Mountain Echoes: Bhutan’s Literary Festival

CNNGo,1 June 2010


Mountain Echoes: Bhutan’s Literary Festival

CNNGo has the highlights of what you missed at the maiden literature festival set in the Himalayan mountain kingdom capital of Thimphu

Mountain Echoes invited local Bhutanese students and entry for all sessions was free.

Taking a cue from the immense popularity of January’s two lit fests — the Jaipur Literature Festival in Rajasthan and the Galle Literary Festival in Sri Lanka — 2010 saw the birth of another event for writers, readers and cultural voyeurs on the literary calender for South Asia.

Mountain Echoes, as it’s called, finds its setting in the dreamy, peaceable Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan and took place over four days (May 17-20) at the Tarayana Centre in the capital of Thimphu.

Trashi Chhoe Dzong (Monastery) in Thimphu, Bhutan.The country’s first-ever literary festival is meant for neighboring authors to celebrate tales of a shared landscape. Myths, legends and folklore from Bhutan and the Himalayan region of India brought together authors, poets, storytellers, folk performers, publishers and filmmakers to one platform.

Though the focus of the festival was to explore and celebrate the literary cultures of these two countries, the sessions also focused on women writings, filmmaking, travel writing, the preservation of literary and oral traditions, blogging, mythology, geography and the genre of graphic novels with a healthy splash of poetry and music too.

Founded under the aegis of the India-Bhutan Foundation and spearheaded by Pavan Varma, the Indian Ambassador to Bhutan, Mountain Echoes’ programme adviser is Namita Gokhale who also co-curates the Jaipur Literature Festival. And the whole shindig is organized by Siyahi, India’s leading literary consultancy based in Jaipur.

Not that Mountain Echoes needs any more prestige than than the aforementioned, but a dose of royalty never hurts curious eyes in attendance.

Her Majesty the Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, the Chief Royal Patron for the festival, delivering the inaugural address.And so at the India House Auditorium in Thimphu, all eyes were on Her Majesty the Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, the Chief Royal Patron for the festival, delivering the inaugural address on day one. She said the festival was meant to celebrate the cultures of India and Bhutan and “will instill a love for literature and creative writing in the youth of Bhutan.”

The Prime Minister of Bhutan, His Excellency Lyonpo Jigmi Yoezer Thinley, spoke about Bhutan’s renowned guiding philosophy of Gross National Happiness (GNH) under which the government of Bhutan preserves its ancient traditions and culture. “Literature makes us grow” he said. “We become mindful of others’ sensitivities and that makes writers important people. Literature makes us refined — emotionally, culturally and spiritually.” He talked about how GNH has helped them to balance modernity with traditions; and materialism with spirituality for over 30 decades.

CNNGo has the highlights of what you missed, and the cultural scope of this festival was vast (like mountain-sized), so sit back, get some tea, push your glasses up and read on.

Day 2: Arrows, roots, feminisim and other poetic off shoots

Pavan Varma a prolific writer who has published over a dozen books on Indian identity, wove the first session around his ideas about India and its identity based on his book, “Becoming Indian: The Unfinished Revolution of Culture and Identity“. Kynpham Sing and Jigme Drukpa explored the many myths, legends and folklore attached to archery, the national game of Bhutan and a very popular game of the Khasi Tribe in the North-East India. Sing who writes poems and short fiction in Khasi and English, read out poetry while Jigme Drukpa, a Bhutanese folk performer and an ethnomusicologist (file under, dream jobs!) sang a song on archery.

This was followed by a session on women, by women starring Urvashi Butalia, a writer, publisher and co-founder of Zubaan and Kali, India’s first feminist publishing house, and Kunzang Choden, who has been writing on Bhutanese oral traditions, folklore and women authoring titles such as “The Circle of Karma” and “Chilli and Cheese: Food and Society in Bhutan“. The two ladies attacked the question of why there is no tradition of women’s writing in Bhutan. Said Choden, “There is no history of publishing in Bhutan, especially because there the rate of literacy among women was very low. As women grew older, there was a deep yearning to go to religion to express their thoughts. Education and religion had overlapping domains. That is why there are elaborate textiles and handicrafts in which they depicted their stories instead.” Writer and translator Dasho Karma Ura then took up a conversation with Omair Ahmad author of a book on Bhutan. They spoke about the history of Saint Padmasambhava, lovingly known as Guru Rinpoche, as an entry into a larger discussion on Buddhism as it impacts the history of Bhutan.

Poet and lyricist Gulzar has maybe hundreds of thousands of fans in India -- it's his words that set the tone for many of Bollywood's most memorable soundtracks.By The Fireside was a special session on storytelling with Bulbul Sharma, Indian author and illustrator, Siok Sian Pek-Dorji, the director of the Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy, Kunzang Choden, a writer specializing in Bhutanese oral traditions, folklore and women, with Urvashi Butalia as the moderator. Pek-Dorji said, “Today we are not telling our stories but the television is doing that task. The power of storytelling is such that the one who tells stories is the one who has the power of culture.” In the evening Oscar-award-winning Indian lyricist Gulzar read poems about nature in Hindi with Pavan Varma, the translator of his poetry, reading out the English translations. Gulzar read poems like, “Kabhi Aana Pahadon Par” and “Samne Wali Us Pahari Par”.

Day 3: Politics, blogging, travel writing, cinema and soul

Sanjoy Hazarika in conversation with Ravi Singh, publisher and editor-in-chief of Penguin India spoke about the problems, insurgencies and violence in the North-East of India in a session titled These Hills Called Home. Hazarika read out excerpts from his book “Strangers of the Mist“.

“In the 1960s and 1970s the times were better as people communicated well among themselves,” Hazarika said. “Now, that link is broken. There are deep concerns like migration from Bangladesh. The central government trying to underline the issue and spending money to resolve the problems when it’s not about the politics between the Centre and the North-East but the politics within North-East. There is also a lack of basic facilities — roads, electricity, transport and medical facilities.”

Local filmmakers Tshering Wangyel and Tshering Penjore in conversation with Indian film actress Tisca Chopra.We listened as Patrick French, an award-winning English writer and historian, author of “Younghusband: The Last Great Imperial Adventurer” explored travel writing, delving into Sir Francis Younghusband’s life — soldier, explorer, mountaineer, diplomat, spy, and mystic and the personal quest which led Younghusband from the Himalayas to Kashmir and into Tibet.

Sonam Kinga, the author of “Changes in Bhutanese Society: Impact of Fifty Years of Reforms” talked on the Katsom (a kind of acrostic poetry), its rules and style. Kinga said that when he came back to Bhutan after studying in various countries he felt that to understand Bhutan he needed to know Bhutanese literature but there was no courses as such, so he started researching and came across vernaculars. Katsom, really fascinated him. Attendees were treated to a curious few lines of Katsom poetry in ch�ke and three strains of vernacular Katsom, two of which are nearly dead.

Dasho Kinley Dorji, Managing Director and Editor-in-Chief of Kuensel, Bhutan’s national newspaper and author of “Within the Realm of Happiness”, came back to the concept of Gross National Happiness. “GNH is a bank of ideal values which keep Bhutan united. On one hand, happiness is an individual pursuit and on the other hand, the GNH is the responsibility of the government to create an atmosphere where it could be achieved.” He spoke also about the threats which rapid change is bringing to Bhutanese cultural society.

Bhutanese cinema was disucussed in-depth by Tshering Wangyel an award-winning film director and editor from Bhutan and Tshering Penjore a script writer, producer and director who has written scripts, directed documentaries and produced two Bhutanese films in a session moderated by Indian film actress Tisca Chopra.

Tipriti Kharbangar, Soulmate's elfin-sized vocalist with a power-packed set of vocal chords, brought the hills alive with her sound of music.The evening’s session broke out into a modern idiom exploring blogging and new media. Delhi-based journalist Jai Arjun Singh spoke about his popular book and film blog Jabberwock; Siok Sian Pek-Dorji, editor of the annual Bhutan Magazine and director of the Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy, addressed the impact of new media on the youth of Bhutan as they experience a sudden transition from the isolation to liberalization and Tshering Tobgay talked about blogging as a tool of communication in his role as the Leader of the Opposition Party in the National Assembly of Bhutan.

Shillong band Soulmate sung the blues and rocked the clock tower in front of an overwhelmingly huge audience at night. They are currently one of India’s best homegrown bands. Tipriti Kharbangar, Soulmate’s elfin-sized vocalist with a power-packed set of vocal chords is also the band’s rhythm guitarist and makes for intoxicating eye candy every time.

Day 4: Scholars, epics, graphic novels and village dinners

The morning was heavy and deep with His Eminence Tsugla Lopen Rinpoche Samten Dorji, a renowned scholar specializing in Madhyamaka Philosophy and Chancellor of the Higher Buddhist Studies Centre. Followed by Namita Gokhale, Pavan Varma in conversation with Sadanand Dhume discussing The Mahabharata and its relevance in modern times.

Prime Minister of Bhutan, His Excellency Lyonpo Jigmi Yoezer Thinley, on the subject of Gross National Happiness (GNH).Pavan Varma said that great countries have great epics and their mythology is derived from it. All epics symbolize a value system and the narratives reflect the set of social values. He spoke about the Mahabharata in the context of Dharma, Artha, Kaam, Moksha. Namita Gokhale, the author of the Mahabharata for young adults talked about her experience of writing the book and said that the female characters of the epic always fascinated her. “They are strong, intelligent and pragmatic. For this reason in ancient India the Mahabharata was not kept in the house and women were not encouraged to read it.”

Shekhar Pathak, the founder of People’s Association for Himalaya Area Research (PAHAR), is a historian, writer and academician and made a presentation called Mapping the Himalayas, took the audience on a journey of the peaks, glaciers, lakes, rivers, flora, fauna and people of the Himalayan region. While Leila Seth’s journey is more cerebral. The first woman Chief Justice of a High Court in India spoke about her autobiography “On Balance” and her latest book “We, the Children of India: The Preamble to Our Constitution” and how difficult it is to simplify the Indian constitution for children.

13 o-clock, a session on graphic novels had one of India’s most famous young practioners of this artform, Sarnath Banerjee, performing an illustrated talk, which involved telling a story from his works, using spoken words and projections. And from avant-garde to pastoral, the closing dinner hosted by His Excellency, Minjur Dorji, Hon’able Minister for Home and Cultural Affairs in the Royal Government of Bhutan was quaintly themed ‘A Bhutanese Village Experience’.