KOCHI: Sometime in 2014, Mohan Kakkanadan, a Mumbai-based Keralite who was running a Malayalam literary magazine ‘Kaakka’ with like-minded people, met writer K R Meera in Goa along with his friends to discuss about a literary festival exclusively for the regional language writers.
“Initially, she was a bit sceptical. When we explained about our plans, and the need to have a literary festival exclusively for the regional language writers, she not only supported the initiative, but helped us in spreading the word,” recounts Kakkanadan, who is busy with the fourth edition of ‘Gateway Litfest’ from February 22 to 24.
Gateway Litfest -- held every year at National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA), Mumbai, from 2015 -- is easily the biggest conclave of regional language writers, and this year’s theme is ‘Woman power of Indian literature’ with 50 women writers from 17 languages slated to attend the three-day event.
Another top 20 male writers will discuss and debate this year’s core them at the literary festival.Though there is no dearth of literary festivals in the country - Jaipur Literary Festival to Apeejay Kolkota Literary Festival, Hyderabad Literary Festival to Tata Literary Festival -- the fact remains the regional language writers are either ignored, or not given the recognition they deserve. All the focus was on English language writers in all the literary festivals, and regional language writers find themselves out of place in these events. This reality was explained by Meera herself.
“My first literature festival was in Jaipur. I had felt like a grain of salt in an ocean of world-famous writers. The identity crisis was intense, as people would ask, ‘So which language do you write in, Malayalam or Tamil?’ The experience of a regional language writer was clearly illustrated by M Mukundan with a personal anecdote. When a prestigious literary award was instituted, his novel was selected for the best translation award (little wonder because Indian fiction means Indian English fiction only). After the award ceremony, the authors were invited for the book signing session.
Mukundan described how insulted he felt when a long queue appeared in front of the English author, while he sat in an empty booth. It was easy for me to empathise with him, not because I am a writer in Malayalam, but because I have attended enough festivals outside Kerala. You will be surprised to know that there are many books in Malayalam which sell more than many English bestsellers,” says Meera who writes in Open magazine.
The tetrad behind the ‘Gateway Litfest’ are Sabarinath M, Joseph Alexander and K J Bennychan (executive directors) and Kakkanadan, who is the festival director -- are Malayalees, providing the biggest platform for regional writers in their adopted home in Mumbai, India’s commercial capital.
Kakkanadan explains that before ‘Gateway Litfest’ happened, the only event where the regional language writers would come together was during the annual ‘Sahitya Akademi Award’ event. “But, it was an award event, and not a literary festival kind of an event, where the writers discuss and debate on issues and happenings,” he says, explaining how the seeds of the ‘Gateway Litfest’ was sown while bringing out the ‘Kaakka’ magazine.
Adds Joseph Alexander: “Each Indian language stream has a vibrant list of established and upcoming women authors who are popular in their own territories by their own merits. But at the national level, we don’t celebrate their works and brilliance as we do in the case of authors writing in English. This is an attempt to bring them to the national focus.”
The first thing the ‘Gateway Litfest’ founders did was to constitute an advisory group comprising of reputed personalities from the field of art and literature from across the country. The list includes Malayalam film maker Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Bengali poet Subodh Sarkar, Gujarati poet and playwright Sitanshu Yashaschandra Mehta, Marati novelist Laxman Gaikwad, poet and critic K Sachidanandan, artist-curator Bose Krishnamachari.
Some of the big supporters of the Gateway Litfest are the likes of Nandita Das and Govind Nihalani. “Govind Nihalani was present all through the three days during the last year’s festival, and was very much excited to be a participant, discussing the potential and prospects of the regional language writing,” says Kakkanadan.
Nandita Das sums up the initiative: “I am a big champion of regional literature and cinema as they reflect the diversity of the Indian cultural ethos. I am glad that the Gateway LitFest has initiated the movement of bringing it together for the city. Hope many more writers, poets, filmmakers, and lovers of literature will join it to strengthen the platform this festival provides.”
Speakers this year
The roster of speakers has many Sahitya Akademi award winners and a Jnanpith winner - Pratibha Ray. Among the key attractions will be Nalini Jameela, who was a sex worker for long and launched herself into the world of letters with her autobiography, and Baby Haldar who worked as a domestic help before started writing her bestselling autobiography.Other delegates: Aparna Sen (Bengali), Devika J (Malayalam), Indu Menon (Malayalam), Kanaka Ha (Kannada), Karthika VK (Tamil), Malika Amar Sheikh (Marathi), Nirupama Dutt (Punjabi), Prof Challappalli Swaroopa Rani (Telugu), Tarannum Riyaz (Urdu), Bina Paul (Malayalam), Baby Haldar (Hindi), Neena Kulkarni (Marathi), Temsula Ao (Northeast), among others.