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Pseudo Intellectual’s Day Out

The sudden craze of the hoi polloi to gatecrash into every cultural and literary event in India

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Lyricist Prasoon Joshi and Hindi poet Ashok Vajpeyi with singer Vidya Shah during Jaipur Literature Festival at Diggi Palace in Jaipur. Lyricist Prasoon Joshi and Hindi poet Ashok Vajpeyi with singer Vidya Shah during Jaipur Literature Festival at Diggi Palace in Jaipur.

I was at one of the more celebrated “literary fests” a couple of years ago and was both amused and amazed to discover that it resembled a carnival, Page-3 event, a who’s who meet of all the colorful society’s pretentious, fake and socially mobile mavericks. Sure, there were the true-blue literary celebs too and a few wonderfully engaging and fascinating sessions, but somehow the overall ambience seemed to have been diluted and hijacked by people aggressively determined to grab their quota of literary-culture fix for the year.

It’s that the time of the year again and organizers of these fests are busy setting up another edition that will catch, both popular imagination of the literary types, with fodder for brain and the holidaying for people looking for their quick-grab of history and culture. After all, these are festivals that cater to the mind and in a world where appearance is reality and posturing is frequently interpreted as the real thing, this intellectual clubbing or thinking man’s freak-out is off and running.

Actor irfan Khan at Jaipur Festival.
Culture-vultures and experts believe that it is a fair representation of how culture today is being manufactured, presented and consumed. Celebs and headliners are frequently invited as chief guest or star participants at these events for two reasons, according to social commentator and film critic Saibal Chatterjee: “One to pull crowds. More importantly to invest emotional equity for the audiences to connect with and relate to … something they can take back with meaning and joy. Politics, art, culture, sport, entertainment … the fluidity and impact of these festivals can be amazing. Why? How? Because they powerfully elucidate facts passionately argued, crisply articulated, separating news from noise and thus providing a matchless platform for the culturally curious and evolved, as also for the fakes and pretenders.”

Author Jhumpa Lahiri at the Jaipur Literature Festival.
However, many of these events, despite good intentions, continue to attract a constituency which doesn’t seem to have the remotest interest or knowledge and land up only for the glitter and glamor that frequently comes with it, in terms of celebrities and film stars as chief guests. I can vouch, with authority for film festivals. At a recent Kurasawa Retro in Delhi, after the inauguration speech by a respected veteran filmmaker Shyam Benegal there were hardly a handful of people watching the opening classic. Most had vanished once the speech, mingling with the Page 3 crowd, cocktails and photo-ops were over! Sadly, in most cases, it’s only about being seen at the right places.

It imparts a sense of cultural superiority and invests in the person an image of being creatively-driven that places him on a higher stratosphere in social circles.

Social Commentator Santosh Desai gets it spot-on when he says that these earlier off-limits events now are there for all to enjoy and sample: “Their popularity is largely, for mavericks, rebels and pretenders due to the opportunity provided to grandstand and cheerlead ideas that run counter to the times. This is re-enforced by an active interest to engage with thoughts, ideas and concepts that appear new and audacious and threaten to reshape the world. This sometimes can resemble a brand of seductive faith-healing where the very intent to feel good converts these very events into a quasi evangelical experience.”

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Life | Books | Bollywood | Arts & Entertainment | February 2104 | February 2014

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