One of the oldest literary festivals, Times Cheltenham Literature Festival, was held in England for the first time in 1949. Comparatively, literary festivals reached South Asia rather late. Now India has about 15 such festivals, the largest being the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), which started in 2006. It seems Pakistan is compensating for its late arrival on the festival scene as both Karachi and Lahore now have three such festivals every year.
In Pakistan, the Karachi Literature Festival (KLF) started in 2011, followed by the Lahore Literary Festival (LLF) in 2013. Lahore also has the Faiz International Festival and Afkar-i-Taza ThinkFest. The third edition of the latter was held from January 12-14.
This year’s Afkar-i-Taza ThinkFest comprised 40 sessions and 12 book launches, with about 80 writers, scholars and experts from Pakistan as well as from countries such as Australia, England and the US. The first day (Saturday) did not gather enough audience, perhaps due to the rain and cold in Lahore. However, Sunday saw the halls of Alhamra Art Centre full, with some interesting sessions for the general public attracting more crowds.
Are festivals such as Lit Fest and ThinkFest engaging the general public or are they just for the elite?
What is it that draws people to festivals like ThinkFest, one is bound to wonder. In a class-based society like Pakistan, if people from its various strata continue to attend an event in great numbers, there is surely an allure for such conventions more meaningful than them being just a trend.
The ThinkFest claims to be a bit different from other similar lit fests because of its scholarly tilt, the academic nature of its discussions and, indeed, the topics selected. Discussions on ‘Extremism and Muslim South Asia,’ ‘Afghanistan Past and Present: Lessons in Continuity’, Indian Elections and Possibility of South Asian Peace’, ‘Brexit, Britain and the World,’ ‘Secularism and Identity,’ ‘Putin and the Invention of Russia’, among others, focussed more on history and politics rather than on books and writing.
Dr Yaqoob Bangash, the founder of Afkar-i-Taza ThinkFest, says, “We wanted to make Afkar-i-Taza different with more focus on non-fiction and academics who are not invited in other lit fests.” He says academics from the universities of Lahore and abroad are invited to the ThinkFest to share their knowledge and research with the public. “The LLF and other lit fests are doing an excellent job regarding literature and fiction. We want to focus on researchers and academics,” he adds. Yet, the challenge, Bangash says, is to keep the public engaged and not to turn the ThinkFest into a purely academic conference as this can also become a drawback for the general public.
“Though there are 60 to 70 percent academics in the ThinkFest, we keep 30 to 35 percent of topics and panelists that are really related to the common folk to engage them in the event,” Bangash says.
“This edition of ThinkFest is more interactive and people were more interested in communicating with the panelists,” says Muhammad Arif, a lecturer in English in Kurram Agency of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. “I saw young people talking to Afrasiab Khattak [of ANP] on the lawns of Alhamra and asking him questions.”
But despite the organisers’ claim of being different, the ThinkFest follows the same template as of other lit fests. Some of the faces are the same that we see in almost every lit fest, at least in Lahore. The same people inevitably talk about the same things that one has heard them speak of for years — to the extent that one can predict what answers to expect from them to certain questions.
Bangash says they try not to repeat the panelists in the festival: “We try to invite scholars and academics from abroad as well. This time around, more than half of the panelists were from abroad. If there were any names from Pakistan who were also there in the last editions of the ThinkFest, we tried to put them with other guests from abroad on different topics in an attempt to avoid repetition.”
The desire to create a different kind of festival should encourage an attempt to bring new personalities to contribute to the discussion. And Lahore itself is not short of scholars, writers and historians. Perhaps many academics who do not hold foreign degrees or have the tag of elite educational institutes are overlooked as they are not ‘English medium’ types.
The issue of language gains prominence every time a festival is held in Lahore. Urdu and Punjabi literature, and those writing in local languages, are most conspicuously absent, just as their readers. It gives the impression that nothing worthwhile is being written in local languages, and indigenous literature has no share in the creation and dissemination of knowledge.
Under the umbrella of knowledge sharing at a forum open to all, the marginalised remain so. Of all the book launches in the ThinkFest this year, not a single one was Urdu or Punjabi. Having just one session done in Punjabi appeared as an eyewash. Keeping the sessions and panelists more English language-centric distances the lower-income classes in a free public event. This needs to change at some point if the organisers, especially those connected with the government, want to have an impact on society.
Dr Abrar Ahmed, a renowned poet of the Urdu nazm, keeps away from literary festivals, finding such events nothing more than PR campaigns. “If you see the list of panelists and topics that continuously appear in such festivals, it shows that the same people are there every time, with little change.”
He says that on a weekend when such a festival is underway at Alhamra, all the writers and intellectuals of Lahore are found sitting in the Halqa Arbab-i-Zauq session at Aiwan-i-Iqbal, and this shows the real relevance of literary festivals.
“I participated in literary festivals in small towns like Jhelum and Kharian, organised by young writers under an organisation called Collage. I found them more relevant to society as there was more interaction with the locals, instead of the segregation of society,” says Dr Ahmed.
In this edition of the ThinkFest, there were some very interesting sessions that had the halls of Alhamra Art Centre filled to capacity. In a session titled ‘Does Pakistan Need a New Media Model?’ Federal Minister for Information Fawad Chaudhry faced some tough questions by journalists and members of the audience, but was too sharp to let the tilt go against him. However, he found himself in hot waters when veteran journalist Imtiaz Alam, sitting in the audience, tried to ‘enlighten’ him on the policies of his government and security organisations aimed at suppression. This elicited hoots and claps from the audience. Such an interaction highlights the importance of such festivals and their relevance to society, when ministers of the government face the public directly.
Another session, ‘Is There Progressive Politics in Pakistan?’ had the firebrand politician Afrasiab Khattak raise some important points regarding the situation of the country and political parties.
Two other sessions were also engrossing for the audience. In ‘Law, Literature and Society’, Osama Siddique, Musharraf Ali Farooqi and Faisal Bari talked of the way law and its implementation have been a subject of literature, especially in our region where nothing much has changed in this regard despite development in other sectors. Siddique read out excerpts from three different writers spanning over a century, showing how literature has dealt with this theme.
Indian scholar Gauri Viswanathan, in ‘Transcontinental Drift: The Global History of English Literature’, talked about the effects of colonialism on indigenous languages and the undermining of literature and translations produced in the Indian subcontinent, as well as language politics.
In 2013, the LLF emerged like a breath of fresh air in a city exhausted by terrorism and bomb blasts, but now three festivals in the city pull large crowds. The question is why this phenomenon gets such an overwhelming response. One main reason appears to be that there was a gap that has been filled by such festivals and the audience, who had a thirst for connecting to the scholars and writers whom they watched on TV or read about in the books, can interact with them.
So far, these festivals have been successful in garnering the attention of the public. But the question remains whether there is something more from Lahore that they are missing and whether they can continue to have the same attraction in the years to come with the same template. At some point, they will have to make drastic changes to remain relevant and to engage the public and include sessions on local themes and languages, including Punjabi, Urdu and Pashto.
Published in Dawn, EOS, January 27th, 2019