Thursday, November 25, 2010

Kerala and the Big B: Cast asunder?

For a couple of week’s in March this year, there was great excitement in the media that the Big B was all set to become the ‘face’ of Kerala Tourism. Almost as soon as it was announced, the fledgling relationship was shown a ‘red card’ of sorts by the CPM politburo. Kerala Tourism though was unruffled by the ruckus and maintained that discussion with Bachchan were still on.
Eight months on, there’s no news on the health of the relationship. Even the media seem to have forgotten it.
So was it all just a summer infatuation?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Making sun while the hay shone

Object of desire: The Hay-in-Thiru bag
The first Hay Festival in Kerala was winding down. The young lady sitting beside me on the steps of the Kanakakunnu Palace, the festival’s venue, was nagging a young man who, I believe, was a festival volunteer:
Eda, eniku oru bag sangadipichu thada (Get me a bag, no),” she wheedled, pointing to the rainbow-faced jute bags that speakers and delegates got as part of the festival kit.
Adhungale nokku. Ende hostel ninumaannu. Delegate alla, pakshe randindem kaiyil bag inndu (Look at those two; they’re from my hostel and they’ve managed to get the bags though they are not delegates),” she fumed, as two young women tripped by toting the colourful festival bags.
Ni ende suhurthu alle? Eniku vendi ee cheriaya karyam cheythude? (You’re my friend aren’t you, so why can’t you do this teeny-weeny thing for me?)”
As the young man squirmed with embarrassment, the lady added: “Ivide ellavreyum ariyam en alle ni parayunne? Appo enikku vendi cheythude? (You say you know ‘everybody’ here. So can’t you do this for me)” she queried.
Grinning sheepishly, the young man said: “Ba, namaku nokkam (Come along, let’s see),” and they went off towards the information desk where the bags were stacked. I don’t quite know how that expedition ended though.
What this little exchange revealed though is — and perhaps I’m extrapolating like mad here — that across a weekend, the Hay Festival in Kerala has carved a space for itself in Kerala’s and India’s cultural space.
Or to put it more dramatically: Hay-in-Thiru — some call it Hay-on-Thiru, but I’d rather stick with Hay-in-Thiru since Thiruvananthapuram is a city and not a river — has arrived. And I’m sure most of those who attended the three-day carnival will agree.
I must confess that I was rather uncertain of the response Hay-in-Thiru would evoke, especially given the cold shoulder that the Kovalam Literary Festival, also held in Thiruvananthapuram, has received over the past three years. So it was great to see the splendid turnout at Hay, with several hundred people attending the 48-odd sessions, most of which were packed. What was especially fabulous was that the poetry sessions also drew large audiences.
I gather that around three thousand people ‘registered’ for the festival, but I suspect a good number of them were those who stopped by to see what the fuss was all about. Yet there were hundreds who stayed and attended several sessions, forming an informed, opinionated and diverse audience, with locals and visitors rubbing shoulders and often exchanging notes.
The programming was pretty good, with several very interesting sessions. Of course, parallel events sometimes meant having to choose between interesting sessions and therefore missing a couple.
One quibble though is that most of the sessions were a little too short to be really interactive. Many people I spoke to felt that the really interesting sessions were over rather quickly — the Vikram Seth one for instance.
Yes, I know that there were around 15 events packed into each day and that time was therefore at a premium. So fewer sessions on each day, with more time for each event is something the organisers may want to consider for future editions of the festival.
Another quibble, and one I’m sure will be taken care of, is that the festival’s programming needs to be tweaked to feature more writers and writing in Indian languages. Equally, it also needs to showcase more new, young voices writing in India’s many languages. Also needed are more voices from around the world — Africa, South America, Asia and the Middle East.
Sting and Bob Geldof plant a nutmeg sapling at The Leela Kempinski Kovalam Beach
Hay-in-Thiru’s non-literary events were also a big draw, especially the Bob Geldof concert on the last evening. Yes, the one in which Sting was a surprise guest and also performed one number. 
Expectedly, there were logistical and technical challenges — ranging from limited domestic air connectivity to iffy acoustics in some of the halls — associated with running the festival in Thiruvananthapuram. These should, I expect, ease in time.
My favourite Hay-in-Thiru moment though didn’t actually happen at the festival. It happened a couple of kilometers away, in the faintly musty performing spaces of the Margi theatre: A conversation between two masters — Kathakali maestro Margi Vijayakumar and writer Vikram Seth.
Before I go on though, a confession: Much to my dismay, I wasn’t present during this encounter. So what I know is from what a friend who sat in on the conversation told me or, as a journalist would describe it, from a “very reliable source”.
Seth, it seems, wanted to learn a bit more about Kathakali, Kerala’s centuries-old dance-drama. So a visit to the Margi theatre and a demonstration by Vijayakumar was arranged. The instant chemistry between the two masters, says my fly-on-the-wall informant, was a delight to see as they used words, expressions and gestures to discuss Kathakali, music and other odds-and-ends.
What made this dialogue so effective, perhaps, was that it happened in a private space, far away from the public eye. But there is possibly something the Hay Festival in Kerala can draw from the encounter between the two masters.
If Hay-in-Thiru is able to create a space that welcomes a large number of people, but is also intimate enough to make eclectic and interesting conversations possible, it could very quickly evolve into one of South Asia’s definitive artistic and intellectual hubs. And that would be wonderful. For isn’t the Hay Festival ultimately about people, stories and ideas?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Hay with sunshine and some showers

Vikram Seth at the poetry gala
The Hay Festival in Kerala may have begun a trifle strangely, with a lullaby, but on day two it was buzzing with action.
In one of the first sessions of the day, Kerala’s own Paul Zachariah set the tone in a discussion that was reflective, thought provoking and great fun. And things sort of stayed that way through the rest of the day.
Most sessions were packed and I guess that several hundred people attended the 15-odd readings and discussions that were held on day two. Overall, the turnout was quite impressive.
Some of the organisational glitches that dogged the first day seem to have been ironed out. However, the folks at the ‘information’ counter still seem a little uninformed at times. 
What I found most reassuring and encouraging is the response that poetry — in Malayalam, English and Welsh — evoked. If O.N.V. Kurup read to pretty much a full house in the morning, it was almost standing room only at the poetry gala in the evening, with readings by Vikram Seth, K. Satchidanandan, Tishani Doshi, Gillian Clarke, Menna Elfyn, Paul Henry, Vivek Narayanan and C.P. Surendran. And in between, there was yet another very well attended but intimate poetry session with Menna Elfyn, Paul Henry and K. Satchidanandan, chaired with great √©lan by Anita Sethi.
Arguably, the star of the afternoon though was Bob Geldof. I didn’t actually sit through his session, but it seemed to be pretty well attended with lots of media interest as well.
Early in the evening, the monsoon clouds rolled in. The showers that followed, however, did nothing to dampen the festival’s buzz. Now, I wonder if day three will top that.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Hay while the sun shone

Tarun Tejpal in conversation with Shoma Chaudhury
What a perfectly strange way to begin a literary festival: Have a choir sing a lullaby.
That’s how the very first Hay Festival in Kerala was kicked-off this morning, with an ensemble performing a painfully long-drawn-out version of the traditional Malayalam lullaby ‘Omana thingal kidavo’.  Now if the song’s objective was to prepare the audience for the delights of the sleep-inducing inaugural session, then it was an inspired choice. Otherwise though, the choice of ‘Omana thingal kidavo’ as the inaugural anthem seems rather bizarre.
Things perked up though, when Vikram Seth came on stage for a chat with Anita Sethi in what was arguably the most attended session of the first day. Seth was a delight — absent minded at times, insightful, humorous and completely unassuming — as he reeled the audience in and kept it engrossed despite a pretty pedestrian audio system and poor acoustics in the hall. And towards the end of the session, Seth outdid himself when he read a couple of unpublished poems — pure literary bliss.
The other sessions of the day were a mixed bag though; some interesting and others not quite so... And then, there was the standard lit fest hazard of trying to find a balance between the pull of several parallel sessions. Decisions, decisions!
A very fuzzy pic of Vikram Seth and Anita Sethi
One inexplicable decision though was the insistence on needing the free pass to enter some sessions. In one case it was to a session that had an audience of about 20, with lots of vacant seating. At other sessions though, there seemed to be no entry restrictions; pretty arbitrary overall. The people at the registration/ information counter also seemed a little clueless, especially about changes in the schedule.
And as the sun shone and pushed humidity levels upwards, audience numbers dropped. Nevertheless, the turnout on the first day was quite decent for what one of the festival organisers described as “year dot” of the Hay Festival Kerala. While the turnout could have been much better, it was streets ahead of the rather sorry turnout at last month’s Kovalam Literary Festival. 
Oh, and those who shelled out Rs 1,500 for a delegate ticket got a jute bag with a couple of magazines, a coffee table book, a Parker pen and, I guess, lunch.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Khan’s calling

Salman Khan’s found a new calling: teaching.
I am, of course, talking about Salman Khan the hedge fund manager turned online tutor and not about the muscle-bound Indian actor. This Salman Khan is the founder of Khan Academy, an online library of short, free lectures on a handful of subjects including algebra, economics, history and science.
The 1,800-plus videos on the site — on YouTube actually — are between 10 and 20 minutes long and lean towards quantitative-oriented subjects. Each clip breaks a specific topic down into easily understandable bits. Khan plays teacher, explaining things orally, while also using an electronic blackboard with doodles and pictures to illustrate what he’s talking about. Not very hi-tech, but interesting and effective.
Do check out the Khan Academy. Oh, and Sal Khan is touted as ‘Bill Gates’ Favourite Teacher’.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Hay’s up

And so the programme for next weekend’s Hay Festival in Trivandrum is up, finally. With 49 sessions across three days — November 12 to 14 — it seems a pretty full schedule.
Most of the usual lit fest suspects are featured on the programme, but then so are a handful who aren’t regulars on the lit fest circuit; so perhaps all is not lost. And on the subject of lit fest programming, the Hay Fest seems to have borrowed an idea from last month’s Kovalam Literary Festival in Trivandrum — have a session with the Prime Minister’s daughter and some wall-to-wall buzz is guaranteed. At the very least, it will boost audience numbers since a little army of security men will need to be around!
At the Kovalam Lit Fest it was Daman Singh and at Hay it seems it will be Upinder Singh. Of course, I am assuming that the Upinder Singh featured on the Hay Fest programme is the historian Upinder Singh, who happens to be the Prime Minister’s daughter. But I think that is a safe assumption to make.
The grapevine initially said that the Hay Festival would be a ticketed event, but the Web site now says that ‘day passes’ will be free. So better sense seems to have prevailed on the tickets issue, given how abysmal the turnout was at last month’s Kovalam Lit Festival at the same venue; the Kanakakunnu Palace. And remember, entry to the Kovalam Lit Fest was free and the festival itself has been in Trivandrum for a few years now.
Of course, the Hay Fest is hawking ‘delegate tickets’ at Rs 1,500 per person per day — they include lunch, access to all sessions and a delegate kit. Why anyone would want to shell out 1,500 bucks a day for a meal and a delegate kit beats me; there are lots of interesting places to eat and drink in a 3 kilometer radius of the festival venue, so it must be the delegate kit that is the big selling point. Perhaps, each day’s delegate kit will be unique, custom-made and will come stuffed with special goodies!
Now, if the North East Monsoon showers would just stay away.