Kolkata’s love affair with literature is intense. And the city’s signature Book Fair is a symbol of that relationship. The world’s largest book fair, The Kolkata Book Fair (KBF), is a phenomenon. Large, crowded, noisy, intellectual, musical, artistic, controversial, chaotic, in its own way, it encapsulates the character of the city and brings out its most visible tribe: The literary Bengali. Each year since 1976, it takes over the city for 12 days. Sure, the Frankfurt Book Fair displays more books and arguably wheels more deals than any other. London has one too, and then there’s Book Expo America, and so many others. But these are regulated, staid, predictable and very different from the Kolkata Book Fair.
These are trade fairs, meant for negotiations and transactions among those who run the commerce of reading. KBF is for the reader, the retail buyer, for those who revel in the proximity of books.
The Book Fair started on March 9, 1976. Not the best season in Kolkata, with the mercury mounting and the threat of nor’westers. It was not till the 4th year of the fair that the Guild resolved to hold it at the same time every year: starting on the last Wednesday in January and running till the second Sunday of February, a total of 12 days, a schedule that has been maintained, for the most part of 38 years.
The 39th edition of the 12-day event will begin on January 28, which will be held till February, at Kolkata’s Milan Mela ground. The focal theme of this year is Great Britain. The fair was inaugurated on January 27 at 4.30 p.m. in the presence of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.
Organised by the Publishers and Booksellers Guild, the fair claimed to have received a footfall of over 1.8 million in 2014 and sold books worth 200 million. A similar feat is expected this year as well.
This time, the fair will be divided into five halls marking the anniversaries of important authors and playwrights. There will be halls dedicated to William Shakespeare, Dylan Thomas (Welsh poet), Suniti Kumar Chattopadhyay (linguist and educationalist) and Sombhu Mitra (legendary actor, director and playwright). The 5th hall will have an exact replica of the British National History Museum and is named after Charlie Chaplin on the occasion of his 125th birth anniversary.
Star authors at the fair will include British author of Bangladeshi origin Zia Haider Rahman, whose 2014 debut novel In The Light of What We Know was short-listed for the Goldsmiths Prize and the Guardian First Book Award; and radio and television journalist Anita Anand, whose book Sophia, gave a detailed biography of princess-in-exile Sophia Duleep Singh, which talks about her struggle for Independence, female suffrage and for the welfare of Indian soldiers in the First World War.
UK authors at the fair will include Shereen El Feki of the Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World fame and Naomi Alderman, who was named one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists in 2013. Professional storyteller Sarah Rundell will perform at the fair, while Tracy Irish, the Education Programme Developer for the World Shakespeare Festival will also be present.
The fair will have separate art/culture book pavilion, apart from a math delegation and Ghazalaw – the music note, initiated to celebrate the affinity between Indian ghazals and the Welsh folk tradition.
“Ghazal singer Tauseef Akhtar and Welsh singer-songwriter Gwyneth Glyn will weave love poetry from their own ancient lineages with harp, tabla, guitar and harmonium,” said general secretary of the Publishers and Booksellers Guild, Tridib Chatterjee.
This year participating nations would include Bangladesh, the US, France, Germany, Japan, among others. As the fair goes tech-friendly for the first time, the organisers have developed an Android mobile application to help book lovers locate book stalls in the fairground. British Council’s Director (east India) Sujata Sen said their theme for the book fair is ‘Knowledge is Great’ and would focus on ideas, culture and writing. “It is the 100th birth anniversary of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. We did an event on Walking Cities by bringing two exciting Welsh writers to Kolkata to understand the city. Along with two Indian writers they went around Kolkata, before the book fair. They will present something inspired by how they understood, absorbed and responded to the city through their writings,” she said. To mark Shakespeare’s 451st birth anniversary, an event is planned to track how his works have been interpreted differently over time from country to country.
UK will be showcasing the best of what it has to offer in arts and culture, education and research through the UK government’s Great Britain campaign, which includes information on a huge range of scholarships available for studying in the UK. There will be a range of activities at the fair including sessions with contemporary authors and artistes. English language experts and top speakers from the UK’s Higher Education sector will also be at the fair. Workshops, seminars and panel discussions will be held around English language and higher education.
Books and online resources from the UK will be displayed at the British Council pavilion. The collection will help visitors to access information about professional opportunities through English teaching and learning, enriching professional life in the Arts, developing new understanding and partnerships related to UK education, and engage with contemporary UK.
The 39th Kolkata Book Fair, this year, is set green with National Jute Board and the Publishers and Booksellers Guild entering in a tie-up to promote jute and jute products at the venue. “This is to restrict use of plastic bags. We want to make people aware of the benefits of using jute products because they are biodegradable and eco-friendly. Such initiatives help in creating a greener and cleaner world and a book fair is the biggest platform that can be used for the promotion of jute products,” said Tridib Chatterjee.
Street theatre, poetry readings, artists’ corner and musical performances are also a part of the event. It may seem quite surprising today but the first Kolkata Book Fair materialised within a year of ideation, with 34 publishers setting up 56 stalls in the heart of the city, on a patch of land between the Victoria Memorial and the Academy of Fine Arts. There are many such stories attached to the Kolkata Book Fair, it has history, tradition and as one may see, a big future too. So if you are a die-hard bookworm, make sure you pack your bags and head to Kolkata.