Spectacle Around the Written Word

The rising number and scale of literature festivals in the country shows that while they may or may not make great business, their popularity is unmistakable

A cultural performance at the Jaipur Literature Festival. Photo: Getty Images

India’s tryst with literary gatherings can be traced back to ancient times when people gathered to listen to discourses by learned peers. So, it was only a matter of time before someone sniffed the potential of literature festivals in the country. The Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) marked the beginning of the era of literary gatherings in India with its debut in 2006.

Now a literary extravaganza, JLF had quite a modest beginning with participation of about 18 writers and 100 attendees. While the footfall runs into six-digit figures now, the festival also has a significant digital presence, with over 25 million digital views in 2023, as per the JLF website.

JLF may not be representative of all literature festivals in the country—few can claim to be anywhere close to it—but it did pave the way for others. Delhi, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Bhubaneswar, Bengaluru, Mangaluru, Ahmedabad and several other places have already been hosting their own literature festivals.

Over the years, literature festivals have transformed themselves as spaces that offer an enhanced sensory experience, rich with possibilities of dialogues, tête-a-tête with glitterati and Instagrammable settings, unlike the usual book fairs which are primarily focused on sales. “Book fairs are organised with the primary objective of sales, showcasing the widest range of books for distributors, students and wholesalers to make purchases. Literature festivals revolve around starting a dialogue and showcasing the literary prowess. They showcase an author and celebrate their work, scaling up the way in which they are conversing about their ideas,” says Pallavi  Narayan, divisional lead for corporate communications at publishing house Penguin Random House India. Book fairs these days have segments for author interactions and discussions around their books, but literature fests offer something else, she adds.

According to her, literature festivals have encompassed larger and varied range of themes to a great extent. “They are celebratory in their tone and thrive on footfalls, so a lot of effort goes into curating these sessions which are critically discursive whilst also being a crowd puller,” she says.

Historian Marc David Baer with author and festival co-director William Dalrymple at a JLF session. Photo: Getty Images

Shaping the Narrative

Literature festivals vary in their scale, outreach and objectives. As a space, these festivals are remarkably potent and offer not just opportunities for dissent but also for conformism and revivalism. They have been identified as increasingly influential in generating grand narratives and shaping imaginations. “When we started JLF, it was entirely free because our effort has been not just in Jaipur but in many parts of the world to look at how to get younger people involved. So, our whole focus was to get university and school kids to come. We reached out to schools and gave them passes to attend the event,” recalls Sanjoy K. Roy, managing director of Teamwork Arts which organises JLF.

In 2018, members of Kolkata chapter of the Bastar Solidarity movement organised the first edition of the People’s Literature Festival in Kolkata to provide an alternative platform for voices from the margin. The Rainbow Lit Fest—Queer and Inclusive, which started in 2019, seeks to bring together “different identities and sections of society to explore common ground” and generate “informed narratives about diversity”. The Green Literature Festival was conceived by Benedict Paramanand, co-founder of the Bangalore Business Literature Festival, in November 2020 to amplify the role of green literature in shaping dialogues, debates, environmental consciousness, education and call for action from political, business and civil society leaders.

The Gujarat Literature Festival, which organised its 10th edition last month, aims to revive public interest in Gujarati literature. “We try to curate sessions which look to expand horizons, create an understanding about Gujarati literature and cultural heritage and seek to build towards revival of interest in writings of the Gujarati literati,” says Samkit Shah, producer of the festival. In the wake of garba, Gujarat’s traditional dance form, making it to the list of UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, the organisers had incorporated an event on it this time. “Through the festival, we try to reflect the voice of the youth and give a platform to emerging writers, not just high profile established writer,” Shah adds.

The Economy of Festivals

The format of literature festivals in India has evolved over the years. In the Indian scenario, they are supported primarily through sponsorships and cash-neutral or cash-reducing barters. Marketing efforts are of key value. As a business, “it is always impacted by the economy or the perceived economy of the country, the perceived sentiment that exists around what festivals like this are. So, you know the vagaries of it impact us a lot,” says Roy of Teamwork Arts.

The corporate world is a big stakeholder in terms of sponsorship. Corporate houses have increasingly realised that there is a huge branding mileage that cannot be duplicated outside of this association with arts and literature. Says Roy, “There is a growing awareness of how arts impact brands and therefore there will be only an increase in corporate support from the likes of Tata, Reliance, Aditya Birla, Mahindra, etc.”

Books continue to be an attraction for Indians. According to the India Book Market Report 2022 published by Nielsen BookData and the Federation of Indian Publishers, the valuation of India’s print book market in 2019–20 was Rs 720.6 billion, which is expected to increase at a compound annual growth rate of 19.4% between 2023–24 and 2025–26.

Do literature festivals help boost book sales? Publication houses do not think so. These events do see sale of books, but that is not their central objective. Sponsorships and ticketing are the  biggest revenue generators for literature festivals in India. The venue also plays an important role. Often, cities or towns which have a great tourist ecosystem like good hotels, tourist attraction spots, etc., tend to be bigger crowd pullers as such events can double up as short vacations. The general interest in arts and literature in a given region, the richness of its reading and writing habits, its receptivity and tolerance to engage with broadening vistas of discussions, each plays a part in how these festivals create an impact and scale up.

“When we started JLF, it was entirely free. Those days, the Diggi Palace event was still very small. Because of the number of people coming to the main festival, we outstripped our sponsorship effort. By the fourth year, 60,000 people attended and that was the year when Oprah Winfrey, Salman Rushdie … all of that happened. The input far outstripped the output, so to speak,” says Roy, as he begins to explain the evolution of JLF.

“In the second phase, much of our work was sponsorship-driven. Our effort is that we get one-third of our revenue from sponsorships, one-third from ticketing or allied ticketing and one-third from the inventory space, which is food, merchandising, etc. That is the healthiest mix that one can achieve. Have we achieved it? Not quite,” Roy adds. JLF has launched Friends of the Festival scheme, where one could get additional privileges by paying a fee.

Internationally, these festivals are organised differently. “Most international festivals are ticketed, like, if you go to Cheltenham or Edinburgh, every session you go to, you buy a ticket for that session,” says Roy. Depending on the speaker, the ticket could be priced somewhere between five and 15 pounds, he explains. Referring to his team’s overseas festivals, he says, “When we do festivals across the world, we have stuff inside the theatre that is ticketed and a lot of free concerts in public spaces just to ensure that we get a varied audience.” There is also a lot of support that organisers get from the local government, he observes. “Internationally, the model becomes different as it is not so much corporate- or marketing-driven. It is these supports, ticketing and barter that roughly sums it up there,” he says.

Keeping the Momentum

Many literature festivals struggle for funds, visibility and a voice of their own. In the absence of any direct push by the government, this industry must rely on its own prowess.

These are larger-than-life events that not only enthuse love for reading and writing but also celebrate literature and its creators. While they may seem like leisurely events, they have deep socio-cultural, political and economic underpinnings. For many, it is narration of the politics of their lived experiences, whether from the centre or from the margins, cutting across hierarchies of stratification.  It is never quite art for art’s sake.  

The larger message that these events seek to send across, the audience they target and the impact they want to make help them create their own brand of literature. The spate of literature festivals will rise not necessarily because they are great businesses but because they are platforms for disseminating ideas.