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MBIFL 2023: Celebrating the word, visual & performance

By Giridhar Khasnis

One of the most significant literary festivals of the country - Mathrubhumi International Festival of Letters – concluded recently at the Kanakakkunnu Palace, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. Curated by novelist and journalist Sabin Iqbal, the four day festival (Feb 2-5, 2023) sought to present new ideas and perspectives through literature, art and culture, politics, technology, science, gender and so on. The event hosted a series of stimulating sessions conducted by national and international writers, thinkers, musicians, visual artists and performers. 

The star attraction of the festival was without doubt, Abdulrazak Gurnah (born 1948/Tanzania), winner of the 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature. His resonant talk on ‘Shadows of History, Lights of the Future’ (which was also the theme of the festival) emphasised the importance of understanding history and, consequently, the fate of individuals and communities in times of conflict and struggle. “History is a nightmare, a tragic narrative, a continuous study of small moments… Literature tells us what we know and also tells us what we don’t know… Even when there are unlimited catastrophies, we also know that there is a receptive audience dealing with them (migrants, displaced and suffering masses) showing great humanity, kindness and hospitality.”

Nobel Laureate novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah

Another star was Shehan Karunatilaka (born 1975/Sri Lanka), winner of 2022 Booker Prize for his  novel ‘The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida. Mixing serious thought with ready wit, Karunatilaka spoke of his long and patient journey in writing and publishing which culminated with the Booker Prize. “I got the news that I was longlisted for the Booker Prize at the time when Sri Lanka was reeling under political instability.  There were long queues for food, gas and petrol… In the evening, my wife returned home with petrol. A few friends also came by and I broke the news (about Booker). But to my dismay, my wife getting petrol was celebrated more than the Booker Prize longlisting!”

 Booker Prize winning novelist Shehan Karunatilaka

While Gurnah and Karunatilaka rightfully hogged the limelight, other stalwarts were not to be missed. Amitav Ghosh, the Jnanpith awardee meditated upon issues like climate change, loss of bio-diversity, and thoughtless weaponisation; he wished writers had a larger role in a world where languages, cultural practices and diversities were fast vanishing. He also recalled his collaboration with Pakistan-born American painter Salman Toor for his book ‘Jungle Nama: A Story of the Sunderban’.

In yet another packed session, Mateo García Elizondo, the 36-year-old writer from Mexico, confessed that it was both a blessing and burden to be the grandson of Nobel Prize winning novelist Gabriel García Márquez.

There were two Sudhas: Social worker and Padma Shri awardee Sudha Varghese who has been working tirelessly with the Musahars, a Mahadalit community of Bihar (and whose session was appropriately titled Touching People);  and writer and Padma Bhushan awardee Sudha Murthy (who rendered her ‘Words of wisdom’ and ‘Lights of future’.)

An artist at work at MBIFL 2023

Other speakers included politician-writer Shashi Tharoor, poet K. Sachidanandan, activist-writer Aakar Patel, writer-academic Purushottam Agrawal, spymaster and former IB and RAW officer A.S. Dulat, politician Sitaram Yechury, former Army officer and defence expert Pravin Sawhney … to name a few. There was also a huge contingent of writers, poets, historians and critics from different parts of the world who regaled the audience by sharing their works, readings and experiences.

It was interesting to see that the festival offered dedicated spaces for visual artists (KA corner), dancers, musicians, and other performers. Well known names in the field of visual arts, dance, music, theatre and cinema participated in well-attended sessions. They included artist-curator Krishnamachari Bose, actor Kabir Bedi, singer Bombay Jayashri, singer-activist T.M. Krishna,  actor Prakash Raj, and others.

A session in progress at MBIFL 2023

Senior caricature artist and holder of the Limca Book of Records Sajjivve Balakrishnan was one among the several artists tirelessly entertaining visitors by drawing their images on notepad. The senior Income Tax Officer also delivered a talk on his journey into cartooning and his wide ranging experiences. There was free portrait and caricature demonstrations by several young artists which attracted considerable attention.

With 20+ performances, 200+ sessions, 300+ speakers and countless visitors, the festival was a celebratory success. Dr Peggy Mohan who won the ‘Mathrubhumi Book of The Year’ award for her book ‘Wanderers, Kings and Merchants,’ is, incidentally, a trained artist in oil painting and cartoon animation.

Photographs: Giridhar Khasnis

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