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A Miniature India: Sahityotsav 2024

Imagine listening to the most powerful poets from languages as diverse as Konkani, Dogri and Telugu read out their poetry to you. They recite the
The Multilingual Poets' meet
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Imagine listening to the most powerful poets from languages as diverse as Konkani, Dogri and Telugu read out their poetry to you. They recite the poems in their own language first, and you surrender to the cadence of their poetry, absorbing the languages as they resound across the hall! And then come the translations so that you can understand the subject matter of the poems as well!

Or, imagine the most promising young writers from Manipuri, Odia, Maithili and Kannada sharing their short stories on stage. It is a peep into the future of Indian literature—some of these writers will turn out to be world-famous with time. It is as if you are peering into your crystal ball to see what the future holds!

Or, imagine the most prominent LGBTQ writers of India present their work and discuss each other’s writings. A new window opens up in front of you, allowing you a look at emerging literary styles, movements and trajectories across the different languages of India. 

Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharya
Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharya

There were many such exciting sessions at Sahityotsav 2024, the Festival of Letters organised by the Sahitya Akademi from 11 to 16 March, 2024. The festival created a record and has been recognised as the ‘world’s largest literature festival’. It brought together 1,100 writers from across 175 languages and featured 190 sessions! Sahityotsav effectively showcased the phenomenal linguistic, literary and cultural diversity and wealth of India. It brought together writers, scholars, translators and performers from different languages of India, and provided a platform for mutual understanding and networking. It also provided much-needed exposure to ‘mainstream’ Indian languages, and more importantly, to ‘marginalised’ languages, genres and traditions of India.

Sayantan Dasgupta at Sahityotsav 2024
Sayantan Dasgupta at Sahityotsav 2024

The Sahitya Akademi has been organising literary festivals for many years now. But there is a change in recent years. The last several Akademi events have been much larger in scope than the ones in previous years; they have also managed to regularly foreground in a sustained manner traditions that are in danger of getting lost.

So many decades after Independence, our knowledge and understanding of languages and literatures from other parts of India remains rather limited.

 

Most people in Bengal, for instance, have little inkling of what is being written today in Malayalam, or Gujarati or Dogri, and vice-versa.

 

Still, whatever little we do know owes much to bodies like the Sahitya Akademi. Founded in 1954, the Sahitya Akademi is India’s national academy of letters; its primary task has been to spread awareness of the wealth and diversity of Indian literature through translations of Indian literature written in different languages. The literary festivals organised every year by the Akademi go a long way in enriching our understanding of Indian literatures from other parts of our country. The annual literary festivals also provide the occasion for giving away of the Sahitya Akademi awards—writers and translators from various Indian languages are presented with the Akademi awards as recognition of their contribution to Indian literature. The festivals bring together the different Indian languages and reiterate every year the fact that ‘Indian literature is one though it is written in many languages’ the motto of the Akademi.

The vice-president of Sahitya Akademi
The vice-president of Sahitya Akademi

One could detect several clear thrusts that the Akademi had put into place at the recently concluded Sahityotsav. Literature and Other Arts, LGBTQ Writing, Writing from the North-east and Translation were among the themes that were spread over several sessions. Again, the Multilingual Poetry Reading and the Multilingual Short Story Reading sessions featured poetry and stories by some of the most exciting Indian poets and writers from different languages. Languages as diverse as Hindi, Gujarati, Kashmiri, English, Sindhi, Assamese, Punjabi, Bengali, Santali and Urdu were featured in these sessions—a mind-boggling variety of languages!

Women’s Empowerment was yet another thrust of the Literary Festival, and there were a number of sessions dedicated to discussions of women’s writing from across India, as indeed there were a number of sessions in which women writers presented their writings and shared anecdotes and life stories related to gender stereotypes in oppression in different parts of India.

Another very interesting series is the “Why do I write?” sessions. These sessions have a number of writers reflecting on the motivations that fuelled them to take to writing. This year, writers like Pranjit Borah (Assamese), Asha Menon (Malayalam), Juliyes Vanathaiyan (Tamil) and Ankit Narwal (Hindi) participated in these sessions. It was interesting to see that the motivations ranged from the perceived need to disseminate and express one’s anger over existing social evils to the desire to prove oneself as a creative individual to a plethora of other causes.

“Importance of Mother Tongues” has traditionally been another favourite theme at the Sahitya Akademi literary festivals. It was exciting to see that while most panelists in these sessions predictably valourised mother tongues, some moved away from merely reiterating the organic relationship of mother tongue with one’s identity and instead engaged with the idea of mother tongue in the light of contemporary developments in the globalised world.

A panel on translation
A panel on translation

Apart from the sessions that focused on writers, there were a number of sessions that featured academic discussions on various issues related to literature, translation and nationhood. These sessions featured speakers from across India and provided the scope for exciting discussions.

Sahityotsav 2024 also featured a seminar celebrating the birth tercentenary of Mir Taqi Mir (1723-1810), the famous Urdu poet. Mir’s treatment of love and grief, his contribution to the development of the Urdu language, the importance of the oral tradition for Mir, his legacy to younger writers, and the enduring relevance of his writings in today’s world were highlighted by many of the speakers in the seminar.  The festival also had sessions dedicated to “Authors, Publishers and Copyright Issues” as well as sessions to discuss e-books and audio books and their relationship with the book in its printed form.

The Tribal Poets' meet
The Tribal Poets' meet

The icing on the cake was perhaps Gulzar-ji delivering the Samvatsar Lecture this year; he spoke on the relationship between literature and cinema. The two art forms have traditionally run parallel to each other and have derived inspiration from each other, and they have, at the same time, sometimes cannibalised each other.

 

This ambiguous love-hate relationship that borders on complicity and rivalry, collusion and collision, is one of the cornerstones of modern creative output in India as well as elsewhere.

 

It demands and deserves more attention that it has perhaps command from academics, writers, filmmakers and lay persons. The theme for this year’s Samvatsar lecture was thus most contemporary in relevance. And who better than Gulzar sahab to enlighten us on this relationship? One hopes that by focusing on this very important aspect of our culture industry, the Sahitya Akademi Samvatsar Lecture will nudge academics, readers, filmgoers and creative individuals to engage more seriously with the relationship between literature and the other arts in India today.

Pratibha Ray, an eminent Odia writer
Pratibha Ray, an eminent Odia writer

A particularly exciting feature of the literary festival was the focus on ‘Tribal Writing’. A number of sessions were earmarked for this thrust area. The festival exposed the audience to languages such as Gondi, Khasi, Kharia, Bhilori, Balti and Mizo. The Akademi’s consistent enthusiasm and commitment towards making these relatively less visible languages more visible in the public imagination will reap a rich harvest in the future as India struggles to negotiate multiple linguistic and ethnic identity claims with a larger, ‘national’ identity.

All Images: Sahitya Akademi and Sayantan Dasgupta

Sayantan Dasgupta is an academic, translator and writer. He is a former journalist, who fancies flirting with his old profession now and then, and stg-thespaceink-tstodaystg.kinsta.coud offers him the perfect opportunity to do so.

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