For a few days at the beginning of every year, the Kozhikode beach on the Malabar coast of Kerala undergoes a palpable metamorphosis. Colourful tents of varying sizes sprout across the golden sands, setting the stage for the annual Kerala Literature Festival (KLF). A sea of people stream in and out of venues, watching literary giants engage in passionate discussions on everything from literature and cinema to food, music, and politics. Young readers raise fiery questions to famed authors, sparking lively exchanges. Groups huddle on sandy sidewalks, dissecting poems and debating interpretations. Children scamper around, their laughter ringing high, while avid readers skim through the sun-kissed pages of the latest books on sale.
“Kerala has a literary festival every other week, but none of them has so far topped the popularity of KLF,” says Faisal Saleem, a 28-year-old Kannur native who has attended all six prior editions of the festival. “I attended the first edition of KLF in 2016 with my friends from college. That was our last year of college, and most of us went our different ways after that. But ever since, this has become a space for us to come together every year. It’s like an annual reunion at the beach for us, surrounded by the things we love the most — books, friends, food, and the sea,” he says.
Even the DC Kizhakemuri Foundation, the organisation that conceptualised the literary fest in late 2015, had introduced the event as a cultural space for people to interact and come together. The very first edition of KLF – held from February 5 to 17, 2016 – was an instant success, with eminent speakers ranging from MT Vasudevan Nair and M Mukundan to Sarah Joseph and Girish Kasaravalli, besides thousands of literary lovers in attendance.
As Faisal points out, book and literary festivals are far from a rarity in Kerala, but KLF is arguably touted as the first to open up such a platform for people from all walks of life to take part in. And now in 2024, with its seventh edition underway from January 11 to 14, the festival is bigger than ever, with nearly half a million people estimated to be partaking in the event. More than 500 speakers, ranging from smaller Malayalam writers and filmmakers to personalities of international fame, are attending over 300 sessions this year, scheduled across four days in the seven venues at the Kozhikode beach. This is also the first KLF to be held after Kozhikode was declared India’s first ‘UNESCO City of Literature’, a tag that adds further charm to the city.
Ravi Deecee of the DC Books publishing house, the founder and chief facilitator of KLF, says that the fest aspires to be a platform promoting discussions. “This city, its people, the writers all make up the tapestry that forms our cultural fabric, and KLF seeks to show its richness, layers, subtle forms, and the patterns in which our lives weave with culture,” he says.
Acknowledging the need to engage with children to inculcate the habit of reading in them, KLF has also introduced a special children’s festival this time as a step in this direction. Curated by actor and storyteller Manu Jose, the C-KLF features special theatre-based sessions, storytelling, and workshops designed specifically for children to enjoy and engage with.
“Interactive storytelling is an art form in itself,” Manu tells TNM. “Children are an unpredictable lot, so naturally some extra effort is required to hold their attention. So we animate and exaggerate the stories to hold their discussion and get them involved in the stories. We get them to respond to our questions and complete our sentences, and the kids are more often than not smart enough to catch on to the nuances of the story we are telling.”
But even more than the love for literature or the pull of the literary stars attending the event, Faisal Saleem attributes KLF’s popularity to the atmosphere the festival builds. “Of course, we celebrate literature here, but it’s more than that. There are live music performances, poetry readings, and art exhibitions. We have local artisans showcasing their crafts, and then there are the food stalls with lip-smacking delicacies. It’s a feast for all senses,” he says.
CS Meenakshi, writer and engineer who has been among the organisers of the event since its inception, is most proud of the secular nature of the festival. “It’s a celebration of people. Artists, activists, authors, musicians, dancers, cultural organisers, and readers all come together here, leaving behind any hierarchical notions of caste, religion, etc. Besides, the variety of discussions you can be a part of here is also truly appreciable. It’s about books, yes, but it’s also about politics, music, cinema, and whatnot. Come here and observe with a discerning eye and ear, and you can gain an understanding of almost anything and everything,” she says.
As dusk comes, the beach undergoes yet another transformation. Book stalls and tents become illuminated, and the crowds gradually thicken. Sounds of music and dance performances blend with the rhythmic sound of crashing waves.
“One of the most exciting events of this year, for me, is the Sufi Whirling dervishes. Witnessing the dervishes is a rare opportunity in India, and it is something I am looking forward to,” says Dheeshma Puzhakkal, a journalist with roots in Kozhikode. With Turkey featured as the festival’s guest country this time, KLF 2024 is also celebrating 100 years of the Turkish Republic. The famed ‘whirling dervishes’ will be performing on the beachside on the night of January 13 as part of this celebration.
For Dheeshma, it is the nostalgia that frequently drives her back to attend KLF, as long as her schedule allows her. “There is an inherent charm to Kozhikode and how it celebrates its diversity, a charm that has naturally extended to KLF as well. This festival reflects the essence of Kozhikode and what it represents, which is exactly what makes it stand out among the dime-a-dozen book festivals in Kerala,” she says.