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A tale of two fairs

The Kolkata Book Fair, now well into its third decade, has been an essential part of the city's cultural calendar ever since one can remember. The 16-year-old World Book Fair held in New Delhi, in contrast, has never been more than a mere annual formality. Can the two events be compared at all? Saibal Chatterjee explores the comparisons.

india Updated: Feb 20, 2004 10:14 IST

The Kolkata Book Fair, now well into its third decade, has been an essential part of the city's cultural calendar ever since one can remember. The 16-year-old World Book Fair held in New Delhi, in contrast, has never been more than a mere annual formality.

Can the two events be compared at all? What they articulate about their respective cities represents two disparate languages. One speaks of a culture in which books still talk to the people; the other alludes to a society where the love for books lies buried under the paved approaches to its glitzy shopping malls.

A walk around the stalls of the Kolkata Book Fair, as any regular visitor will vouch, is a full-fledged exploration, a peregrination with intent. A visit to the World Book Fair is just another outing, a going through the motions. Both fairs peddle books, but what they actually end up selling tends to look like two completely different things.

Though numbers really have little bearing on how the two events compare, the surging crowds that throng the Kolkata Maidan in January-February each year in search of bargains at the book fair contrasts sharply with the generally tepid reception that Delhiites accord to book fairs in their city.

And that, in turn, has little to do with the way the two cities organise their book fairs. The essential gap between the Kolkata and Delhi events can be attributed to the manner in which books are perceived and promoted in the two metropolises. In Kolkata, buying books is usually a necessity; in Delhi, it is at best an aspirational act, at worst an avoidable luxury.

In Kolkata, poets enjoy the status of minor celebrities and publishers that spin out verse anthologies on a regular basis have no reason yet to rethink their strategy. It is a city where poetry-reading sessions -- held in cavernous public auditoria, and not just university lecture halls - draw full houses. In Delhi, book launches draw more people than bookstores.

Kolkata is a city where the likes of Neruda and Rilke still hold sway, inspiring young poets and writers to give free rein to their imagination. Which explains why publishers of "little magazines", many printed out of nondescript mofussil towns and filled with the outpourings of aspiring writers, are granted pride of place in the Kolkata Book Fair.

Indeed, the difference between the Kolkata and Delhi book fairs are, simply, the people - and the reigning literary deities.

It is difficult to keep the government out of any major event in India. Therefore, neither the lively Kolkata Book Fair nor the World Book Fair held each year in Delhi are free from the occasional scourge of bureaucratic meddling. If the Union HRD Minister calls the shots when he wishes in Delhi, the West Bengal Chief Minister can do much the same on the expanse of Kolkata Maidan.

What salvages the Kolkata fair is the fact that the people take over once the ribbon has been cut and the speeches have been delivered. In Delhi, book fairs remain, first and foremost, official events where the masses are only incidental.

Come January, the dusty Kolkata Maidan turns into a beehive of activity for bibliophiles and books fly off the makeshift shelves at a pace that booksellers in Delhi can only aspire for. The Delhi fair is hard-pressed to pull in the crowds.

The relative ease with which one can drive around Pragati Maidan during the days of the World Book Fair is enough to prove the essentially low-key nature of the event. Try negotiating the clogged roads around the ITPO complex during the Auto Expo or the Trade Fair and you know where the city's priorities lie.

A couple of years ago, and with valid reason, the organizers of the World Book Fair in Delhi waived the public entry fee that is normally levied for exhibitions mounted by the ITPO. The boost that that particular decision provided to the overall attendance levels at the book fair has been appreciable. Yet, the numbers are still way, way short of what it ought to be.

In contrast, in price-conscious and infinitely less consumerist Kolkata, entry to the book fair comes at a price but that has never deterred the city's bookworms from making the annual pilgrimage to the Maidan in search of titles of their choice. In the 1980s and early `90s, instances of the book fair days being extended beyond the original closing on popular demand were quite common in Kolkata.

The book fair in Delhi, thanks to its location, has clear logistical advantages that should have built upon. It attracts bigger international publishers, well-known men of letters and a consistent level of coverage in the national press. More important, the average Delhi consumer has more disposable income his Kolkata counterpart. The Kolkata book fair is hardly written about at the national level, and yet it is an event that book lovers, sellers and publishers around the country are aware of.

Will book fairs in Delhi ever be able to narrate a different story? It's got the tools all right, but where is the will?

First Published: Feb 20, 2004 09:30 IST