One of the most charming and cozy literature festivals of the Indian subcontinent, “Mountain Echoes — The Bhutan Festival of Art, Literature and Culture,” turns 10 this year. And, gets a gift of an associated chapter at Paro to mark the anniversary.
Paro, as all Bhutan lovers know, is the first port of call for any outsider entering the beautiful country nestled in the higher reaches of the Himalayas. It lies an enchanting 50-km-long drive (approx.) from Thimphu, the country’s capital that has been hosting “Mountain Echoes” for the past decade. The 10th edition of the festival will take place in Thimphu August 23-25, featuring almost 100 writers, thinkers, politicians, journalists, academicians and cultural icons from various national backgrounds. Some speakers to look forward to in this edition (though the list is not final yet) are Neil MacGregor, who was the director of London’s National Gallery from 1987-2002 and has written the fascinating book/ series on BBC, “A History of the World in 100 Objects;” Xyza Bacani, a Filipina documentary photographer known for black-and-white photographs of Hong Kong and on the issues of migration and the intersections of labor and human rights; the venerable Kabir Saxena, founder and director of Root Institute for Wisdom Culture and a monk since 2002; Sanjeev Sanyal, principal economic advisor to the Government of India and author of “Land of the Seven Rivers: A Brief History of India’s Geography;” Khenpo Karchung, a monk and a Sanskrit teacher at Tago Dorden Tashithang Buddhist University; and Sonam Pelden, economics writer, marketing strategist, FORBES 30 under 30, to name some.
Before the pre-festival preparations catch speed, Blouin Artinfo spoke with Mita Kapur, founder and CEO of literary agency Siyahi, and one of the festival directors, on the upcoming festival. Excerpts from the interview:
Could you share the journey of the festival in these 10 years? Has it grown the way you anticipated?
The festival has grown organically; the focus was never on size and the number of speakers. The festival is about the shared traditions of both the countries — Bhutan and India. So, we have done pretty okay. There’s a lot more representation at the festival, and the scope of activities has increased too. We began with one venue (in Thimphu) and now have six-seven.
Plus, the Paro chapter opens this year. We are trying to embrace the tradition of Bhutan and present the symbiotic relationship it enjoys with contemporary culture.
How have the people of Bhutan embraced it? The children, the young readers…
Children have been an integral part of the festival right from the beginning. In the first few years, we rounded off the schools, colleges and other educational institutions because we, as a team, wanted to encourage the youth, expose them to literary trends from around the world. Last year, some of our speakers were very young authors. School children are now very much a part of the festival, and an enthusiastic one at that. This year, a few schools from India are going to be part of the festival. In the beginning, we used to have only one or two book stores at the venue, now we have many more. We will also have a couple of book cafes at Paro this year.
Has the festival helped peel off some layers of mystery that Bhutan seems to be wrapped in for the larger world outside?
Bhutan, as a nation, is quite reticent. But they are very warm people and welcome the world with great warmth. I wouldn’t say Bhutan is still a mystery. A lot is known about the country, a lot is happening there, and a lot more is out there on the social media. But yes, there is never that you can know enough about Bhutan; there is always a discovery happening — same as is the case with India. The festival has helped in this process of discovery, of helping with another dimension of discovery of Bhutan.
One of the most charming features of “Mountain Echoes” is the fact that it is not an overcrowded place. Is it a deliberate decision to keep the festival at a size that it is right now?
When we started, the festival directors had an unspoken understanding that the festival would be kept tight. We were clear on capping the number of speakers to keep it cozy. We wanted to have storytellers of all kinds but also keep it meaningful at the same time. This suits the very nature of Bhutan — sensitive and mindful. As a producer of the festival, I want to keep that sanctity going. So, instead of blowing up the numbers, we have increased the scope of activities.
Could you talk about the balance the festival aims for between English and other languages of the subcontinent, especially of Bhutan?
For the past two years at the festival, we are hosting a calligraphy workshop to encourage people to write in Dzongkha [the sole official and national language of Bhutan written in Tibetan script]. It could be any topic or subject area. The results have been very encouraging. It is an example of driving youngsters back to their language. It’s no lip service but digs deeper — we try to see where the hesitation is. Apart from that, we keep some sessions always bilingual and not just in English.
We have also focused on certain poetic traditions of Bhutan, which are about impromptu improvisation. So, there’s a lot that is interesting and off-the-regular-grid of a literature festival. We are getting people back to be part of the festival, which just proves that if you try to be preachy or moralistic, you only put people off. We, at “Mountain Echoes” are getting more active, more interactive.
— “Mountain Echoes” will be held in Thimphu and Paro, August 22-25. For updates, visit www.mountainechoes.org