Fostering Freedom of Expression – BLF & beyond

The excitement around the upcoming Bangalore Literary Festival has been marred by controversy. Writers threatening to boycott the festival and founding director Vikram Sampath stepping down has raised many questions in the minds of Bangaloreans.

The good news first. Thanks to social media, citizens across the country are weighing in with their opinions on a variety of issues. The bad news is the tone and tenor of many of these discussions leaves much to be desired. Ironically, many commenters have been intolerant in the ongoing debate about intolerance in our nation. Some of this has coloured the discussion around the Bangalore Literary Festival.

According to Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer a writer’s freedom was his “right to maintain and publish to the world a deep, intense, private view of the situation in which he finds his society. If he is to work as well as he can, he must take, and be granted, freedom from the public conformity of political interpretation, morals and tastes.”

To me, a literary festival is a platform where not just writers but citizens can discuss a variety of issues germane to our lives as Bangaloreans and Indians. Even more importantly, it’s a rare opportunity to bring a variety of different voices and dissenting opinions to bear on matters that we don’t agree upon. A city such as Bangalore, with its myriad problems needs to nurture community forums with active citizen participation to have meaningful discussions that can inform right action. I believe that the Bangalore Literary Festival is one such forum.

Freedom of expression is one of the rights granted to citizens of this country even if it does come with qualifiers. If writers are returning awards as a sign of protest, it is their prerogative to do so. But boycotting a literary festival for not aligning themselves with the personal viewpoints of the festival director is disheartening for society. Vikram Sampath has demonstrated in his actions that the festival is above any single individual and it is equally diappointing to hear that he has put in his papers as director of the organizing committee.

As a pratising classical musician I am no stranger to petty politics in the music world. In June or July, the Sangita Kalanidhi awardee is announced by the Music Academy for the upcoming December music festival in Chennai. It is the most prestigious award given to a Carnatic musician for his or her contribution to the art form. The award comes with its share of controversy over the selection of the awardee among musicians and rasikas alike. However in no way has this hampered the spirit of the music festival which has grown to be the globally pre-eminent Carnatic festival.

The question that we need to ask ourselves is that by boycotting any festival, are we throwing the baby out with the bathwater? Can we look beyond the personal and political to continue to grow our communities?


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