Literature fests have spread all over the subcontinent, like an epidemic
My home in Kolkata is near Kalighat—one of the holy Shaktipeeths where body parts of Lord Shiva’s wife, Sati, fell. For Bengalis, the Shaktipeeths, especially those in Bengal and Assam, are of immense divine importance. At Kalighat, the reigning goddess is Kali. In my life, I can rarely remember an auspicious occasion where a trip to Kalighat temple was not undertaken.
While growing up, I would often roam about in the bylanes around the temple. It lies on the banks of the Adi Ganga, at one time the principal channel of the Ganga and now a near-dead rotting creek. The area with riverbank, shops, ganja sellers and smaller temples has pulled me towards it time and again.
The festivals of southern West Bengal (where my home is located) gave me many opportunities to learn and unlearn. And they are not too hard to come by unless one is the kind whose world is not defined by the physical-ecological-social reality one lives but the fantasy world one can afford to inhabit. I started attending the mela of god Dharma Thakur, whose sacred sites are spread over the two Bengals. A distinct character of the mela is the rice product that is offered, called hurrum, among other things.
Then there is the 500-year-old fish-fair held near the akhara of the seer Raghunath Das Goswami at Debanandapur in my ancestral district of Hooghly. The many Charaker melas that I have been to have been so enriching that one wishes to be a sponge. The Gajaner mela in Tarakeswar, again in Hooghly district, goes on for five days and the cultural action is frenzied. The number of “parallel sessions” (if one were to call the events going on there) is probably more than a thousand and their schedule is not printed or posted on any website. But that does not matter.
The Ganga Sagar mela is different every time. This mela, the second-largest in India, is literally and allegorically an immersion experience. The experience is different at different times of the day, on different days of the mela.
The festival around Salui Puja (worshipping the sal tree) in Medinipur has tremendous footfall. Further west, in the adivasi (tribal) areas, I once attended the Chhata Parab on Bhadra Sankranti day. In Malda, the week-long Ramkeli festival is a cultural cauldron that overflows during the summer month of Jaistha—roughly May-June. The two big Ms associated with this fair are music of the Gaur-Vaishnavite tradition and mangoes that are harvested around this time. While stalls selling wares are an integral part of these festivals, the celebrations are substantially different from each area.
It is sad that I have to underline this point but I say this while recollecting my one-time know-all attitude towards these festivals before I had even attended them. What culture can a bunch of brown people left to their own devices produce? To know that, one has to have some humility in admitting cultural illiteracy and suspending ideas of supposed superiority of textual literacy, Western knowledge systems and the artefacts that it produces. This unlearning can be harsh. Urbanites of the subcontinent have created a wondrous system by which one can eat rice without knowing the rice variety or where it is grown, or get a house built without knowing where the masons live.
The point of mentioning these festivals is not to create a mini catalogue but mention certain characteristics. Most of these festivals have a deep connection with the local ecology, cultural and natural. These are not fossil-fuel powered “creative” fantasies—I have always failed to understand what is “creative” about pursuits that require high fossil fuel burning or require pollution-intensive, factory-made accessories. They happen. They are organic, as opposed to the “festivals” that are primarily thronged by the “fashionable”, the “articulate”, the “backpacker”, the “explorer” and other curious species of the top five per cent earning class of the subcontinent.
It was sometime in high school that I started noticing newspaper headlines such as “Kolkata’s young head to the clubs”. The idea behind the clubs was to create a fantasy and a false sense of feeling left out, of being in a minority, of not being “in”. For the already socially alienated, this pull can be magnetic. If at all, certain kinds of fantasies and “enlightenments” celebrate delinking from one’s immediate social milieu and replacing that with fantasy milieus, typically with white people’s hobbies.
If the products of such indoctrination happen to arrive at the Muri Mela of Bankura (a festival where varieties of muri or puffed rice are exhibited and sold), all they might see is more of the same. They would be like fish out of the water, gasping for the cultural familiarity of over-priced chain coffee stores.
It is the season of a new type of festival. Like an epidemic, big-money “lit” fests have spread all over the subcontinent. The suddenness of the epidemic reminds me of the time when suddenly, year after year, brown women started winning “international” beauty pageants. That “arrival” was meant to signify that browns are beautiful. The present trend probably is meant to convey that now there are enough number of moneyed browns spread all over who can nod knowingly on hearing English. “Half of Jaipur is here at Google Mughal Tent”—read a tweet about one of the fests. This tone sounded familiar to the time when I read that youth of my city headed to the clubs, but saw that no one around me did. I never ever saw a headline saying the youth of India head to Ganga Sagar mela on Makar Sankranti.
When real estate sharks, construction mafias and mining goondas come together for a “cause”, one can well imagine the effect. The well-lit fests provide an opportunity for branding and white-washing crimes. Taking prizes from greasy hands, some authors are only too happy to oblige in that project.
Will any of these well-lit fests survive even for a year if the world magically becomes free of crime? This is true for many other creative pursuits of these times and these classes—they do not exist without the backing of money, cannot be produced by the poor (hence most humans) and, if the world could be flattened so that everyone was at mean income, none of these would exist. These are pursuits for which inequity is a necessary precondition.
There is creativity and art beyond that, but that is beyond the well-lit faces and enlightened minds of the perfumed ones. It must be painful to imagine that the world can actually go on without the collective knowledge of the perfumed ones being at the centre of it.
But it does.
Garga Chatterjee is a columnist and a cognitive scientist. Twitter: @gargac