Why I Dropped Out of Kitab 2008


When I was 17, I was a much more ambitious person than I am now. I wanted not just to write and create, to love and to live, as I do now – I was firmly committed to being the change I wanted to see in the world. It was, perhaps oxymoronically, altruistic ambition that drove me. I wanted to save people. Women, to be exact. I categorically read nothing but feminist literature. I wore sloganned T-shirts. I volunteered. I picked fights with people at every single sniff of sexism.

I was serious. And one of the things I did at this time was to start producing alone what I envisioned to be a series of events that would combine my two passions: live performance and activism.

This series was called “CRESCENDO: Raise Your Voice”, and its first installment was in aid of a Petaling Jaya-based women’s rights organization. It grew out, in part, of the opposition I encountered trying to produce and perform The Vagina Monologues at my college at the time (a compromise was reached: I could do one monologue and one piece with another actor, under the title The Valenki Monologues. Valenki is Russian for felt boots. Right up to when I left KL, I continued to be surprised by someone or the other who remembered me from the performance, years later — the little lace and leather skirt really must have been something, but I’m digressing). CRESCENDO was zero-budget and featured poetry and music by artists performing pro bono, with all funds raised going toward the charity.

A few days prior to the event, a mass email by someone who had directed, by coincidence, a production of TVM for said organization and who had had a massive falling out with them sent out a mass email calling for the boycott of the event I was organizing. To cut this long story short (and there is also much I could say about the similar propaganda-type hostility I encountered a year or two later trying to organize a CRESCENDO event in Chennai, but I won’t), the mass mail was timed so as to have a direct impact on the scheduled event. Interestingly, the fallout gained me a certain notoriety that dogs me to this day – and roped in even more performers who had heard about it only because of the controversy. But here’s the thing — whether the organization had been at fault in their dealing with the director was not, to me, the issue by this point. That a long delay in addressing the issue was made, and somebody else’s hard work was capitalized upon in order to finally do so, rendered things unethical.

Something similar happened to this year’s Kitab festival. While I won’t go into details, allegations were thrown. Allegations timed to coincide with the few days before this festival, professional and personal battles that really should have been handled months ago. The timing reeked of deliberate sabotage. Because of my prior experience, I could not empathise with those who chose to bring up their allegations now. They may be right. But their methods leave me out in the cold.

Counter-allegations came. By this point, the damage was done. Sponsors fled. Bad press (and this is why I can blog about the matter: it’s already out there). The whole picture is still emerging, and there may be more than just two sides to this coin. Having been responsible for my own flights and accommodation, the difficult decision of whether to take a risk on what had suddenly become a very unsolid investment had to be made.

I chose not to go. I can reroute my tickets. But I won’t be able to recoup the losses of paying to be at an event with bad turnout or bad publicity (and please — if you’re thinking about giving me the line about no publicity being bad publicity, hold it — I would know. As Jeet said, controversy is my poodle: she follows me everywhere).

I am deeply disappointed – I was looking forward to Kitab since the middle of last year. But logic prevails. Being self-sponsored, in simple terms, means that if an investment will likely not produce returns, one doesn’t make it. The terms of my invitation – zilch sponsorship and no honorarium – were accepted in the interest of what seemed to be a good, strategic investment. But they no longer make sense.

I wish Pablo Ganguli and Kitab 2008 the very best. I regret not being able to be involved, but due to the current circumstances, my participation does not seem viable. While I do not wish to take sides in the current situation, and can clearly see that neither party is guilt-free in the matter, I certainly do resent the fact that the commitments, time and even expenses of participants like myself who only have to lose should the festival fall through were not taken into account by those who waited a year to publicly make their complaints.

Also see: Peter Griffin’s all-sides round-up.

9 responses »

  1. Dear Sharanya,

    I’m really sorry that you had to spend all that money and cancel; that’s very unfortunate. Hope wish dream you get to rock Bombay soon– preferably with, at a minimum, your travel expenses reimbursed, which is after all the only real way to treat a writer.

    At the same time, I guess I don’t know what you mean when you say that “neither party is guilt-free”. The three women who wrote the email have not been paid their salaries and reimbursed for their own money they had to put in– a total amount running into thousands of pounds– and they weren’t even presenting their own writing! They did all the real work behind the festival, including listening to complaints and yelling from participants, while Pablo Ganguli appears to have taken his own salary and disappeared out of reach right after the festival. According to them, they have been pursuing this matter with him over email for a whole year and he has been fobbing them off. They feel that, if they didn’t raise this matter now, then he would continue to abscond and they would never have any chance to receive justice or closure. As it is, his reply to their email is slippery as an eel and not in the least apologetic.

  2. Equivocal — Thanks. You’re absolutely right about the real way to treat a writer part.

    Some of what Pablo’s response included are also serious allegations, which if found to be true will reflect very poorly on his co-organisers from last year. That the three co-organisers were not paid is an obvious travesty which must be rectified, but I think that there may be more to it than that. There’s almost certain to be another side, or more, to this story.

  3. Is sponsoring your own flights, no honorarium, etc standrad festival stuff? Do writers still make no money?

  4. Techno — No to the first question. To illustrate what my experience has been:

    1. Utan Kayu — I was discovered by the committee after they had finalised their schedule, but they kept me in mind. When another writer dropped out a couple of months before the festival, they extended an invitation to me. As the other writer was to have been sponsored by a government council in his own country which would have covered his flights and per diems, they were not able to add these to their budget. I found a private sponsor for my flights, and did without per diems. Accommodation and some meals were provided.
    2. S’pore Writers Festival — I was sponsored flights, accommodation and a four figure honorarium (!).
    3. Poetry With Prakriti — A relatively small but thoughtful honorarium, and transport to and from events, even though I live something like 15 minutes from the venues.

    So no, what Kitab offered me — the opening performance, party invites and nothing else — is not standard. Even for less established festivals (the third one above is brand new). Even for young or less-established writers. To have a festival and to be invited to one are matters of prestige. I agree with what Equivocal says above about the proper respect one must extend to invitees. In cases in which this is absent, one has to weigh the pros and cons of attending at one’s own expense.

  5. shocking, I guess you can never be too idealistic…oh well that;s life. we live, we learn and we discover that human nature is capable of corrupting even some of the best intentions.

  6. Did you see the Guardian UK article on the festival? It was supposed to be an utter disaster. Have you heard otherwise?

  7. Michael — Well, I wouldn’t be so quick to think this is a clearcut case. Some deliberate villianization happened, yes. But I did personally hear lots about unfair practices at last year’s Kitab (particularly from writers) well before his co-organisers started their petition. Just take for instance this argument I was given in response to my misgivings: apparently, because I enquired about the festival, I had “invited” myself and therefore did not qualify for any compensation or coverage.

    Abhinav — I hope I made the right decision, then.

    Larry — No, I haven’t heard otherwise.

  8. Dear Larry,

    Haven’t seen The Guardian piece, but having attended the event from beginning to end, I would like to clarify that it wasn’t a wash-out. Yes, Shobha De, Mahesh Bhatt and Amit Chaudhuri stayed away, but people like Indra Sinha, Julian West, Matthew d’Anacona, Niagll Griffiths and Nikki Bedi made the event truly memorable. Frankly, I did not miss De-Bhatt-Chaudhuri… don’t really know what their contribution would have been.

    Yes, compared to Kitab 2007 (which I also attended from end to end), there was less partying, less hogging, less boozing, which I personally found more satisfying.


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