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?


Zak said...

Very well said Sankar and written. The people are changing and their attitude too. You might find more of these often. And with good supporters like you, it is going to happen.
Cheers man..
Sharon Philip

Sankar Radhakrishnan said...

@Sharon: Thanks. Glad you enjoyed it.