Literature, the soul of cultural exchange, is giving conventional diplomacy a run for its space in South Asia with the mushrooming literary festivals that are provoking, discussing and building new bridges across cultures.
Five major literature festivals - the Jaipur Literature Festival, Mountain Echoes in Bhutan, the Kathmandu Literary Yatra, the Galle Literary Festival in Sri lanka and the Karachi Literature Festival - which have been showcasing literature as a medium of holistic exchange together with music, performing and visual arts and local lifestyles are forging a new south Asian solidarity on the strength of the region's soft power.
Central to this new literary wave is India, which is spearheading festivals in countries like Bhutan and Nepal, buoyed by the world's response to the Jaipur Literature Festival - hailed as the Mecca of fine print.
Nearly 70 eminent writers, speakers and cultural protagonists from South Asia and around the world brainstormed in the Bhutanese capital of Thimpu for the last three days to create new literary and culturalconvergence at the third edition of the Mountain Echoes festival. An initiative of the Indo-Bhutan Foundation, the festival is managed by Indian non-profit literature promotion group Siyahi with the support of the queen mother of Bhutan. It was inaugurated May 20 in Thimpu by the Bhutanese queen mother, Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck. in the presence of Indian Ambassador to Bhutan Pavan Varma.
Encapsulating the spirit of change and free expression in context of the festival, Wangchuck said: "The country, which was not so long ago an ancient medieval kingdom is now the world's youngest democracy with seven newspapers, seven radio stations and four magazines."
"Our people are changing their attitudes They are changing from the past to the present. Change came to our country when we introduced television and print media (many years ago). Change is also a challenge," the queen mother said.
"The Mountain Echoes festival has grown in size with a noticeably larger involvement of Bhutanese writers and their recognition through this platform. It has also built new bridges between cultures with authors from the region have come to know each other," Varma told IANS.
He pointed to a "growing sense of confidence in appropriation of modern literature which leads to these festivals", adding their aim is to "provoke, generate discussions, encourage new readership and curiosity".
Literature festivals are the real assets of public diplomacy, said Navdeep Suri, a writer and joint secretary in the external affairs ministry's public diplomacy division. The fact that so many authors flock to festivals, the exposure it gives them and the connect they forge with the audience make for public diplomacy, which seeks to bring hearts and minds together, Suri said.
"The fact that the Jaipur Literature Festival goes that extra mile to extend beyond India makes it a place for candid dialogue without rancour. The motto of our public diplomacy division is advancing India's conversations with the world and these festivals are ideal platforms to advance India's engagement abroad," Suri told IANS.
Writer Ali Sethi, a native of Lahore in Pakistan, said though the Karachi Literature Festival was smaller compared to Jaipur, "it is still a powerful experience that showed people's appetite for stuff to chew on".
"We need more of Karachi type festivals - but the question is whether our society is safe and tolerant enough to have that kind of flourish," Sethi told IANS.
Sujeev Sakhya, the chair of the Kathmandu Literary Yatra, says the festival that began in Sept 2011 on a modest note under the guidance of veteran Indian festival manager Namita Gokhale, the co-director of the Jaipur and Mountain Echoes fests, has triggered new exchanges by breaking boundaries.
"The thinking about it had begun at the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2010 and Namita agreed to advise us. We roped in 60 authors - including 20 from outside the country (mostly South Asia) - and 10,000 people for three days across two venues. This shaped the thinking of the local Nepali readership and the people," Sakhya, a culture activist and writer, told IANS.
Literary showcases as a potent public diplomacy tool have a powerful pull on young intellects, he said.
Literature aims at human understanding and so stands forever beyondpoloitical borders, said Gokhale. "Each region in the sub-contiment and nation has its own political and emotive narratives to share. These narritives - which have fermented into articulation of self-hood in literature - meet at the literature festivals to reach out," Gokhale said.
Writer William Dalrymple, a co-director of the Jaipur fest, told IANS: "Lit fests have a million spin-offs. India has this huge soft power edge and the country's literary boom has made the job of the Indian diplomats easier to project the country's image around the world."