Devdan Chaudhuri in Eyezine or http://www.eyeartcollective.com
Does money have morality? Of course it does; like the morality of a weapon depends upon the intention that raises it – one can use it to save a life or to rob a bank – similarly it matters, how money is being earned, and whose money is being used to sponsor culture, because it has various ramifications for everyone who contributes to the essence of a literary fest – the audience, the authors, the writers, the poets, various other participants – from film stars to political figures (whose proportion within the mix of the participants is increasing at an alarming rate every year),the organisers and the sponsors.
One cannot remain unconcerned with the proven misdeeds of companies who have infiltrated into the ‘space of art, conscience, ideas and freedom ofexpression’ via title sponsorships.One cannot put money before principles because of external pressure or self-interest. One needs to resist and defeat the internal and external forces, otherwise one becomes morally weak, corrupted.
There are many authors, writers and poets who care for art, purpose, and principles, more than they care for other trappings. They have the hearts and the minds which care about things which are not part of their self-interest and well-being. This is the prime reason why art happens to them. Empathy and concern about the world comes with this essential trait of being an artist. And without soul and conscience, there is no art.
Not only the artists, but there are many individuals in various fields – especially the intelligent youth – who wish to stand with their principles, by defeating their egoistic self-interest. This is one of the prime struggles of the modern world, and has been, throughout human history, and delineates the force of the good, from the force of the evil – the two opposing aspects of the human self. Literature, poetry, philosophy and art have borne witness to this age-old struggle between the opposing aspects of the human self since the dawn of culture.
The essential humane impulse – to be strong enough to allow conscience to defeat self-interest – prompted writers and poets to call for a boycott of Zee sponsored Jaipur Literary Festival (JLF) in India.Ashok Vajpayi said ‘We have urged JLF to sever its ties with Zee. We are writing to them publicly.’ Former Sahitya Akademi Secretary and poet K. Satchidanandan said he had decided to disassociate himself from the festival. ‘Decided to boycott Jaipur Literary Festival as long as it is done in collaboration with Zee TV that has been insulting writers like Gauhar Raza and spreading misinformation and lies supporting fascist trends in India,’ he said in a Facebook post.The controversy didn’t end with the Jaipur Literary Festival that is held in India, but soon followed JLF to London.
A few days back, I received an online invite to a Facebook event page – Boycott Vedanta JLF London – an event that will take place on 21 May at Southbank, London. I soon became aware of the new controversy and read the press release signed by many authors, writers, poets and academicians.
I visited the website of JLF and checked the list of about forty speakers who are supposed to have sessions at JLF London on 21 May; I wasn’t surprised to see the name of BJP Chief Minister of Rajasthan Vasundhara Raje as one of the speakers of the festival. I understood why Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje – whom I don’t recall to be associated with anything literary – is one of the speakers of JLF London. Organisers of any large public festival need to maintain good relations with the ruling Government of the State – the state bureaucracy that has the power to give or deny permissions to hold the event. Without the cooperation from the State Governments, the organisers will find it more difficult to successfully hold large public events – such is the nature of our present system.
Jaipur is in Rajasthan – one of the most exotic as well as one of the most conservative states of India. I have been travelling to Jodhpur every year for five years to conduct an annual 14 day art camp of talented young artists (now suspended) on behalf of my art gallery; so I know about Jodhpur and have travelled extensively in Rajasthan. The hours I had spent on a grumpy camel named ‘Michael Jackson’ in the cruel month of April – when I travelled from the outskirts of Jaisalmer to spend a night on the sand dunes under the dazzling stars in the hypnotic Thar desert – is one of my most memorable experiences of backpack travel in India. Rajasthan is truly gorgeous, but I also know from the young local educated girls – who came to see the widely publicized art camps in Jodhpur – having a Facebook page is considered as ‘morally reprehensible’ and a ‘dishonour to the family’; hence they have their Facebook profiles under false names, and often put photos of flowers or Bollywood actresses as their profile pictures. They don’t have the freedom to be themselves on social media, and some of them, even though they had completed their college education, were accompanied by house-staff or brothers and were kept under strict supervision, when they came to the art camp after reading about it in the local Hindi language newspapers.
They expressed utmost surprise that young artists of both sexes had come to Jodhpur, were staying together and doing art – that often shocked them. There is little doubt, that the conservative capitalist patriarchy is in full form in Jodhpur and the conflict between the old and the new, is being won by the old, as of now. Jaipur might be slightly better than Jodhpur in terms of progressive mindsets; but there have been issues of ‘moral policing’ – such as a local patriarchal conservative politician protesting against the drinking of alcohol by women in the parties which happen during JLF; this was widely reported earlier in press and media. Everyone wants a piece of the popular lit fest, in some way or another. So cooperation from the State Government is of utmost importance for the smooth functioning of the festival as far as JLF is concerned. That’s why Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje is going to speak at JLF London on 21 May.
But I was truly surprised to see one name amongst the list of speakers for JLF London 2016: the name of K. Satchidanandan, who had earlier decided to boycott JLF as reported in The Telegraph on 22 March.I thought that it was hypocritical of a person of such high stature to attend JLF, after he had publicly announced that he has boycotted it. But I was thankfully wrong; the latest news as posted in Boycott Vedanta JLF London Facebook page tells me that K.Satchidanandan and Aarathi Prasad have pulled out of Vedanta sponsored JLF London 2016.
When this news broke, many activists, poets and authors celebrated all over Facebook and Twitter. My fellow author and poet, Meena Kandasamy – in her Facebook post – described the move by K.Satchidanandan as ‘a bold, brilliant step’. She also wrote, ‘More power to him, and hope more writers will follow suit. We should no longer have to agree to be part of a world where people-killing corporates turn brand ambassadors for free speech. May this fire spread.’
And the fire is spreading and needs to spread. Attending a literary fest shouldn’t become a moral issue for the participants and the audience. Authors, writers and poets look forward to the invitations by the literary fests to get a platform to speak about their books, ideas and thoughts. The Literary ecosystem in India is still very poor; Amit Chaudhuri also assessed – in an interview published in The Byword –that the literary ecosystem is only improving mildly. The space for reviews has shrunk drastically in the mainstream newspapers and magazines, the word limit of the reviews has also shrunk in the online platforms, there is little space to discuss books in greater depth, there are no Television programs on books where one can speak about one’s work, apart from one by Doordarshan – in a boring format – that no one watches.
In this climate,the literary festivals play a part in our collective cultural discourse; they are also a meeting place of authors, poets and writers– to know each other, exchange ideas and network. Other than a controversy, a large sum of money or a prize, there is little avenue for the authors – especially the new generation of authors and poets – to venture beyond the limited literary circle to a mainstream audience. Letting people know of one’s work, hasn’t been this harder. So literary festivals are important, but they also need to avoid controversial sponsors and keep the balance, tilted in favour of writing, within the mix of participants.
I know from a very reliable source that a chit fund company, flushed with the life-earnings of the poor, wished to sponsor a literary festival, as a brand building exercise. But the organisers, who then hadn’t got any sponsors, still refused to accept the offer due to the shady reputation of the chit fund company. It was a wise decision: the chit fund company is now in soup, money of the poor siphoned off and the owner is in jail, and the organisers have found less controversial and relatively socially responsible corporate sponsors.It really matters, whose money is being used to sponsor culture. In our world, it only takes a Google search to know about the company and the controversies they are involved in. Ignorance is not an excuse. Money has a morality.
I would like to quote what I wrote in my novel:
‘It is vital to understand the difference between moral values and moral sense.
Different mindsets create their own values. One may have conservative or liberal values, social or capitalist conditioning, left or right inclinations, but all those values have nothing to do with morality which is the natural inheritance of a human being.
Morality in its essence is neither conservative nor liberal, neither socialist nor capitalist, neither middle class nor upper class, neither literate nor illiterate, nor left, right or centre. Morality is the presence of conscience, a sense of righteousness or the moral sense. It is a natural tool of the human self that recognizes and values fairness.’
When controversial companies sponsor culture, it is not fair on the participants or on the audience.JLF needs to drop the present title sponsors in India and UK, and restore credibility, reputation and faith.The reputation, the political ideology and the deeds of the sponsors colour the image of the festivals. It has been clearly proven to all, after the forensic investigations, that Zee had repeatedly broadcasted doctored videos that played the chief role in getting the students of JNU arrested for ‘sedition’ and got Kanhaiya Kumar beaten up by unruly lawyers; and Zee, along with a couple of other news channels, spread a certain political narrative to manipulate the viewers of their national news channels and polarised the nation,and caused a bitter atmosphere in the country; many reported that old friendships and relationships were tested and broken, due to the debates which occurred due to the newly manufactured polarisation between ‘nationals’ and ‘anti-nationals’. All this happened, due to fake doctored videos broadcasted by Zee.
Now it becomes impossible to imagine that authors, poets and writers will be speaking about oppression, fairness and justice, in a literary fest, sponsored by Zee! JLF must act decisively and replace Zee as the title sponsor. Till that happens, we need to speak out more and write more, for the sake of fairness and culture. This is a serious issue of utmost importance – with various ramifications – and certainly won’t be allowed to be forgotten by the activists. I won’t be surprised to receive another invite to a Facebook page – Boycott Zee JLF – sometime later this year.
As far as JLF London is concerned, news have arrived that JLF has removed the name of Vedanta from their website; but what is really happening is not really clear, as of now.What is clear though – that I learn from the Boycott Vedanta JLF London Facebook page – that protests will be happening at the Southbank venue in London on 21 May. People are being called out to come in large numbers, with banners, posters and drums.
Devdan Chaudhuri is the author of ‘Anatomy of Life’ and the contributing editor of The Byword – a magazine of literature, arts and culture. He has participated in eight literary fests in over one and a half years, since the publication of his novel. He has never been invited to participate in JLF; nor has he ever attended JLF as part of the audience.