Exclusive: After holding successfully one of the rare literature festivals in India and the only one in Uttar Pradesh, the chief organizer of the Taj Literature Festival in Agra, Mr. Harvijay Singh Bahia shares his experience, his views and vision for the event and its future in an exclusive interview with Sumit Chaturvedi. He also delves upon the various aspects of the very tradition of such festivals and what intellectual space these events are capable of creating in the society.
Starting with the obvious question- How did this all come about to you?
Everyone asks me how I conceptualized the whole thing. It’d been on my mind for two three years now and I had been trying to figure out how to go about it. Of course there were many elements, that I had to make sure don’t get attached to it; to somehow keep it a clean festival and it’s not easy to keep the unwanted, the tamasha so to speak away from the festival. Not that the disturbance is intentional or anything but our effort was to keep the ambiance of literature festival intact and not spoil it with unnecessary loitering of people. And thereby we kept it a very private affair and we intend to keep it like that in future as well. Because, I think, this like any other product is meant for a particular segment of audience.
So my objective was to have a festival which did not, so much, focus on bringing in numbers as to keep it for a particular segment who were keen on attending and for their experience not being marred by those who would create unnecessary disturbances. We did not want hoards of people walking into the festival because it would have been just chaotic.
And secondly we wanted to confine it as much as possible to literature whether it was in form of Information and Technology, which is the new form of literature, or the classics or the literature related to Bollywood or even to humour. So we tried to bring in a little bit of everything not forgetting our aim to bring the “Braj Mandal” area on to a platform of literature. So this is exactly what we did this time- to try to build a platform, whereby the authors of the “Braj Mandal” area have an opportunity to showcase their work. However even in doing so we will screen the authors very meticulously.
Every tradition as it begins also trains and educates the people following it, such that in the following years they in turn contribute to the very tradition. Do you think that this literature festival having been successful in its first edition will be capable to do so for the local audience?
I think many people in Agra were not so much aware as to what a literature festival was all about. And they have now been introduced to the concept. And this knowledge will now spread through the word of mouth which will bring another 10 or 20 percent of people ultimately adding to the total footfall in the coming editions of the festival and that’s what we are looking for. I am certainly not interested in more than 700 people attending each session, so that those who are in attendance can quietly sit and enjoy the sessions.
Uttar Pradesh has been now for many years been devoid of such cultural activities and such a literature festival in the current environment, when such festivals are mushrooming in other parts of the country, says a lot about the importance of such an event in the state. However, most growing cities in today’s times are focused on an economic dimension of growth and not so much on the intellectual aspect of it. Do you think such a festival will help change this attitude?
According to me economic growth is very important and it has to take precedence. But along with the economic growth we must also develop a taste towards literature. And my personal observation has been that such taste does exist. I believe that in every family, there is at least one member who is interested in reading. But this interest has been lying dormant, probably because they have not had such an opportunity. Of course Jaipur literature festival has been around for some years and people do travel to Jaipur for it, but if such a festival can be brought here then people from the surrounding areas like Mathura, Aligarh, Jhansi etc. will have an opportunity to come here, enjoy a weekend and attend a few sessions which interest them. But such a festival will definitely offer a wide variety of possibilities on different subjects. And then we can also expect people coming in from beyond this area and enjoying a good holiday here whilst attending the festival alongside.
Agra has not had, except of course for Taj Mahotsava, which has been running successfully for many years now, many traditions to its name in the cultural or intellectual domain, i.e. in a non-religious space. But with such festivals growing from strength to strength, do you see the space for such other traditions expanding in the city?
Certainly! Agra and its surroundings are very rich in culture. It depends on how much ‘we’ can inculcate this in our festival. Being a heritage city, I think, there is a great possibility of involving other cultural aspects of the area within the festival.
For a while Agra’s education scenario has been in the doldrums, what with the B.R. Ambedkar University being mired in many controversies and problems. How do you see the literature festival affecting the overall education scenario in the city?
I don’t think that this festival is going to have any impact on the education scenario in the city; neither is it our agenda through this festival to affect in any way the university or other educational institutions in the city. Our aim is to provide an interface to the youth of the city with authors and literary figures all the while creating a pleasant, fun filled festival for enjoyment.
What was the angle for involving theatre personalities like Farooque Sheikh and Feroze Abbas Khan into the festival?
We gave a very serious thought to the selection of speakers. And we definitely wanted to involve theatre. And for theatre after much deliberation we contacted Feroze Abbas Khan- one of the founders of Prithvi theatres in Mumbai. And now the idea is that if Prithvi theatre could be brought to Agra in any capacity, even a little touch of it, I think that it would give Agra new possibilities, knowing that once Feroze comes here, we would surely be able to impress upon him enough to consider serious theatre in Agra.
With Farooque sahab the idea was to call someone who has been a part of theatre for a long time. In fact we talked at length exploring the possibilities of theatre- especially open air theatres in Agra. Such developments will certainly help the young people here who are so dynamically involved in the street or the ‘nukkad’ tradition of theatre, by providing them a platform. And the next year we will definitely showcase the nukkad theatre from Agra in the festival so that with such intellectuals as the audience, our young talents might be able to achieve a breakthrough.
With the tradition of literature festival being a recent phenomenon in the entire country, a decade ago such a festival in Agra might have been completely unheard of and it surely takes a lot of imagination to materialize it here. What kind of economic support did you receive throughout the planning and execution stages of this festival?
Well, personally I wanted a smaller festival than what it became, but then suddenly it expanded. And so the kind of sponsorship we received was insufficient, precisely because we had not fished for it more ambitiously thinking that the main organizers would primarily fend for the festival ourselves. Since it became bigger than what we had envisioned, we ran into budget crisis. However we had very good sponsorship from Delhi Public School, Shastripuram, (also the event venue for the festival), and then there were also a few business houses who extended financial support. But generally we did not pay much attention to outside sponsorship and eventually ran out of budget and as the festival approached and kept getting bigger we realized, “Oh! This has become big”. So the next time we are going to plan our budgets properly, look for serious sponsors and now that we have nine months in hand to put this into place, I don’t foresee budget problems for the next edition.
How do you rate the overall response from the audiences to the festival?
Since I have been in the city for many years, I know the people of this city very well. And I have had such an overwhelming and a welcoming response from so many people that it’s been very heartening.
The Jaipur Literature Festival which has recently concluded was mired in controversies due to certain statements and comments being made by the attending authors. Now as the Taj Literature festival will enter into its second edition, how do you expect to manage such controversies if they happen to surface?
The choice of authors and the speakers in the festival will play a major role in ensuring that this festival remains a literature festival, and by a literature festival I mean that the focus should remain on literature. Certainly the festival organizers should not be held responsible for any statements being made by the participating speakers or authors.
I do believe in the fundamental right of free speech, but an author must not make statements merely to get popularity. It has become a habit today, whether it’s a politician or an intellectual or even a cine celebrity, to draw attention by such statements. And we do not want to encourage these trends. Our objective is to conduct enjoyable sessions with good authors, good speakers and good moderators.
Do you think then, that such festivals will contribute to an environment of greater tolerance in the society, something which we have seen in recent time increasingly receding especially towards genuine concerns and issues being raised by intellectuals etc.?
We will have to have an open mind when we come to such festivals. We will have to have a greater acceptability to the ideas and discussions. Nobody is imposing their ideas upon anyone. One can always discard the statements of a speaker. One has that freedom! Even when one is reading, there are a million of books, but there are a few favourites. It’s a poor reflection on those who just want to stand up and condemn and if you come to a literature festival you must be above this. You must respect what the other person is saying to the extent that you at least listen to it, because nobody is asking you to make it a part of your life. In a way it shows your own strength of character.
Such festivals can only add to the level of tolerance where people sit and engage in discussions. However a little masalacan only add to the flavor of the festival. After all people are coming to enjoy themselves. They are not coming for a debating session. It’s a free fall of thoughts. Thoughts are like ripen fruits. They drop and it is up to you to pick those up that you choose to.
I believe that an argument for the sake of deciding who is right and who is wrong is not an argument. For me an argument is a path to progression. So even if a session turns into an argumentative one, it must lead up to some progression such that we derive something from it. It should not be to put the other person down or to prove one’s superiority. An argument must remain an argument. It should not turn into a conflict.