The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan is gearing up to roll out a royal welcome to more than 50 well-known writers, thinkers, artists and scholars in Thimpu — the capital city — from May 22-24 (2014) to celebrate world and south Asian literature, and taking in the process a decisive leap in terms of status and number of participants at the festival.
The literary gala will pack back-to-back intellectual discourses over three days to understand the literary, cultural and social forces shaping the South Asian region as a regional soft power bloc to make an impact on Asia and the rest of the world.
The festival that began on a modest scale five years ago to foster regional cultural understanding as an initiative of the India-Bhutan Foundation and a non-profit organization Siyahi under the patronage of the Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck — with the support of Taj Tashi — has expanded its literary canvas to include personalities not only from Bhutan and India, but from around the world as well. However, the focus of the festival remains Bhutanese literature and exchanges between Bhutan and India.
The festival this year will be sponsored by Usha International for the second time in a row.
The fifth edition of the festival will cast the spotlight on the easily relatable aspects of literature like popular fiction, democracy and civil society — a topic that assumes significance in the country given the fact that its democracy is still not a decade old — travel, cities, human-animal conflict, animist beliefs, crime and thriller writing.
Democracy in Bhutan, which is still a country in transition, is an overarching occupation at every stratum of the civil society, being discoursed in rural and urban segments alike by the commoners, intellectuals, the government machinery and the royalty. It has led to a new inclusivity in arts and culture with literature mirroring the issues of Bhutan at the cusp of change — poised on the crossroad between democracy, a facilitating monarchy and freedom. The country, however, strives to maintain a pragmatic balance between its traditional Buddhist society and modernism.
The first democratic elections in Bhutan were held in 2007 and by 2011, every level of the government had been democratically elected. If literature is the mainstay of the festival, culture will form its usual scaffolding like in all the previous years.
The festival will include an elaborate cultural package of movies like “Bhutan Women Forward” by Kesang Chuki Dorjee, “The Red Door” by Tashi Gyetlsen, “Finding Happiness” by Ted Nicolaou and the “The Yak Herder’s Son” by Tshering Tempa. Art, an integral part of the festival, will move from core conventions of traditional visuals to crafts based traditions of the nation to display showcases of “Bhutanese Textiles in High Fashion Tahgzo”, the “Textile Weaves of Bhutan” and “Contemporary Bhutanese and Japanese art”.
The live performances will present snapshots of the emerging popular young culture of Bhutan — with performances by bands like The Baby Boomers, The Daydream Farmers, Poisoned Apple and Zhaw. The collateral events will include workshops on alternative creative arts like crime writing, high-end cuisine, leadership and dream interpretation, the festival directors said.
Live music and dance, observers said, are the new mascots of liberal expression in Bhutan. In 2013, the fourth edition of Mountain Echoes coincided with “marathon western dance and music carnivals” in the capital in a stimulating mix of high literature and mass culture. The festival which makes it to the tourism calendar of the mountain state is gradually visitors from across the world. Summers are usually the bustle time of Bhutan’s tourism itinerary.
The festival, for the first time, is being steered by a joint panel of directors from India and Bhutan, including Namita Gokhale, Pramode Kumar KG, Kunzang Choden and Siok Sian Dorji— a commitment that the founding members of the festival had made to Bhutan the year it was inaugurated.
“Mountain Echoes is for the people of Bhutan. We just helped set it up — played the big brother in the region with more resources than the neighbours,” an Indian observer at the 2013 edition of the festival had told this writer. Over the last five years, Bhutan had been riding on its nascent wave of democracy and pushing its cultural frontiers to forge strategic soft partnerships with neighours. India’s bilateral goodwill and “free cultural spirit” have encouraged the country to spread its wings.
The festival’s chief sponsor, Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, a writer of repute, shares “deep” roots with India — a country where she went to school as a young woman in Darjeeling. At the festival in 2013, she had said, “the elected government would take the government to new development and cultural heights”. It was endorsed by Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay. The roster of the 2014 edition of the Mountain Echoes is a testimony to the change and the “wider scope” — held out as a promise last year.
The speakers list Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck Advaita Kala Alka Pandey Ani Kinley Anuja Chauhan Arshia Sattar Ashok Vajpeyi Christopher C Doyle Dago Tshering Damchu Llendup Dasho Kinley Dorji Dipankar Gupta Dolma C Roder Dorji Gyeltshen Shejun Dr. Lopen Karma Phuntsho Florence Noiville Gavin Francis Ira Pande Karma Choden Karma Tenzin ‘Yongba’ Kesang Chuki Dorjee Kjell Ola Dahl Kunzang Choden Lily Wangchuk Lopen Lungtaen Gyatso Malvika Singh Manju Wakhley Marie Venø Thesbjerg Namgay Zam Namita Gokhale Navtej Sarna Passang Passu Tshering Pavan K Varma Pramod Kumar KG Rashna Imhasly Gandhy Rebecca Pradhan Robert Yeo Sangay Wangchuk Siddharth Shriram Siok Sian Dorji Somnath Batabyal Sonam Jatso Sonam Kinga Sonam Wangchuk Sonia Khurana Sujeev Shakya Tang Gup Thinley Namgyel Tashi Chewang Tashi Gyeltshen Umesh Anand Yeshey Dorji Yoko Ishigami