Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Debating the Goa Lit Fest: Size and the architecture of happiness

Some days ago, starting with the voice of one Mr. Avinash Pednekar, there was a string of complaints in the Navhind Times over the organization of the II Goa Arts and Literary Festival. These complaints suggested that the Festival had been a failure because the sessions had been poorly attended, because sessions failed to start on time, because many of the big names who had promised to come simply failed to show up, and finally, these complaints alleged that the principal organizers of the Festival, Ms. Sahai of the International Centre and Mr. Vivek Menezes, were both arrogant and rude. This column will suggest that such opinions while being valid opinions of the complainants are merely one way in which the facts experienced by these complainants can be understood, and set forward another perspective on these same facts.

The first complaint was over that of size, this complaint emerging because the Goa Art & Lit Fest was compared to the huge crowds that throng the Jaipur Lit Fest. This comparison may have been effected not only because of the similarity in the names and concepts of the festivals, but also because the organizers of the Goa Lit Fest, perhaps expecting Jaipur Lit Fest like audiences, had erected a huge marquee that dwarfed the audience that did assemble for events held in that space. The question that we need to ask however, and this question is being posed to the organizers of the Lit Fest as well, is whether the Jaipur Lit Fest must necessarily be a positive reference point for the Goa Lit Fest. The Jaipur Lit Fest, that is said to have begun in 2006 as a ‘civil society’ initiative has in addition to allowing space for audiences to encounter authors, today grown into a media-house and corporate extravaganza that raises hordes of ethical issues and attracted trenchant criticism. Complaints abound of how the size of the event has prevented intimate encounters between author and reader, or indeed among readers, and how a literary event has descended into just another carnival.

Given that Goa is often presented as the location of carnival, we should not be surprised if the carnival becomes the goal of our cultural events. Yet, there is more that Goa is capable of producing.  One of Goa’s most eminent offerings is that of scale; it offers an option for the small and intimate. Perhaps nowhere was this benefit of scale demonstrated as in the film festivals that used to be organized by the Moving Images Film Club in the International Centre Goa and the Kala Academy. Almost every screening would be followed by the most stimulating of discussions, made possible essentially because of the intimate nature of the gatherings; a fact commented upon by one of the national organizers of the Tricontinental Film Festival, highlighting this occurrence as something unique to Goa. When held in the more confined spaces of the International Centre’s permanent halls, the sessions of the II Goa Lit Fest shared in this magic of intimate and sparkling conversations. Indeed, it was precisely because the event turned out to be so small, that new bonds were forged between authors, and between authors and those who did attend, something that is not often possible in larger events, when much is lost in the crowd. Indeed, one of the more prominent authors who participated in the Goa Lit Fest indicated that it was precisely the scale of the event that encouraged them to privilege Goa over Jaipur. It was when events took place in the big marquee that one was left with a sense of a small audience marooned in a sea of empty chairs, unable to communicate with the discussants thanks to the technical failings often associated with sound systems, and the distance between audience and the discussants on the stage. It was these effects of the scale of this marquee that also stripped these gatherings of any sense of intimacy, and perhaps left persons with the feeling that the event was under-attended, and lacking in intellectual stimulation. 

If there is a lesson that the organizers of the Lit Fest must take seriously, then it is one of architecture. Lose the stage, and engineer more intimate settings for the sessions; sessions that allow the chemistry between the discussants to be communicated to the audience, for the audience to get a sense of proximity to the discussants being highlighted at the sessions, and safeguard the participative tone of the event thus far. Not only does size matter, but how you use it makes all the difference.

When dealing with the charge of the arrogance of the organizers one needs to invoke a different understanding of architecture. A personal evaluation of Goan ‘civil society’ suggests that it is in fact largely lacking (as is perhaps the case with civil societies across India) the institutional density that one theoretically associates with a vibrant civil society. What one has in place are restricted personal and familial networks that even when allowing for the organization of interesting events, carry with them the self-limiting nature of these networks. Thus once the personality involved with the event disappears, thanks to the lack of an institutional investment that can provide continuity, the event disappears as well.  In such circumstances, the process of initiating, and carrying forward an event is often the result of the dream and exertions of one individual. In such a context then, there is often no difference between an attack on the individual and an attack on the event itself, the two being synonymous. In the context where the social structure actively prevents the creation of a civil society, and privileges the development of personality cults and the reinforcing of the power of closed social groups, even if this dreaming individual seeks otherwise, they are often bereft of the opportunities to create a more inclusive organizational structure, and unable to create distance between themselves and the event. Removing one is akin to destroying the other. It is in this context that we should perhaps see the alleged arrogance of the organizers of the Goa Lit Fest. This arrogance should be seen not necessarily as personal attributes, but as stemming from a larger flaw in our social architecture that actively prevents the well-meaning from transcending the limitations that social structure imposes on us. As this column has often argued, the individual is not always the independent and conscious entity that we are encouraged to imagine, but as often merely an unconscious tool of larger social processes.

In light of this argument, perhaps the organizers of the Lit Fest, whom we have to thank for their exertions in initiating the Lit Fest, regardless of the shortcomings and our critiques of its organization, could actively think of expanding the institutional framework within which the Lit Fest is held. Such an expansion would allow the Lit Fest to be the investment not only of the individuals who conceptualized this event for Goa and realized it for two years running, but of a wider civil society that would invest making the event a recurring and more genuinely participative one.

(A version of this post was first published in the Gomantak Times 4 Jan 2012)

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