by Muhammad Ibrahim
photos by Abdullah Apu
The Dhaka Lit Fest, a reincarnation of the formerly Dhaka Hay Festival, concluded on November 21 after a 3-day event. The festival turned out to be a feast of the senses, both literary and cultural. The three days were a chance to show, listen and discuss new possibilities. It was also a chance to reaffirm the space for respectful intellectual discourse and debates. The festival showcased the very best of Bangladesh to the world, through the writers and translators, and offered the audience an opportunity to interact with some of the world’s most stimulating thinkers, writers, philosophers, scientists and artists.
The festival this year resumed under a new name to mark its commitment to promoting Dhaka and Bangladeshi culture to the world, said its organisers. In the continuation of drawing on Bengal’s rich tradition, urban and folk, from founding stalwarts like Rabindranath Tagore and Lalon Shah, to the most striking contemporary debut voices, the festival also kept expanding its reach across disciplines and genres: fiction and literary non-fiction to history, politics and society; poetry and translators; science and mathematics; philosophy and religion.
Coming to the list of events and participants of this year, there were a lot of uncertainties from the start. Because of the country’s security issues, the festival took place amid tight security with 52 foreign guests coming to participate in the different talks at the event. This year the adjacent road to Bangla Academy was closed to regular traffic and every participant had to preregister before entering into the premises of the festival. Law enforcers and the security team double-checked everyone for ensuring proper security.
On the first day of the event, November 19, there was a strike and there were very few people in attendance. There was moderate attendance even on the second and third day of the event. The event on the third and final day also closed ahead of schedule for security reasons.
Six podiums at the event facilitated a tight schedule that included four sessions running simultaneously on average. The lawn was as usual open for session on poems and poetry recitation. Music was performed at the Bardhaman House, leaving the cosmic tent especially for the children’s sessions. The main auditorium, the KK Tea Stage and the new building of the Bangla Academy which had the Bhasha stage were all packed with stimulating sessions. Between the stages were food corners, food stalls, book stalls, and stalls from the sponsors and partners. Different services were being provided at the stalls.
The place was nicely decorated with colourful lights and lamps lighting up the place in the evening. The banyan tree of the academy was decorated with different-coloured lights. Floating lamps were also released in the pond of the academy. There were further light projections on the buildings depicting the Bengali alphabets.
Apart from the diverse sessions and discussions on different stages, there were many things happening around the festival ground. Although registration was required, participation was free of cost and the sessions allowed seating on a first-come-first basis.
The changes in schedule were being updated and written on the different notice boards of the ground. A smart phone application was also designed for the festival however it came of little use as the country was going through a social network blackout because of heightened security. For book-lovers there were stalls of the different publications where one could pick up the latest release. Meeting the author was an excitement for many and there were signing sessions with authors inside tends, take a selfie, and ask the authors’ one question one has always wanted to know. Seeking relaxation, one could make their way to the massage table. For those who got hungry, there was scrumptious ice cream, delicious food, tasty deshi shakes and a range of beverages. For kids, special workshop and interesting sessions were designed at Bottola and if one anyway got lost in the grounds, there were volunteers and directions always available.
Coming to the sessions, there were a number of changes prior to the event as well as in-between the event. Some authors could not make it to the country for security reasons and some sessions were shifted overnight. All the three days started with spiritual songs at the lawn. Day 1 was followed by the inauguration of the event at 11am, with keynote speech by Nayantara Sahgal, the noted author. One of the attraction of the day was the session titled ‘A Life in Theatre’ where veteran actor and now culture minister Asaduzzaman Noor was in conversation with Aly Zaker, discussing a life in the cultural space, sharing the old times, and critiquing the current scenario. The other session that attracted the audience was a journey into Tagore’s dance forms, presented by Nritya Nandon. The long awaited session of the day was of Noble prize-winning scientist Harold Varmus. In the session he gave a wide-ranging talk covering the excitement of basic science research, government and science policy, and the future of global healthcare. The session was extended as he had to answer various queries from the audiences.
The second day started with an interesting session as one of the most powerful journalistic voices, Jon Snow of UK’s Channel 4, conversed with the two Palestinian poets, Ghassan Zaqtan and Faady Joudah. This session involved interpreters. Several session of the day involved the launch of books from different notable authors and writers. The session called ‘Library of Bangladesh’ marked the launch of Dhaka Translation Center’s landmark library of Bangladesh, a first ever series of the best Bangladeshi writing produced for a world audience. The day ended with a lively session called ‘Odysseus Abroad’ which involved talk of prize-winning writer, academic and musician Amit Chaudhuri with Prof Kaiser Haq.
The last day saw many people coming and visiting the premises just to enjoy the ambiance of the festival. By the two days, people had grown accustomed to the festival and were rejoicing in the folk dance and musical sessions running at the lawn of the academy. The day’s main sessions included Lesslee Udwin, voted as the second most powerful women by The New York Times, telling her stories of documentation and films. Renowned poets of the country recited their famous poems at the historic grounds. Lessie Udwin, the director of the banned film India’s Daughter also conversed with Sara Zaker, discussing her film. Another interesting session of the day was ‘Cricket: The Unquiet Ones’ in which Ramachandra Guha sat in conversation with Kazi Inam Ahmed to talk about the game.
With the sessions ending and evening drawing, the festival ended in a cheerful mood with best wishes for the next one.