On Sunday, January 10, the final day of Bengaluru-based literature weekend, Lekhana, each of the seven sessions began with a reading of works of the writers who had returned their awards protesting against “intolerance”.
Some of the writers featured in these readings were: Uday Prakash and Kashinath Singh (Hindi), Ganesh Devy and Anil Joshi (Gujarati), Devanur Mahadeva (Kannada), Munawwar Rana and Rahman Abbas (Urdu), K Satchidanandan (Malayalam), Nayantara Sahgal (English) and Mandakranta Sen (Bengali).
None of them was present at the fifth edition of Lekhana, hosted at the IIHS City Campus on Sankey Road, but the solidarity expressed for them through the readings, even in their absence, aligned perfectly with the theme of the event: “The Sound of Silence”.
Explaining the theme, writer Arshia Sattar, the co-director of Sangam House, which organised the event, said, “It’s clear that more and more voices are being silenced around us -- dissenting voices, liberal voices, critical voices, voices from the Left, voices from the margins, literary voices. It’s been a rough few months in India.
There is another way also to think about the sound of silence, which is the kind of protests we’ve seen from writers and artists returning their government awards. If artistes do not speak and write and paint and make films and theatre, there will be a deathly silence around us. So the theme seemed quite obvious to us.”
Sangam House is an international writers’ residency based in India.
The position of the writer -- or the artist -- as somewhat of an outsider, or at conflict with the state or society, was a running theme through most of the sessions.
The event began on Friday, January 8, with the screening of a short film, An Old Dog’s Diary. Directed by Shai Heredia and Shumona Goel, the 11-minute documentary on modern Indian artist Francis Newton Souza has won the Best Short Film award at the London Film Festival 2015.
Raghu Karnad reading from his book, Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World WarNon-linear and lyrical, the black-and-white film is composed of images and writings of Souza and ends -- no spoilers -- with a trenchant critique of the commercial nature of the art “industry”.
Souza’s painting Birth was recently sold for about $4 million, making it the most expensive work ever sold at a South Asian Art auction.
During a discussing after the screening, with Sattar and the New York-based writer, D W Gibson, Heredia described how during the research, they had found Souza to be a tad different from the persona of the bohemian and successful artists everyone is familiar with. The title of the film was taken from a scrap among Souza’s personal papers, on which he had scribbled these very words.
Heredia also took part in a lively discussion with writers V Sanjay Kumar, Anjum Hasan and Sattar at the panel “Portrait of the Artist”. Both Kumar’s and Hasan’s novels -- Artist, Undone and The Cosmopolitans, respectively -- feature artists and the world of Indian art.
The “art” of the short story, non-fiction, translation and biography were discussed during different sessions on the second day of the event,January 9. A dramatised reading of an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice was performed by Salmin Sharief as Shylock and Vivek Madan reading lines of Antonio, Gratiano and Portia.
The debate on whether or not the play is anti-sematic has engaged critics for centuries but the performance gelled very well with the spirit of the event. If Shylock’s blinding hatred was the cause of his undoing, Andal’s love for Vishnu helped her transcend the pains of a mortal life for the union with her divine beloved.
The ninth century Alvar saint’s poetry is the subject of a new translation, Andal: The Autobiography of a Goddess by Priya Sarukkai Chabria and Ravi Shankar. After the book was released on January 10, Chabria, along with writer and filmmaker Lata Mani, discussed Andal’s proto-feminist celebration of the body in secular and divine love.
The final session of Lekhana -- “Is PEN Mightier than the Sword?” -- focused on the precarious position of writers who find themselves at conflict with the state. Salil Tripathi, chair of the writers in prison, Pen International, Aakar Patel, executive director, Amnesty International India, New York-based writer Gibson and Sattar discussed the way in which writers could express solidarity and help their colleagues who find themselves in a soup or silenced by centres of power – something that has become alarmingly common in our times.
Sattar later said: “It’s about solidarity, not simply with the writers, but solidarity among ourselves. Every community has its own politics and ideology. We like to believe that Lekhana’s politics are about pluralism and the right to express dissent.”
Disclosure: The writer was a participant at a panel discussion in Lekhana, and also read out from his work