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Book Art – anonA NEW URGENCY

First published in the series Publishing And The Pandemic by Scroll in May 2021.

It was early spring in 2021 when British journalist Georgina Brown had a final email exchange with her dear friend, Anil Dharker.

They had been discussing possible guests from the UK for the next edition of Mumbai’s popular Tata Literature Live! festival – an annual event in November that Dharker had successfully launched a decade ago.

Brown, whose husband Crispin Simon was then Britain’s Deputy High Commissioner for Western India, had become involved with the festival shortly after her arrival in Mumbai in late 2017. She and Dharker bonded quickly over their shared love for the arts and the fact that Brown, a respected theatre critic, had reviewed his daughter Ayesha Dharker’s versatile acting performances on the London stage.

The coronavirus pandemic had forced Literature Live! into a fully virtual avatar in 2020. But in February 2021, India’s Ministry of Health announced that SARS-Cov-2 infections were at an all-time low. Things were starting to look up, and Dharker and his team were hopeful of a physical festival come November.

Brown and Dharker were especially keen to host Northern Irish author Maggie O’Farrell, whose prize-winning novel Hamnet – a fictional account of the short life of Shakespeare’s son, set in sixteenth century England’s era of plague – seemed a particularly apt work to showcase in this age of Covid-19.

In a tragic and unexpected turn of events, Dharker died of a heart ailment on March 26.

Soon afterwards, India plunged into its worst crisis in recent history. In early April, a deadly tsunami – or what has come to be known as the second wave – of the coronavirus swept across India. Amongst its victims was Dharker’s formidable right hand, Literature Live! Executive Director Shashi Baliga, who succumbed to complications from Covid-19 on May 2 in Mumbai.

The double loss left a numbing sadness across the city’s literary and artistic community – one that Dharker, a prolific writer, editor and cultural commentator, and Baliga, a reputed journalist, had contributed so much to. Author and Advisory Board Member Shobhaa De said: “Anil was the face of Lit Live! – high-profile, well-connected, persuasive and ambitious. Shashi was low key and ‘solid’ – doing the rather ‘unglamorous’ behind-the-scenes job of putting Anil’s grand plans into place.”

Indeed, where Dharker had been the festival’s magnetic conductor, it was Baliga’s trademark calm and efficiency that transformed it into a finely-tuned orchestra each season. Author and poet Jerry Pinto recalled: “When Lit Live! was conceived, I was supposed to be the Fiction Director, but I soon discovered it was not a role I enjoyed, and so I stepped down and Shashi Baliga stepped in. She had some experience of dealing with overblown egos, I think, as editor of Filmfare and the person who would have to send out the invitations and keep the stars happy, so she did a very good job of it.”

Food writer Antoine Lewis, who doubled as the festival’s Associate Director for nine years, shared a close bond with Baliga. “Shashi had this tendency to digress and Anil would pick up on that, and that led to us having long, chaotic discussions on session content,” he chuckled.

Theatre producer and director Quasar Thakore-Padamsee poignantly described his own memory on social media shortly after Baliga’s death: “She would often joke that she was leaving Lit Live! and I would counter with lyrics from Hotel California, ‘You can check-out any time, but you can never leave.’ She’d look at me incredulously. Half smirk, half frown. I’d do anything to see that look again.”

Today, the absence of two of its most cherished and senior members has left a deep void for the festival’s close-knit team – amongst whom are journalist Amy Fernandes, who recently took over as Executive Director, and Thakore-Padamsee, whose company QTP Theatre Productions produces and manages the event each year. Theirs is a shared determination to sustain what Dharker called an international “festival of ideas”, a space for high-quality writing and challenging debate; a vision that, according to Thakore-Padamsee, will find continued support from its title sponsor, the Tata Group.

“I sincerely hope that Lit Live! will continue to grow and flourish, as a tribute to Anil and Shashi and all they achieved,” said Brown. Essar Group SVP and CEO of Avid Learning Asad Lalljee echoed this sentiment. “Dharker created a wonderful team at Lit Live!” said Lalljee, who moved to Mumbai from New York in 2010 and has, over the past decade, brought his substantial advertising, publishing and marketing experience to many literary collaborations with Dharker. As the current curator of Mumbai’s Royal Opera House, Lalljee strongly believes that cultural festivals – such as the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival he helped develop and Literature Live! – bring pride to a city and are vital for both its artistic and economic growth.

Yet, the way forward is challenging. The relationship between literary festivals and their corporate sponsors has always been a precarious one. The downturn of the economy made this true even before the coronavirus made its presence felt – in December 2019, Mumbai’s Times Lit Fest was abruptly cancelled for lack for funding, and in January 2020, the Hindu Lit Life stood indefinitely postponed for the same reason. Even the Jaipur International Literature Festival (JLF), India’s largest literary event, has struggled to hold on to sponsors. Amidst an unabated pandemic, corporate-backed cultural festivals could be hard hit. “In times of crisis,” Lalljee said, “support and funding for the arts are usually the first costs to be cut. Innovation will be key for the future.”

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What sparked Lit Live! was a casual conversation amongst friends. Thakore-Padamsee recalled, “It was sometime in early 2010. We were sitting around and someone remarked how absurd it was that a multicultural, multilingual city like Mumbai didn’t have its own literary festival. And just like that Anil said, Well, let’s start one! It was as simple as that.”

Soon after, Dharker worked his legendary magic by accomplishing something more complicated. He approached the multinational conglomerate, Tata Group, and passionately argued that a first-rate arts and literary festival, fully free for the public, would benefit Mumbai in the same way that others – the Hay Festival, the Edinburgh Festival and the JLF, for instance – had uplifted their communities.

The Tata Group was convinced and came on board as Lit Live!’s main sponsor; alongside, the National Centre for the Performing Arts, in the heart of heritage South Mumbai, became its primary venue. It was a coup for Dharker and his team, given that corporate sponsors across the country routinely rejected funding proposals from literary events.

Over its four-day run each winter, the festival featured close to 150 authors, speakers and performers; these have included celebrated Indian names such as Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth, Shanta Gokhale and TM Krishna, alongside international powerhouses Margaret Atwood, Stephen Daldry, Germaine Greer and Sebastian Faulks. It also showcased emerging talent across a wide variety of literary genres.

Author and comic book artist Arjun Raj Gaind remembered his first time as a panelist in 2012 – a time when his experimental graphic novel, Empire Of Blood, had not yet been published in India. “I was thrilled to see a prominent display of about 50 copies of my book, which Mr Dharker had specially ordered from my US publisher,” he said.

By the middle of the decade, Lit Live! averaged a footfall of 40,000 each day and included three additional venues – Title Waves bookstore and St Paul’s auditorium in Bandra, and the iconic Prithvi Theatre in northern Juhu. Yet for all its success, the festival fiercely maintained its homegrown atmosphere of conviviality and intimacy.

For audiences and authors alike, the highlight of each season was the buzz around Lit Live!’s ten awards, given out to authors, poets, playwrights and writers of children’s literature. It was hard work over many months, as Dharker, Baliga and a distinguished literary panel assessed and fiercely debated the merits of each entry.

Author and journalist Deepanjana Pal, who was a jury member in 2019, talked of how elevating it was not just to read those books that went on to be winners that year – Madhuri Vijay’s The Far Field for Best Fiction Debut and Raj Kamal Jha’s Fiction Book Of The Year The City And The Sea – but also to discover other, lesser-known works that made the shortlists. “Some of these were such richly imagined novels, like Uzma Aslam Khan’s The Miraculous True History Of Nomi Ali and Varun Thomas Mathew’s dystopian debut The Black Dwarves Of The Good Little Bay,” Pal said.

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Of course, no one could have imagined that the new decade would bring with it a pandemic and a fully virtual festival in 2020 – one that would turn out to be Dharker and Baliga’s swansong.

In hindsight, it was a fitting finale for the duo – an ambitious, meticulously planned online event that ran seven days and featured almost 200 authors, speakers and performers across varied time-zones. Although it registered four million views, the festival had its critics – those who felt Lit Live!’s digital avatar was merely a shadow of its previous high-octane physical ones.

Dharker upped the game by including notable names such as Booker Prize winner Ian McEwan and a session that would not have been possible offline – a straight talk via Zoom by Sir Roger Penrose, whose pathbreaking work in black holes had just won the 89-year-old Briton the Nobel Prize for Physics.

But when Dharker cancelled a session in which its academic-activist speakers Noam Chomsky and Vijay Parshad planned to read out a hostile speech against “corporations like the Tata Group,” there was some controversy. Some felt Dharker’s action was in blatant deference to Lit Live!’s main sponsor and a contradiction of the democratic right to freedom of speech that the festival espoused. Others supported Dharker who said, “The festival which I founded and run with a dedicated team owes its success to a free expression of ideas, not a free expression of someone’s specific agenda.”

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At present, Lit Live! is six months away from what will be its twelfth edition, one that the present team hopes will honour the legacy of its late founder and former executive director. “Lit Live! will always be ‘The House That Anil Built,’ but it’s too early to say what form the festival will present itself in,” said Thakore-Padamsee. “Whether physical, virtual, or a hybrid of both, what will matter most is health and public safety.”

Thakore-Padamsee was right to be worried. In May 2021, India remains in the grip of a second wave of Covid-19 and its deadly B-1617 variant, with a backstory of a crumbling health infrastructure and horrifying scenes of death and despair.

What is clear is that literary festivals will need drastic reinvention to survive in a world not only hard-hit but transformed by the pandemic. In a drained economy, Lit Live! may have to consider becoming a ticketed event – as is the norm at esteemed international ones like The New Yorker Festival – or a partially ticketed one, like India’s JLF is at present. Free exposure to the arts is necessary for the culture of a city to flourish, but paid entry for those who can afford it, felt Pal, “will raise the bar for festival organisers and create a community that is more deeply invested in quality content.”

Real innovation will continue in the digital space, according to Lalljee, whose Avid Learning platform has launched 240 online programmes since April 2020. For literary festivals to stay viable online, they will have to combat competition from the diverse and outstanding free programming that is already in the digital literary space – and growing by the day. In addition, with screen fatigue setting in at the 20-minute mark, content will need edge, creativity and charismatic speakers to absorb viewers.

For the present, Mumbai’s beloved Tata Literature Live! must fight bravely to stay afloat and relevant. “TLL! is a brand – like JLF,” said De. “Hopefully, the Tatas will continue their support. With two main pillars gone, the team needs all the help it can get to keep Anil’s legacy alive. I’m optimistic Amy and the others will carry it forward (but) I don’t know which business model they’ll adopt to stay alive.”

Fernandes and her team have already made it clear that they are determined to do just that. That was obvious on May 14, when they organised an online book discussion on Dreams of a Billion: India and the Olympic Games by Boria Majumdar and Nalin Mehta. It was a continuation of the monthly series of events that the team puts forth between its big annual festivals. Despite the challenges, Lit Live! is committed to continue as a “festival of ideas” that is “intellectually stimulating…for people of all ages”.

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