Dhaka Lit Fest has an exclusionist, if not elitist aura, which Ekushey Boi Mela does not have as it is open for all
Do Boxing and Wrestling, with all their display of power, masculinity and obedience to the rules and regulations of the game, serve the same purpose? The French sociologist Roland Barthes notes that there are at least two reasons for which the two are not the same. Firstly, wrestlers put on "an exhibition of suffering" which boxers never do. And secondly, wrestling creates a 'hero' and a 'villain' out of the combatants so that the fight operates on a plane of a fight between 'justice' and 'injustice'.
Similarly, the Dhaka Lit Fest and the Ekushey Boi Mela (Ekushey Book Fair), though they share some common features, do not serve the same function. This piece attempts to shed light on the cultural function of Dhaka Lit Fest without attempting a value judgement and in the process, refers every now and then to Ekushey Boi Mela for comparison and contrast.
First of all, the Dhaka Lit Fest or DLF is held in the same venue as the Boi Mela or the book fair, but it does not allow everyone to pay a visit there. The persons interested must perform a cost-free registration beforehand. As it has a strictly maintained spatial boundary, not everyone can enter and enjoy the festival, though, by definition, if seen from the perspective of cultural anthropology, a festival is a "public event" which aims to subvert and invert or to demolish power structures by ensuring participations from every cultural and economic class. To put it in simple terms, Dhaka Lit Fest has an exclusionist, if not elitist aura, which Ekushey Boi Mela does not have as it is open for all, more democratic in its constitution.
Now, if access to DLF is limited. Who are being allowed access? The answer can be extracted from the official website of Dhaka Lit Fest, which says, "all the greats of modern Bengali writing – Madhusudan Dutta to Rabindranath Tagore, modernist poets of both West and East Bengal – were avid readers of Western and Oriental literature. To celebrate that spirit of a cosmopolitan modernism is the mission of the Dhaka Lit Fest."
So, one needs to nurture a "cosmopolitan" consciousness to be a part of the DLF. But, who can afford being so? Education itself, by practice, is an elitist venture as people from not every economic class can take part in institutional education.
It is more so when it comes to the knowledge of foreign languages and cultures as evident in the examples of Tagore and Dutta given by DLF website itself. So, DLF, by its mission and vision, attracts and allows a kind of 'hybridised' audience, who has knowledge of Bengali as well as Western and Oriental languages which Ekushey Boi Mela does not.
This leads to another important cultural function of DLF – it represents the consumerist culture of late capitalism in a miniature form. The stage, with its luxurious sofa sets and sometimes tables clad in velvet, and with halogen and neon lights and smoke on it, reproduce aristocratic theatres and other modes of bourgeois consumerism, since knowledge itself now represent an elite product.
The book stalls and food courts are also in alignment with the promotional policies. Additionally, DLF 'fetishises' foreign literature, especially originating from the English speaking countries. This certainly attracts local admirers while local literature attracts foreign enthusiasts and, in the process, the imported, the exotic, the unfamiliar, and the unknown is given a marketable form.
Though marketing policies and politics of the print culture are certainly at work in the Boi Mela, it does not, in contrast, deal with the "exotic" as the books are mostly in Bangla or in Bangla translations.
Therefore, Dhaka Lit Fest replicates, reinforces and reproduces the existing class structures of the society where only the elites can access foreign cultural products, one must take stock of its very constitution. From its spatial setting and its decorative garb to its operation as well as its use of the exotic for business purpose, it sensationalises both the stage and the show, which makes it a unique cultural phenomenon.
Abdul Wahid Dippro is a Lecturer in Department of English, Jashore University of Science and Technology