The festival season begins, but what’s new?

Published November 10, 2023
A large number of people listen to a panel discussion at a literature festival.—White Star / file
A large number of people listen to a panel discussion at a literature festival.—White Star / file

KARACHI: It’s early November and already two festivals have taken place in the country — one in Islamabad and the other in Karachi that concluded a day ago. In the month of November alone, Adab Festival, the International Urdu Conference and the Faisalabad Literary Festival have been lined up. They will be followed, in 2024, by the two major literary festivals named after — or let’s rephrase it — dedicated to Karachi and Lahore.

At the Islamabad event a question was put to one of the panellists about the ‘stakeholders’ of these dazzling get-togethers; that is, who gets invited to these festivals. To which the panellist replied that they [organisers] can’t create an ‘island of excellence’ separately. This implied that the guest speakers who are chosen for these lit-fests are picked from the available pool of creative and academic resources that society has to offer.

A couple of years back, senior journalist Ghazi Salahuddin introduced his younger colleagues to a meaningful phrase: festival fatigue. It has nothing to do with the frequency with which these functions are held [just like this write-up is not about all the festivals, there are exceptions] but with the repetitiveness and lack of inventiveness that their programmes are stuffed with. It’s not hard to understand why.

The repetition of guests creates visual monotony that in turn creates intellectual ennui. Ennui is a French word which means lack of excitement. This impinges upon the selection of topics for various sessions. Even when the topics don’t sound the same, essentially they don’t offer a fresh perspective to the audience. For example, ‘new trends in Urdu/English fiction’ could be presented the following year as: ‘Urdu/English fiction and modern trends’.

‘The repetition of guests creates visual monotony that in turn creates intellectual ennui’

One knows that it’s not an easy job; sometimes ‘trends’ in world literature take ages to change. But then the organisers of these events are no small fry. They have a large number of people working for them, including those who associate themselves with the literary realm. They know (or should know) what’s going on around the globe. It’s easy these days to keep up. There’s a constant flow of information about books, authors and awards, such as Booker and Nobel prizes. The International Booker Prize, which is given to a translated work, has a long list enough to make one realise the versatility of ideas and writers that the 21st century boasts of.

Arguably, the most important aspect of this debate that not many have pointed out is the organisers’ inability to hunt talent locally. Writers in Pakistan do not just live in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad. There are areas in interiors of Balochistan, Sindh, Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where literature is being churned out. Teams should be set up to find out what’s exceptional coming out of those areas. For example, Seraiki poets are often grossly overlooked. Surely, what the northern areas of the country have gone through in the last few decades must have spawned a reasonable amount of sensitive stories and poems. And let’s suppose there isn’t much to write home about, isn’t it sill these organisers moral obligation to find that out?

It is also the duty of those who sponsor the big dos to put their money where their mouth is. Pakistan is a country of tremendous possibilities and immense talent. They should tap into that. In the first quarter of last year, a piece was published in this newspaper on the similar subject of intellectual ennui but was specific to a particular festival. The chief representative of one of the sponsors of that festival sent a message to the writer of the piece, “Excellent article on a disastrous and nonsense [the name of that event].” Next year, he was seen taking part in a session of the same event as a panellist.

Published in Dawn, November 10th, 2023

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