Snippets from the Bangalore Lit Fest – what I saw and heard on Days 1 and 3

Day 1

Like last year I was in two minds about attending the Bangalore Lit Fest because the venue Crowne Plaza @ Velankani Park is way too far from my home and the road to Electronic City is always congested in spite of the elevated express highway. While I was lucky enough to get a drop to the venue last year, this year I had to travel by bus. Thankfully this year, the organizers had put up a list of bus routes on the festival website. I boarded a G3 bus from Brigade Road around quarter past eight in the morning. This is only the second time I am travelling by a G-series bus and I must say these buses are a very economic and a convenient mode of travel. Unlike other buses they don’t seem to get crowded.

The drive to Crowne Plaza from Brigade Road by bus takes around 1 and a half to 2 or more hours depending on the traffic. I reached the venue around 9.45 am.  I could only spot the organizers and a whole lot of young volunteers running around here and there to give finishing touches to the arrangements. The sound engineers were going crazy trying to fix the mikes. Very few people had arrived.  I guess most of them were held up because of heavy traffic.

Though the inauguration was scheduled to start at 10am it was only after a good 30 minutes that attendees started trickling in giving me ample time to find myself a comfortable seat and fix my camera settings.

The fest started on a vibrant and colourful note with a Kamsale performance. Kamsale is quite unique because part of the performers only sing and the remaining others sing and also dance. There is one main dancer who is attired differently. A highlight of this dance form is that the dancers also form a high pyramid even as they sing and clash the kamsale (a kind of cymbals). Now that looked quite amazing! The dancers who perform Kamsale are all devotees of Lord Shiva.

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The Kamsale performance was followed by the lighting of the lamp. On the dais were the who’s who of the Indian literary scene all of them elegantly dressed for the occasion. Famous litterateur and actor Girish Karnad made his debut at the Bangalore Lit Fest. He had not taken part in the last two editions. Others on the stage were Shobhaa De, Dr Chandrashekhara Kambhara, Chetan Bhagat, Binalakshmi Nepram and of course Festival Director Vikram Sampath. While each of them had nice words to say about the fest and their participation, surprisingly Girish Karnad chose not to say anything because he hadn’t experienced the fest as yet. Shobhaa De expressed her happiness about the complete absence of sponsors (the fest is community funded by the friends of Bangalore Literature Festival). Chetan Bhagat tickled everyone’s funny bone when he said that he had his own apprehensions about such a fest being held in Bangalore as he like many thought that the city is full of nerds and an Android festival or a Java weekend would have sounded more appropriate here. Binalakshmi Nepram said that Chetan Bhagat is wrong and was bitter about the city hosting arms-making firms during the air-shows in the wake of insurgency in the north-eastern states. She spoke about how unsafe the Eight Sisters of India had become and that people live in fear because of the shoot-at-sight orders. Vikram Sampath among other things mentioned about the year being a sad one for the arts scene with so many deaths – Khushwant Singh, Prof. U. Ananthamurthy, Mandolin Srinivas, and Maya Rao passed away recently. While this year’s fest was dedicated to noted Kannada writer and poet Prof. U. Ananthamurthy (the three stages at the fest were named after his works – Samskara, Suragi and Bharathipura) , the festival also focussed on the Eight Sisters (north-eastern states) of India. A couple of years back, people from the North-eastern states residing in the city had a trying time and many of them went back home in the face of rumours and threats to their lives.

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The event also saw the launch of the festival edition of Beantown, BLF’s magazine.

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After the launch, the programme ‘Shraddhanjali’ featured a documentary on Prof. UA. In a panel discussion that followed, Girish Karnad called the documentary as rubbish ( :-O ) and that it showed only one side of Prof. UA. Girish Karnad said that we should also look at the darker side of a person only then can we understand the complexity of his or her personality. He also opined that the portrayal of Hinduism in Prof. UA’s novel ‘Samskara’ is wrong and baseless. (Ironically, Girish Karnad enacted the role of the story’s key character Praneshcharya in ‘Samskara’.) Incidentally, AK Ramanujan’s English translation of ‘Samskara’ greatly influenced many an American’s idea of India. In fact, Girish Karnad mentioned how much of an influence ‘Samskara’ was on his life. Among other things, Girish Karnad also said that after ‘Samskara’, Prof. UA hasn’t written anything significant. He felt that Prof. UA was more of a short story writer than a novelist and that his writing should be gauged from his collection of short stories. All his stories were influenced by life in his village.

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On a lighter vein, Girish Karnad mentioned how badly Prof. UA wanted a Rajya Sabha seat but never managed to get it. Calling UA a great friend, Girish Karnad said that he misses him. Prof. UA never hesitated taking a stand on many causes and was a staunch fighter for rights. He created a tradition that writers shouldn’t confine themselves to a corner. Girish Karnad went on to add that Prof. UA was a great teacher and created an intellectual atmosphere around him. He always accepted his mistakes. His joie de vivre was amazing even when he was very ill. He was however not a great thinker and his ideas were borrowed. Artist SG Vasudev who was the art director of ‘Samskara’ recalled how Prof. UA threw the saligrama into the river and cut his sacred thread because he had married a Christian.

The bookstore at the fest had an endless array of books by Indian authors and an exhibition of rare photos of Prof. U. Ananthamurthy.

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“From full wives to Half-Girlfriend – The Women in Chetan Bhagat’s novels” which featured the author in conversation with Shinie Anthony turned out be a laugh riot. The techie turned author was humility personified when he confessed that though he is not the best of authors he definitely is a best-selling one. He attributes this to his marketing skills. When asked if he was a ladies’ man he said he wasn’t. He went on to add that every successful man has hordes of female admirers especially in India because of the sexist attitude that prevails and the same was the case with him. And yeah he believes his good looks have a lot to do with his popularity. He also admitted to having girlfriends and half-girlfriends (LOL) before marriage but they didn’t think of themselves as his girlfriend. He has always been turned on by smart, successful, and driven women and it was these very characteristics that attracted him to his wife Anusha and also the fact that she cleared CAT in the first attempt. He then went on to humor the crowd with anecdotes aplenty on how he shocked his conservative Tamil Brahmin in-laws with his marriage proposal and Punjabi lifestyle and disposition. He was full of praise for his wife and the way the Tamil Brahmin in her managed their kids and didn’t let his popularity affect them. He then went on to add that no women in his novels were props and that they were all women of substance. The female character in the movie ‘Kai Po Che!’ is incidentally named after Vidya Balan as a token of appreciation to her for helping make a movie of his book ‘3 Idiots’. When asked if he was a Bollywood groupie (a couple of selfies of him with Alia Bhatt and Jacqueline Fernandes were shown on the giant screen) he replied he wasn’t and if at all he was in any way attracted to Bollywood actresses it was because of the scarcity of women in engineering college during his student days. And so what if his IIT and IIM classmates were making big bucks; he could always show them his selfie with Alia Bhatt and ask them “Ab Bholo”. Though he has a lot fans, many in the literary circles have criticized his writing with some even asking if he knows English. Even before it was published ‘Half-Girlfriend’ had drawn a lot of flak with a slew of hate Tweets doing the rounds. Chetan Bhagat said that he reacts to criticism in the same manner as he reacts to praises; he takes them both in his stride.

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The ensuing session featuring actress ‘Queen of Hearts’ Rani Mukerji in conversation with Bhavana Somaya in the wake of the release of her film ‘Mardaani’ where she enacts the role of a tough cop turned out to be the most popular session of the day drawing the biggest crowd. The actress was barely recognisable in her girl-next-door avatar (jeans and a pink top teamed with a white stole around her shoulders). Bhavana Somaya later commented that Rani sported spectacles to wear an intellectual look ( 😎 ). -Among other things, the actress spoke about the importance of martial art training for young girls and the necessity for women to maintain a tough exterior when mingling with men. The Q&A session provided a couple of fans with opportunities that they till then had just dreamt about. One guy got to shake hands with her and another gifted the recently married actress a wedding present. Rani Mukerji just rocked!

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Thanks to heavy traffic and jams galore the journey back home was a nightmare. The bus ride to Brigade Road alone took two and a half hours and (phew!) I was drained. I decided to skip Day 2 and instead attended Day 3.

Day 3

Day 3 being a Sunday, it took me barely an hour and a half to reach the venue. And I reached a good half an hour before the first sessions started. I chose to attend the session ‘With Malice towards One and All: Celebrating Khushwant Singh’ which had author Humra Qureshi and actress Tisca Chopra in conversation about the celebrated writer who passed away recently. While Humra has worked closed with Khuswant Singh, Tisca Chopra is his grand-niece. Tisca looked elegant in a lovely ethnic printed gown and accessorised it with chunky oxidised jewellery. She sported a hairdo that went perfectly with the outfit.  Both Humra and Tisca had anecdotes aplenty to relate about his life and their personal interactions. Tisca spoke at length about how Khushwant Singh was regarded by many of his relatives as a dirty old man and girls were asked to stay away from him. He was however her inspiration to write. On the contrary, Humra Qureshi had only sweet things to say about him. She said that there was an unmistakable innocence about him. Khushwant Singh revered Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa and was struck by the strength of their character. Tisca narrated a humorous incident when she and her husband (who had then just begun to write) went to meet Khushwant Singh. He offered them a drink but from his body language he seemed to be very protective about his single-malt whiskey. For Khushwant Singh, drinking was a daily ritual.

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After this lively session on Khushwant Singh at the Bharatipura stage, I proceeded to the Samskara stage which had Arun Shourie in conversation with Madhu Trehan and I must confess that I just couldn’t get a hang of what was happening. Everything went over my head! The launch of Natwar Singh’s book Ek Hi Zindagi Kaafi Nahi was cancelled owing to the author’s ill-health. In place of that there was a conversation between Arun Shourie and Shekhar Gupta which again was something I couldn’t comprehend. Politics is just not my cup of tea! I left the session to have a cup of coffee. The serpentine queue at the food counter prompted me to have my lunch too.

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I next attended the session ‘Ocean to Ocean’ which had Sathya Saran in conversation with Sushmit Sen, former member of the music band ‘Indian Ocean’. I thoroughly enjoyed the discussion which had Sushmit describe his experience with Indian Ocean especially an anecdote where after recording their first number with HMV, they travelled by train and composed another number late in the night when all the other passengers on the train were fast asleep. In the midst of all this there was a knock on the door and it turned out to be the TT. Far from reprimanding the musicians, the TT who was a music aficionado actually soaked in the musical reverie and bought them tea and coffee when the train stopped at the other stations. The duo also discussed Saran’s book ‘Sun Mere Bandhu Re’ on noted music director SD Burman who in spite of his musical prowess was known to pick up a fight at the drop of a hat. He was the godfather to a lot of Bollywood and music personalities – Hemant Kumar, Kishore Kumar, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Geeta Dutt, Asha Bhosle to name a few. The session ended on an enthralling note with Sushmit Sen strumming his guitar much to the delight of the audience.

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The following session ‘My Life, My Work’ had Girish Karnad in conversation with Arshia Sattar  had the audience spellbound. The discussion had Girish Karnad reminisce about his life’s journey especially the making of Yayati and Tughlaq and his dreams of winning the Nobel Prize.  Arshia Sattar was simply fabulous as the moderator. Girish Karnad had the audience in splits when he spoke about the songs in his play ‘Hayavadana’ all of which were composed by him. He remarked that the songs were all written by him when he was in love. Not wanting to waste them he decided to feature them all in ‘Hayavadana’.  When talking about his other notable play ‘Tughlaq’, Karnad was all praise for Mohammad bin Tughlaq who he said had a very broadminded outlook. It was from noted poet AK Ramanujan that he had come to know that Tipu Sultan used to keep a dream diary. Karnad’s play ‘Tippuvina Kanasugalu’ is based on the diary.

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The penultimate session at the Samskara stage featured former Chief Justice of Himachal Pradesh High Court Leila Seth in conversation with popular journo and emcee Vasanthi Hariprakash. Leila Seth touched a chord with the audience when she said that she is scared of rats and bats and would climb her cot at the sight of a rat and scream out to the servants. She was all praise for her husband Premo who inspired her to take up law and transformed her from a shy and timid Indian girl to a smart and successful woman. She admitted that she and husband went through a trying phase when they found out that their son Vikram (Vikram Seth of ‘The Suitable Boy’ fame) is bisexual. There was a time when the family was a butt of jokes and gossip. This was because while Leila and Premo had 9 to 5 jobs, all their 3 well-educated children would always be at home. While Vikram appeared to be scribbling on paper all the time, her second son Shantum who embraced Buddhism stayed in a mud hut adjacent to the house and daughter Aradhana, a Bollywood film-maker, would always be on the phone. All these anecdotes and more can be found in her memoirs titled ‘On Balance’. She has also authored a book, ‘We, The Children of India’ for very young children. I wanted to buy a copy of one of the books and get it signed by her unfortunately the copies were sold out.

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I had to skip the last session of the day ‘A Country Gagged & Bound’ as it was getting too late and also there was a possibility of a downpour. Luckily, thanks to less traffic the journey back home was smooth and quick and (yay!) I reached before the downpour.

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