India organises mother of all literary festivals – UNMESHA: a confluence of ‘Aadi’ and ‘Aadhunikta’

With more than 575 speakers from 14 countries, the festival brought together a vibrant platform of 102 languages.

By Om Prakash Dwivedi

In the cultural city of Bhopal, the Ministry of Culture and the Sahitya Akademi organised the mother of all literary festivals, UNMESHA, from 3 August – 6 August 2023. This festival was amazingly supported by the Madhya Pradesh government.

In terms of the invited Speakers, the festival neither discriminated between regions and ideologies nor did it exhibit the selective gatekeeping so commonly witnessed in other literary festivals that take place in different parts of the world.

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As we know, most literary festivals suffer from celebrity culture syndrome. But UNMESHA delivered what it stood for – the expansion of our consciousness – thus turning into Asia’s largest literary festival. 

Image: UNMESHA 2023 (Source: Supplied)

States are not known for organising literary festivals, that too, of this magnitude that we attended in Bhopal. With more than 575 speakers from 14 countries, the festival brought together a vibrant platform of 102 languages.

Apparently, such unprecedented diversity is new to literary festivals, but it is certainly not new to our rich cultural tradition that has long stood for and continues to demonstrate and promote unity in diversity. One only needs to see a rainbow and understand the beauty of diverse colours.

As a postcolonial nation, we have been confronted by a recurring tension between secularism and theocracy. Thus, the President of India, praising UNMESHA, highlighted ‘the ability of literature to reveal our common destiny and strengthen our global community.’

Similarly, Madhya Pradesh CM, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, asserted, ‘literature, music, and arts can take care of the overall well-being and happiness of an individual.’ Mangubhai Chhaganbhai Patel, the Madhya Pradesh Governor, reinforced PM’s vision of ‘Ek Bharat, Shrestha Bharat.’ 

The renowned Kannada writer, S.L. Bhyrappa, highlighted the prejudiced nature of secularism that India has been subjected to. Sadly, secularism has gone into the pockets of a few select spokespersons who use it conveniently to mileage their own political motifs. Conversely, what many of us fail to understand is that Indian tradition has long upheld and promoted the notion of supreme consciousness, and that’s precisely the reason we have braved the adversities encountered in the past. 

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Image: UNMESHA 2023 (Source: Supplied)

The aim of literature, arts, and social sciences is not to render divisions but rather to create and foster spaces of inclusivity. As pointed out by the Chhattisgarh Governor, Biswabhusan Harichandan, ‘creativity sparks innovation and progress, and is the driving force behind human development.’

In the same vein, JNU, VC, Santishree Pandit, projected her concerns for the marginalisation of creative skills in our higher education setup. She suggested that universities should do away with rote learning and think of promoting a creative culture. She even suggested that as humans we need to appreciate differences, thus pointing to the notion of unity in diversity.

Likewise, UNMESHA rightly focused on creation and sustainability measures for the planetary future. In a panel on Ecocriticism, which was chaired by the well-known critic, Malashri Lal, we saw engaging discussions strengthening our eco-consciousness. As Dhananjay Singh, Member Secretary ICSSR, intriguingly highlighted the importance of the oneness of life and, therefore, the need to strike a syncretic relationship between human and natural world. Even MA Alwar, in another panel on Bhakti literature of India, chaired by the Kerala Governor, Arif Mohammed Khan, delved into the nuances of ‘Soham’ (That I Am), thus underlining the same interrelatedness that underpins the supreme consciousness.

Several other important panels worth mentioning are ‘Feminism in Literature’, ‘Publishing in Indian Languages’, ‘Role of Books in Indian Independence Movement’ that featured Kumud Sharma, Abdus Samad, and Ashok ‘Avichal’. Multiple sessions on ‘Tribal Poets’ Meet’ were filled to capacity in terms of audience. These sessions hosted Ramesh Arya, Tulsi Raman, Lyangsong Tamsang, Sheetal Rajesh, Nawang Tsering Shakspo, among others. The other panel on ‘Importance of Mother Tongue’ saw the presence of Udaya Narayana Singh, Brij Ratan Joshi, and other scholars. Another panel on ‘Multilingual Poetry Reading’ featured Madhav Kaushik, Partha Sarathi, and Vishal Pinjani, among others. The festival also hosted a panel on ‘Idea of India’ that saw the presence of Vishwanath Tewari, Harish Trivedi, and Bhanu Bharti. In yet another panel on ‘What Freedom Means to Me?’ audience listened with rapt attention to Amarendra Khatua, Anant Vijay, Sharan Limbale, and Badri Narayan. 

Other panels worth mentioning were: ‘Discussion on Yoga Literature’ that featured H.R. Nagendra and G.B. Harisha. Also, the panel on ‘Discussions on Epics in India’ saw  Harekrishna Satapathy and Molly Kaushal. The panel on ‘Poetry Traditions on India’, brought together K. Satichdanandan, Anisur Rahman, and other distinguished critics. Also, a panel on ‘Soft Power of India’ generated immense interest. It featured acclaimed poet and playwright poet, H.S. Shivaprakash and the dynamic Pankaj Mittal. 

The valedictory by the Secretary, Sahitya Akademi, K.S. Rao, was important in more ways than one. Rao shed light on the solid support that the Ministry of Culture extended to the Akademi. Gangapuram Kishan Reddy, Arjun Ram Meghwal, Meenakshi Lekhi, the Secretary, Govind Mohan, and his team were all applauded. He also emphasised that with the help of the government, the aim is to make UNMESHA the world’s largest festival.

Kudos to the government of India for bringing the nation together in Bhopal thus also setting up the platform for the upcoming G20 meet. It needs to be added that Rao is slowly attaining an iconic status in the literary landscape of India. Tacit in nature, dynamic in planning and implementation, and grit in determination, Rao a profound lover of literature, has transformed the Akademi in an unprecedented way.

The Akademi which has been largely restricted to seminar halls, is now visible at metro stations, in schools and colleges, and in other public spaces as well. This new culture of public-literature interface will go a long way in strengthening the cultural ethos of the ‘new India’ that PM Modi has been promoting. 

Rao can be seen as the architect who is laying down the foundations of new literary cultures in India. With the support of the Ministry of Culture and the authorities of the Sahitya Akademi, Rao is striving relentlessly to build a bridge between the young Indians and the rich knowledge traditions of India. This is exactly what PM Modi identifies as the confluence of ‘aadi’ and ‘aadhunikta’, the pillars of new India.

The stunning invocation of diversity and inclusivity was the defining feature of UNMESHA. At a time when several literary festivals are being organised, to the extent, that one can rightly question its relevance, UNMESHA, brought together participants from all corners of the country thus turning it into a national festival of the new India. As a nation, we are so fond of festivals, and UNMESHA is the latest addition to our rich tradition of celebrating festivals.

Contributing Author: Dr Om Prakash Dwivedi teaches at Bennett University, Greater Noida. He tweets @opdwivedi82

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