement asserted that literary festivals like Gateway have the potential to unleash the locked talent of Indian writers and usher in a renaissance in Indian literature and arts.