Saturday, February 23, 2008

Contemplating the Festival of Ideas

Of the many wonderful things that the D. D. Kosambi Festival of Ideas did, surely the demonstration of the size of the audience consistently present through all four days of the festival should be the most wonderful. Given the lively nature of debates in Goan society; and the experience of earlier lectures, such as that of the disappointing lecture by the authors of the book on Mao, where the Black box was filled to capacity; the size of the Festival audience should not have come as a surprise. And yet, the magnitude was overwhelming, demonstrating perhaps once and for all that there exists a mature audience in Goa for matters intellectual, and that the representations of the Goan as intellectually disinterested are frankly dishonest. For our reigning Chief Minister who has tried at every possible event to make the right noises this should be a signal. Stop planning film festivals on nationalism (it went out of intellectual fashion light years ago), promising to spruce up samadhis (cater to the living not to the dead); all you need to do is provide a budget that will get prominent minds to Goa for but a day, deliver a fantastic lecture, interact with the audience and leave behind a State where the quality of internal dialogue has substantially improved.

There can be no doubt that the Festival contributed to dialogues within Goan society. You had only to be witness to the charged Question and Answer sessions following every lecture to see how that dialogue was being initiated. I don’t think we acknowledge how strong the right wing is in Goa and these sessions demonstrated not only the breadth of their existence but also their courage. And it wasn’t only members of the cultural right, the Hindutva brigade who stood up to defend their positions, these sessions also allowed us to be witness to members of fledgling political stand up to make their fascist points about Indians (and Goans) being unfit for democracy. At times the speakers did not grasp the nuances of Goan politics to give effective answers, but in the case of the cultural right, it was a particular pleasure to see Romila Thapar demolish cherished rightist positions by piling fact on fact and demonstrate the factual inconsistencies of Hindutva rhetoric. In an era when the State is rolling back its services in favour of the poor and the marginal and asserting its power in favour of the rich and the unaccountable, it was thrilling to see the most unabashed critique of the State and defense of distributional justice take place under the benevolent shadow of the umbrella of the State. For those who were listening, the talks at the festival and the interactions that followed clearly laid out an agenda for us in Goa, an agenda that requires us to recommit to the politics of distributional justice and a agenda that takes head-on the forces of the Hindu (and other) Right.

If these and other dialogues are to continue then it seems necessary that Goa continue to be witness to more such public lectures. If these public lectures continued to be organized in the name of the State, but safely conceptualized by persons with definite capability there would be nothing like it. Ofcourse a State celebration comes with its limitations, for example what exactly were all those flowers and thermocol cutouts doing on the curtain behind the speaker? And the appearance of a table full of ‘eminent personages’ from behind a curtain? Thank goodness for the sterling speakers else the whole festival would have quite literally turned into what the stage setting promised- some mediocre village feast! And was there really need for an MC, a Chair who did not fulfill the role normally assumed by a chair, the person delivering a vote of thanks et al on stage? What we had at the festival was State aesthetic at its finest and the contrast with the intellectual material that was on offer couldn’t be starker. The organizers of the festival apparently decided against calling it a lecture series because they wanted to attract an audience with a sexy title. Since they recognize that style counts, perhaps they could have also reviewed the style quotient in the setting for the lectures. A stage trimmed of floral, synthetic and bureaucratic excess, one Chair who got straight to the point and the speaker for the evening, this would have been ideal. But I guess you can’t win all battles at one go, and we still have more festivals to go before we sleep. Thank you Digu maam for the festival, may you support more such ventures…

(Published in the Gomantak Times, 21 February 2008)