Monday, February 12, 2018

Kolkata Boi Mela (Book Fair), Part 3

Our final tour through the recently-concluded Kolkata Boi Mela:

In addition to its incomparable literary, musical and lyrical archive, Kolkata also has a rich history of drawings, cartoons and graphic art. This cartoon, next to a program encouraging road safety (car ownership is booming in India, which means lots of new vehicles but also lots of untrained drivers), nicely captures the quiet but indomitable Kolkatan spirit of resisting the downpour of what passes for modernity.

This is a shot of the Indo-Vietnamese booth, celebrating the friendship between the two countries. While many of the connections between the various Asian nations are comparatively recent, the result of the common experiences of colonial occupation and the struggle for national independence, some of the most interesting connections are far deeper, and can be traced back for thousands of years. For example, Buddhism started in northern India and later spread to Vietnam, and Buddhist communities of faith and works of art and literature which draw inspiration from Buddhist traditions are a keystone of both cultures to this day.

Jute was the classic colonial commodity, extracted from Bengal to make British plutocrats rich while the jute workers were kept poor. After independence, the industry suffered a severe decline due to logistical constraints (most of the jute-producing regions were in Bangladesh, a separate nation after 1947, whereas the mills were near Kolkata) as well as the post-WW II petroleum boom, which replaced jute with plastics. Here in 2018, it's become clear that (1) hydrocarbons threaten to destroy all life on the planet via climate change, and that (2) plastics are choking the Pacific Ocean to death. Kolkata is doing its part by promoting jute-made bags and packing materials.

One of the most fascinating things about India is its mind-boggling diversity. While the majority of the citizens of the Indian state of West Bengal are Bengalis, there are literally millions of other linguistic and ethnic groups, e.g. the Santals, each with their own languages and dialects, their own complex precolonial, colonial and postcolonial histories, and their own forms of social organization and modes of political contestation.

Numerous colleges and universities advertise at the Boi Mela. We old-timers like to grouse about how the kids just don't read anymore, but they certainly do come to the Boi Mela. Many of them are aspiring writers and have stalls at the Little Magazine pavilion, or hang around their friends who do.

This little travelogue has barely scratched the surface -- you could literally write dissertations about the Fair. If you're even remotely interested in books, literature or anything cultural, or even if you're not, consider coming to the next Book Fair -- there will be some activity, event, speaker or publication for you.

My insider tips for foreign visitors: (1) entrance is free to all events and stalls during the entire week, so be sure to spend some time browsing, chatting, and listening (local folks are extremely hospitable), (2) prices are quite reasonable, so you don't need to be rich to purchase excellent books, and (3) there are large numbers of books, magazines and reading material in English, so you don't need to know Bengali, Hindi or other South Asian languages.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Kolkata Boi Mela (Book Fair), Part 2

The crowds at the Boi Mela (the Bengali term for Book Fair), are light during the first few days, but later in the week the crowd density surges. Little children burble, slightly older children screech, teenagers make and break romances with swipes of their cellphones, harassed parents try to keep up with the madness, and everyone is snacking. What can seem like chaos to foreigners is extraordinarily well-organized, as Kolkata's dense networks of families, friends, workplace circles and neighborhood affiliations spontaneously assemble, disperse and reassemble. The photo shows a musical performance close to the center of the Boi Mela. The musical diversity of South Asia is as astounding as its linguistic and cultural diversity.

An Expressionist moonscape. Carnivals and festivals have a special energy when the sun goes down, and the Boi Mela only really comes to life after dark. The United States has some wonderful book fairs in its own right, but there's nothing comparable to the sheer energy of the Boi Mela's crowds, the diversity of its publications, and the fact that you can find every viewpoint under the sun (and plenty more under the moon). I keep expecting Geralt and Ciri to emerge from some stall with a stack of well-worn magic tomes.

This is one of the Boi Mela's volunteers at the France pavilion, in a section showcasing France's contributions to world cuisine, literature and aviation. In fact, France has fascinating and largely underappreciated connections to Indian culture which go back to the late 18th century. Incidentally, there is an enormous divide between the generations in Kolkata -- you can literally read the history encoded in human bodies, from gaunt farmers who survived near-famine conditions to the well-nourished bodies of today's middle class college students. It took me months to realize that every single food stall in Bengal is a small but explicit act of defiance of the successive famines which devastated Bengal since 1770.

This is the Bangladesh pavilion, where writers, authors and vendors from India's eastern neighbor have gathered. Bengali is one of the most underappreciated and important languages of our planet, with around 240 million speakers in West Bengal and in Bangladesh -- the only ones which are bigger are English, Spanish, Chinese and Hindi. I'm currently learning Bengali, and though my skills are rudimentary, I can confirm that it is a wondrously poetic language, blessed with a kind of concision in its grammar and verb forms which makes for amazing literature.   

The beating heart of the Boi Mela is the Little Magazine pavilion, where independent authors, poets, dramatists, and writers of every age, aesthetic outlook, and ideological persuasion gather. The priority of the publishing industry is profit, not quality, so non-commercial spaces like this are far more important than many people realize. 

Friday, February 2, 2018

Kolkata Book Fair, Part 1

Welcome to Kolkata's Book Fair, two weeks of all things literary on our ever-shrinking planet. Each photograph is accompanied by a brief commentary, giving you a sense of the history behind each scene. Here's the first shot: 

This shows the last moment of the Fair's pre-production phase. While the grounds were officially open to visitors, many kiosks were half-complete and lots of last-minute fixes were taking place, such as the painting of the walkways shown above. Many of the manual and service-sector workers in Kolkata bear the marks of grievous poverty on their bodies, but you will find them doing their jobs with great skill and remarkable dignity.

This is just one of the innumerable musical performances which take place during the Fair. Kolkata is a special place -- a city of artists and intellectuals, refugees and natives, dissidents and survivors of the planetary nightmare of maritime colonialism as well as the equally violent pangs of postcolonial nation-state formation.

Here's one of the main exhibits, showcasing India's quest for national literacy and education (the structure is actually a building which contains a kiosk inside). It's easy to forget in 2018 that India was only 15% literate in 1947, with a life expectancy of 33, a tiny industrial base, almost no universities or college students, and an economy ravaged by 300 years of colonial despoliation. During the twenty-eight years between 1943 and 1971, Bengalis suffered the hammer-blows of the Great Famine, Partition, and the Bangladesh War of Liberation. They responded to this hellstorm with a blend of urban energy, rural adaptability, cosmopolitan irreverence and indigenous creativity unlike anywhere else on the planet (the closest parallel may be Ukraine's Kiev).

This is an exhibit of the West Bengal Library Extension service, bringing education and literacy to Bengalis. Bengali is one of the least appreciated and most overlooked languages on the planet, with approximately two hundred and fifty million speakers in India's federal state of West Bengal and the nation of Bangladesh and one of the most remarkable literary traditions on the planet.

Here's one of the musical performances in the central plaza. Note the ingenious fence of giant pencils, and the combination of history-soaked music and high-tech sound equipment. This is extremely typical of India: the world's newest technologies crash into the world's oldest cultures, and the result is the sort of creativity you will not find anywhere else on the planet.