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Kolkata Book Fair 2012: A rendezvous with Literature, Books, Authors and Booklovers

Kolkata Book Fair 2012: 24th January - 5th February 2012, Milan Mela, Kolkata, India

Kolkata has been the epicenter of India’s cultural background, where literature kept maintaining a significant and healthy contribution. Following the literature contributions from the greats like Rabindranath Tagore, Sharat Chnadra Chatterjee, Bibhuti Bhushan Banerjee, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Tara Shankar Banerjee, Dwijendra Lal Roy etc. Bengal has always been on the front foot in the literature field not only just in India, but also across the globe. A territory that has been the mother of quality literature and other creative art forms and traditionally bearing the love for the same, it happens only in Bengal, indeed. Rightly so, Bengal, and more precisely Kolkata, nicknamed as the “cultural capital of India” had to be the place for the largest Book Fair in Asia, and largest in the World in terms of non-trade Book Fairs, what the literature lovers from all over the World call as Kolkata Book Fair.

In this 36th edition of Kolkata Book Fair, organised by Kolkata Publishers and Booksellers Guild, the much awaited event took off a flying literature celebration at the Milan Mela arena, with Italy being the theme country. In terms of history, for the first time ever, after the great political transformation of power in West Bengal, Book Fair was inaugurated by the new Chief Minister of West Bengal Ms. Mamata Banerjee, and with her close-to-the-ground, her signature mass appeal was a perfect fit in the inauguration event. It was left on the Italian journalist and author Beppe Severgnini struck the hammer that set the 12-day Festival on course. Highlighting both the “obvious similarities” between Italy and India as well as others that are less evident, Mr. Severgnini said that it was not enough to live in a charming and fascinating culture. In his inaugural speech, Mr. Severgnini empahised on the cultural similarity that India and Italy loves to have in common. The idea of Italy will bring things of beauty, pleasure and art to mind, but in the modern world it is not enough to live in a fascinating and charming culture and country, he said emphasising the need for reliability, discipline and a good social organisation. Chief Minister Ms. Mamata Banerjee, Italian Ambassador to India Giacomo Sanfelice di Monteforte and actor Kabir Bedi, who is tremendously popular in Italy for essaying the role of Sandokan in a television series, were present at the occasion. A Bengali translation of Mr. Severgnini’s bestseller, ‘La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mind’ was released at the function. Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi’s music was played in the background during the inauguration. The guest of honour was Sanjib Chattopadhyay. On Ms. Banerjee’s part, well, “We are very much delighted to welcome you. We have decided that to celebrate 150th Birth Anniversary of Swami Vivekanada we will come up with a collection of works of Vivekananda. We will also come up with a collection of works of Kazi Nazrul Islam,” said by Ms. Banerjee while addressing the inaugural programme. Ms. Banerjee added, “the Kolkata Book Fair is an international event and thanked the people of Italy for keeping India as a theme in one of the Book Fairs in the European nation a few years back”. This was the time to inaugurate the first ever Kolkata Literary Meet as well, and Ms. Banerjee along with Severgnini and other Italian delegates inaugurated the same as well.

For the first time it features a Kolkata Literary Meet (KLM) organised as part of the Fair where renowned writers such as Vikram Seth, Ruskin Bond, Chetan Bhagat, Shashi Tharoor, Mohammed Hanif, Amit Chaudhuri and Kunal Basu were present. Popular Bangladeshi author Tahmima Anam, French writer Nicolas Wild, graphic novelist Nicholas Wilde, Scottish travel writer and essayist Kapka Kassabova, Canadian author Craig Taylor, Italian best-selling author Alexandro Baricco were also scheduled to be present. While addressing the media on a joint press conference convened by the organisers of Kolkata Literary Meet, Kolkata Publishers and Booksellers Guild General Secretary Mr. Tridib Chatterjee said that meet to be staged as a part of 36th International Kolkata Book Fair which is an important feature of this year's Book Fair. As a part of the KLM, the one of the star attractions was the Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mr. Omar Abdullah and Railway Minister Mr. Dinesh Trivedi debated with veteran journalists Mr. Rajdeep Sardesai the Editor-in-Chief of IBN18 Network and Mr. Vinod Mehta the Editor-in-Chief of Outlook. They engaged themselves in a debate on "Trial by media: The media goes too deep without going far enough" at Kolkata Literary Meet on Saturday.

However, the 13 day event was mainly covered with the controversies over the denial of Salman Rushdie’s participation at the recent Jaipur Literature Festival. While Vikram Seth was harsh on the use of religion, often practiced by the political leaders to protect the minority vote bank, and his opinion was opposed by Chetan Bhagat, as such allowances can result a disability in India’s socio political structure. Legendary Pakistani cricketer-turned politician Mr. Imran Khan too joined in the debate, saying nobody has the right to inflict pain on a society. “You need to be sensitive to what others think... If it pains others, people should respect that,” Mr. Khan said. English author John Keay said, “It was very ill-advised and naive of the government and the organisers to think that Rushdie could be rushed in”. And the musical concert performed deserved the special mention in the inaugural function, where a signature song sung by Kaushiki Desikan and Monali Thakur and composed by Shantanu Moitra enthralled the audience. A concert focusing on the impact of foreign compositions on Rabindra Nath Tagore’s songs brought a melodious end to the opening ceremony programme. This time around, this was the time to celebrate and pay homage to one of the greatest sons of India. It was time to celebrate the 150th Birth Anniversary of Swami Vivekananda, and Kolkata Book Fair 2012 was the perfect launch pad to celebrate the Birth Anniversary of the greatest leader of Indian youth. Three Entry Gates of 36th Kolkata Book Fair (2012 Kolkata Boimela) have been designed as of Belur Math, Rock temple of Kanyakumari & as per the Art Centre of Chicago. There was a hall named after Vivekananda as well, where the rare writings and photographs of Vivekananda were displayed, a great news for the Vivekananda enthusiastics.

On one side, Kolkata Book Fair remained the centre of attraction for the city inheritants during its entire span. The abolishing of entry fee attracted huge footfalls, way ahead of the previous editions. Whether that huge footfall signify increased love for book, is obvious for a controversial debate. But somehow that contributed to increased revenue to the book sellers, a morale boosting news for the book publishers and book sellers. People didn’t mind waiting long at the queues to spot the desired and favorite books. The seminars and talk shows on the cultural topics were the regular events, attended by the eminent personalities from all fields of the social demography. Featuring simultaneously with the Jaipur Literature Festival 2102, the Kolkata Book Fair also had its own literary gathering within the Fair’s premises. The speakers invited for the occasion included prominent names in literary and artistic fields such as Vikram Seth, Sunil Gangopadhyay, Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay, Mohammad Hanif, Sarnath Banerjee, Kunal Basu and Chetan Bhagat to name a few. Discussing on topics ranging from the latest literary trends to other social issues, the speakers added to the Fair’s buzz. Vikram Seth, in a freewheeling conversation with Ruchir Joshi spoke at length about the current trends of English writing in India whilst mentioning his upcoming sequel to his earlier book “A Suitable Boy”. Also present was his mother Leila Seth, who spoke about her curious children’s book, about the importance of assimilating the values stated in the Preamble to the Indian Constitution. Speaking about her son, she said that although she had initial difficulties in accepting that he was gay, she slowly came to terms with it. Talking of the gay child and of children in general, she emphasized the need for “extra love and affection” to save them from alienation.

However, just like what happened in Jaipur Literature Festival, Kolkata could not save the burn of controversies as well. First it was turn to Mr. Imran Khan, the legendary Pakistani all-rounder turned politician, who was about to deliver the first Tiger Pataudi Memorial Speech, and “The Rise and the Fall of Indian Cricket” was what his speech was all about. The Pathan, despite being out of cricket world more than a decade (the occasional commentary on the hi-profile cricket series is always an exception, though!), is still a crowd puller, thanks to the blend of his evergreen charm with his majestic presence. But the callousness of the organisers was competent enough to put the city, as well as the entire country into shame. The organisers of Kolkata Book Fair deliberately switched off power connection during an interaction with the media by former Pakistan cricket captain Imran Khan, considered by many a future head of state, and above all, a guest at the Kolkata Literary Meet, to force him out of the session as he was overstepping his time limit. When asked about the reasons, the officials were in no mood to justify the action; rather, they were defending themselves, as the power off was a strategic move to protect the tiered Khan from the journalists. Khan, however, was not showing any mood to cut his interaction with journalists short. However, later apology from Kolkata Publishers and Booksellers Guild General Secretary Mr. Tridib Chatterjee somehow drew curtail on the controversy.

The moments of controversy, however, weren’t showing any mood to slow down, as the Salman Rushdie effect hit Kolkata, this time through Tasleema Nasrin book launch. Hours before the formal launch of the seventh part of Ms. Nasreen’s autobiography, “Nirbasan” (Exile), the Book Fair organisers, the Kolkata Publishers and Booksellers Guild, cancelled the event, bowing to threats from Muslim community leaders opposed to the author. Ms. Nasreen’s publisher, People’s Book Society, had reserved the “AC Hall” for the official launch of the book, which went on sale on Jan. 24 - the first day of the 36th year of the Fair. However, Guild General Secretary Mr. Tridib Chatterjee offered two reasons for the cancellation. First, the hall was not ready, and Second, the security worries of Muslim leaders who had met the police in the morning to voice their opposition to the book launch.. Whatsoever, Naseeen’s book got launched, at the publisher’s stall instead of the AC Hall. Writer Nabarun Bhattacharya released the book in the presence of invitees and media. Later, a protest rally was filled with supporters of Ms. Nasreen on the Fair grounds. “The book has been selling well like all other parts of Nasreen’s autobiography that we have published earlier,” said publisher Shibani Mukherjee. Ironically, Kolkata Book Fair was desirous to match up with Jaipur Literature Festival, and if not the literature quality and level of views exchanged, then surely on controversial grounds the two celebrated literature event got connected. The issue did manage to rake up a controversy for the Kolkata Book Fair, which has made no secret of its desire to match Jaipur, which had stolen the thunder from Kolkata by emerging as India’s book capital even though Jaipur’s Book Fair is only a few years old. This is also the reason why the Kolkata Book Fair offered a special component this year - Kolkata Literary Meet, similar to the Jaipur Literature Festival.

Registering a record footfall of more than 14 lakh, the annual Kolkata Book Fair 2012 drew to a close on Sunday after stirring up a heated debate on freedom of speech and expression in the wake of a controversy surrounding Taslima Nasreen and the power cut during Imran Khan’s Press conference. The footfall on the last day was a record for Kolkata Book Fair, and for obvious reasons, there were complains of mismanagement, mishandling of the crowd, too many unwanted people gathering at the book stalls to make the act of book browsing for the potential shopper difficult, unnecessary car parking inside the ground or in front of the entry gates and so on. Despite being the ups and downs and few catastrophic events, Kolkata Book Fair held its spirit of book and hence, quality literature celebration. Right at 9pm, on 5th February, the bell ring officially ended the 36th Kolkata Book Fair. The theme for next years Book Fair is scheduled as Bangaladesh, and the organisers have promised a better managed Book Fair next year.

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