ULTIMATELY, EVERYTHING IN India becomes a mela. A grand carnival, a melee of gigantic proportions where meanings alter and focus shifts. This is true of everything in India.
Take the world of books, for example. When the trio of Sanjoy Roy, Namita Gokhale, and William Dalrymple began the creation of the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), it was a simple festival that began quite accidentally with a bunch of Japanese tourists stumbling onto what the trip now describes the ‘Greatest Festival’ or ‘Carnival’ in the world. You would imagine a literature festival would only attract those who love books. That used to be the case. I still remember I would ask all the dainty aunties and uncles when I would see them at JLF as to which was the last book they read. I had to quickly change the question to: “When was the last time you read?” A lot of these folks would arrive at the festival (at that time, in the quaint Diggi Palace) just in time to be seen for the morning bit, and depart quickly when the shops in Jaipur opened, only to return for the evening soirées. Such was their confidence that they’d quote Groucho instead of Karl Marx and get away because none was the wiser. And the organisers tried every trick in the book: they started charging money; they offered delegate passes with lunch thrown in; they began charging for packages, but nothing would deter the festival lover. For them, it was another festival, and this was even before reels became real. Such was their love of being seen that everything else paled in comparison. More recently, a columnist in one of the pink papers referred to the venerable Calcutta Book Fair as the Calcutta Food Fair. I wouldn’t be surprised in the least.
The truth is we Indians love a festival. It could be anything. You could have a ‘Festival of Pineapples’ or a ‘Festival of Gnomes’, and chances are slowly it will pick up pace and then one day, you will wonder what the festival was originally about. And this affection for melas transcends everything: from spirituality to spirits. Temple inaugurations or weekly qawwalis at some mausoleum, or for that matter, langar at a gurdwara are par for the course. Even the Blind School Mela during Diwali has not been spared by our desire to flood places. I really don’t know if this is because of FOMO (fear of missing out) or the fear of being social media pariahs.
The truth is we Indians love a festival. It could be anything. You could have a ‘festival of pineapples’ or a ‘festival of gnomes’ and the chances are slowly it will pick up pace and then one day, you will actually wonder what the festival was originally about
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The world of art is no different. 2024 was the 15th edition of the India Art Fair: once a haven for spotting and savouring the best art, today, in the words of my school friend (who wishes to remain anonymous as he may be starting an art gallery), it’s about aunties and uncles who have money but no taste, and where galleries are making money, even though this year there was hardly any shining sun. I used to love the India Art Fair because it was a serious fair about serious art. But I guess, like everything else about us, this too has suffered an invasion of people over panache, which by the way is fine as long as we know it. Apparently, at this year’s India Art Fair, the focus was more on the food and the Bollywood blokes in attendance, rather than the art. And one barometer of an event’s demise is when you start getting Bollywood people to comment on things that they have no clue about. I am not for a moment suggesting that Bollywood is culturally decadent but surely the artists deserve more prominence than actors at an art fair. My worry is not about the population explosion at these events or festivals: my concern is will we continue to dilute some of these focused special purpose events only because we have the desire to make them more popular, and where does that leave the purist or the aficionado?
Music festivals are no longer what they used to be: people want ATMs (any time music) and couldn’t care less about the alaap, or for that matter, the aria. Such is the desire to be seen at these events that the promoters themselves are presiding over the demise of the purposefulness of these festivals. But then if we could bombard weddings and funerals, not to mention temple runs, all of this is kindergarten.