With two of India’s most compelling contemporary writers Shashi Tharoor and Amitav Ghosh in conversation, this year’s Tata Literature Live! got off to a stellar start yesterday afternoon at the NCPA, whetting the appetite of the city’s chatterati for the next few days.
Usually put to scrutiny for his books, Ghosh was cast in the unusual role of interviewer, which he handled with aplomb. He was pithy and probing; quick on the draw but giving Tharoor time and scope to expound on the whys and wherefores of his new work, An Era Of Darkness: The British Empire In India.
It helped that both Ghosh and Tharoor know each other well. It helped even more that they didn’t agree with each other entirely. This led to some wit-laced banter, thrusts and parries that raised the level of engagement of the audience. Oftentimes such events can get boringly sombre.
The audience was large and receptive. Filling up the Tata Theatre, especially at 2 in the afternoon, is not easy. This should alleviate worries (somewhat) of aficionados that Mumbai is losing its mojo for art and culture.
The Prithvi Festival recently was a big hit too. I don’t know of box office returns, but certainly where lovers of stage and plays are concerned. I gather from some of my contacts that regional theatre is doing extremely well too.
How and why book festivals, particularly, have flourished in recent years in India is fascinating. There are a dozen or more such events in the annual calendar in India and the number is growing, with even smaller cities jostling with Jaipur, Mumbai and Delhi to be in the same space.
This has expanded the number and profile of audiences dramatically – a far cry from what it was even a decade back when it seemed that the publishing industry had become moribund and that writers and authors would be better off in some other vocation.
The money was mediocre – except for a handful at the top – and the public too was largely apathetic. Since the trade itself was sluggish, authors were left to their own devices to boost even basic awareness of their work.
Other than review copies being sent to literary editors of newspapers, there would be the occasional ‘book reading’ event in a major metro (essentially for topnotch names), but not much else.
All that has changed in the past 10-12 years. The publishing industry in India has acquired a vibrancy that could hardly have been imagined. There are more authors on the rosters of publishing houses and more books in the market than ever before.
Clearly there are some triggers facilitating this growth.
Rising literacy levels has fed the urge in Indians to learn more, which necessarily means reading more. Simultaneously, growth in purchasing power has triggered greater sales of books and other reading material.
Inevitably, this has invited greater competition in the industry. For the better. The need to survive has compelled publishing houses to experiment not just with sales and marketing practices, but also find new writers and search for new audiences.
Technology is playing a crucial role too in how the business evolves. Publishing today is not restricted to books alone, and must necessarily cater for the digital platform and mobile telephony. This has made the publishing industry somewhat chaotic, but also enriched it manifold.
While business has expanded overall, profitability is not a given. There has been a lot of blood on the floor in the West where the publishing industry is concerned. What is pertinent, however, is that books (and reading) have survived, and in India, seeing a healthy spike.
It is sometimes argued that book, film festivals etc reflect elitism and snobbery. To and extent this may be true. If such festivals become an end in themselves, without enabling the organic growth of the art form itself, it will be seen very early as a sham and wither away rapidly.
The simple message is that pursuit of art and culture need not be a hopeless cause. It may not necessarily be lucrative but with effort, passion and some organisational ability, sustenance is not impossible.
Where it is not to mass taste, patronage is crucial. Except for a narrow band at the very top, for the arts to flourish, it has to become a joint venture between artists and aficionados whose number has to keep growing constantly.