Kolkata’s literary festival: conversing to make the world more inclusive

776x507 px for photo galleryThe eighth edition of the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival (AKLF) will cast the spotlight on the need for inclusion in a traumatised world.

The festival’s co-director, Maina Bhagat, said: “The year that has gone by has wounded the psyche of people globally and its impact will be seen in literature across the next few years.

“AKLF’s 2017 schedule is woven around starting conversations to make the world a more inclusive place.”

Starting such conversations is the only cure for frayed societies, Bhagat says.

04Maina Bhagat (left) with fellow festival co-director Anjum Katyal.

Bhagat, who is the director of the Apeejay Oxford Bookstores, says Kolkata is known for its inclusive culture and the AKLF has, since its inception, showcased the city’s tangible and intangible heritage.

“There is no heritage site more intrinsic to Kolkata than the river, on whose banks it stands. Perhaps the very reason for its existence as a city is this river,” Bhagat told journalists on a pre-festival tour on the Ganga river.


Bhagat says festival speakers will be looking at the issue of inclusion from diverse angles, ranging from the rights of children to women’s voices and the plight of the underprivileged. The programme includes a tribute to the late Mahasweta Devi, who brought the most marginalised people into the fold of literature.

300px-nabaneeta_dev_senThis year’s attendees include the acclaimed novelist and chief editor of The Indian Express newspaper Raj Kamal Jha, eminent authors Amit Chaudhuri, Shobha De, and Nabaneeta Dev Sen (pictured left), and the leading literary theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (pictured below).


Spivak is best known for the article, “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, which is considered a founding text of post-colonialism. After this she conducted a series of historical studies and published literary critiques of imperialism and feminism. She has often referred to herself as a “Marxist, feminist, and deconstructionist”.

During this year’s festival, the veteran educationist Sister Cyril will be launching Priti Paul’s ABCDesi, a book of English alphabets and Indian imagery. There will be a specially curated interactive performance by the dancer Anita Ratnam.

shashi_tharoor_2015In the festival’s main inaugural session, entitled “Black and White”, the acclaimed author, MP, and human rights activist Shashi Tharoor (pictured left) will talk about the legacy of the Raj.

On Day 3, in a session entitled “Post-Truth – a threat to liberal democracy?”, Ananya Vajpeyi, Anubha Bhosle, and Ram Rahman will grapple with the question “Are we living in a time where fact is being ignored for emotional rhetoric?”

Other topics being tackled include “The Superwoman Syndrome” (how popular narratives represent “women of substance”); the way the media shapes today’s world, writing for Bollywood; Greek myths with an Indian twist; whether the pen really can stand up to the sword; ethics and public health; identity and belonging; and literary activism.

The feminist campaigner and writer Ruchira Gupta (pictured below), who founded the Indian anti-sex trafficking organisation Apne Aap Women Worldwide, will be at the festival and will be taking part in a discussion entitled “A Space for Us: The Last Girl in Literature”. Gupta will also be attending this year’s Jaipur Literature Festival.


amit_chaudhuri_-_kolkata_2014-01-31_8218In a discussion entitled “Modernity and Beyond: Culture and the Urban Space in the 21st Century”,  architect Jon Lang, photographer Ram Rahman, and Amit Chaudhuri (pictured left) will talk about what the cities of the future portend for culture and the arts.

A session entitled “Talking Texts and Performing Print” will feature an interactive theatre performance based on The Foolish Fly from Sukumar Ray’s Bengali poem Murkho Machhi.

Every evening for three days, the festival will pay a tribute to the now Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan through poetry and contemporary music.

The “Plug In” event in the grounds of Saint Paul’s Cathedral will offer festivalgoers a truly eclectic mix of rock, rap, folk, jazz, country, and blues along with electronic and instrumental sounds.

Focusing on the young

The Kolkata festival organisers aim to inspire hope in today’s youth.

Festival co-director Anjum Katyal said: “The thinkers, and writers we have invited to the AKLF platform to deliberate on a range of important issues, and the books we have chosen to launch, are all part of a hope – a hope that AKLF contributes to inspiring a new generation of artists, musicians, writers, filmmakers, and visual artists.”

The hope, Katyal added, was that the new generation of creative people will value inclusion and highlight the “racism, patriarchy, warmongering, social inequality, hypocrisy, and corruption” that is causing so much harm to people, especially children, around the world.

The AKLF organisers have forged a partnership with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

This year, there will be new mini-festivals for children and young filmmakers. The first edition of the Oxford Junior Literary Festival (OJLF), on January 15 and 16, will involve children from the homes and school run by the NGO Future Hope and from several shelters outside Kolkata.

The OJLF will include a mask-making session, “Fun with Chinese Opera”; a dramatised reading of “The Why Why Girl”, who never stops asking questions, written by Mahasweta Devi; a creative presentation by Future Hope students entitled “In Our Own Voice”; and an interactive session about the craft of the monologue, “In My Head”.

In a session entitled “Monsters, Songsters and Much Such Madness”, the children’s writer Anushka Ravishankar will be telling stories about a pink “monster” who loves bananas and singing.

yassmin-abdel-magied-uwrf16-wThe Australian author, mechanical engineer, and ardent social advocate Yassmin Abdel-Magied (pictured left), who founded the organisation Youth Without Borders, and Anshul Tewari (pictured below), who is the founder and editor-in-chief of (India’s largest online platform for young people to express themselves on issues of importance), will be at the festival, discussing their own dreams and challenges with school students.


Shashi Tharoor, who had a lengthy career at the UN and was under secretary-general, will introduce a session in which students will write stories on the theme of “A Better World for Every Child” for UNICEF’s Tiny Stories campaign.

Tharoor has written 15 best-selling works of fiction and non-fiction, focused on Indian history, culture, politics, society, and foreign policy.

The festival will also include a screening of entries for the iLEAD-O-Scope Youth Short Film Festival, followed by a Q&A with the filmmakers, an interative session with the jury members, and the awards ceremony.

Celebrating poetry

The Kolkata festival gives priority to celebrating poetry. “It is an event for poets, by poets, and of poets,” Katyal said.

“The café concept makes the ambience informal and encourages face-to-face interactions with established and aspiring poets.”

The line-up includes the UK-based poet and translator Bashabi Fraser, the Italian poet Alessandro Lutman, and local poets Anjana Basu, Avik Chanda, Ananya Chatterjee and Debasish Lahiri.

The festival will close with “Love in a Time of Vitriol” – a candlelight vigil with poetry and music on the theme of inclusiveness.

While overshadowed in terms of scale and international reach by the Jaipur Literature Festival, which follows on its heels, the Kolkata event has a breadth of discussion, a calibre of speakers, and a focus on youth and the future that make it an extremely popular festival for people of all ages and backgrounds.


The AKLF 2017, which runs from January 15 to 18, will be held in the grounds of St Paul’s Cathedral and at the Oxford Bookstore in Park Street, and the closing event will be hosted at St John’s Church.

Discussions will also be hosted at the Royal Calcutta Turf Club, the Tollygunge Club, the campus of iLEAD, Presidency University, Daga Nikunj, and the Harrington Street Arts Centre.