Thursday, September 1, 2016

Mountain Echoes Literary Festival, Bhutan, 2016

I am a great fan of Asian literary festivals and have been lucky to take take part in a number in the region over the past decade. So when I heard the seventh edition of the Mountain Echoes Literary Festival was to be held in Bhutan this August, I knew I had to be there. I had met one of the directors  the previous year at the Irrawaddy Literary Festival in Mandalay, and was delighted when Mountain Echoes producer Mita Kapur (CEO of Siyahi Literary Consultancy in Jaipur) asked me to be involved. My task at Mountain Echoes 2016 was to be in conversation with best selling Australian author Graeme Simsion on his books The Rosie Project and The Rosie Effect. We were the Aussie contingent among a list of seventy-eight authors and commentators (mostly Indian and Bhutanese) and proudly so. It was a great privilege to be sharing the festival bill with festival patron, Her Majesty the Royal Queen Mother of Bhutan, Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk (herself an author), Amitav Ghosh, Pico Iyer, Damey Tenzin Norgay ( the son of Everest climber Tenzin Norgay Sherpa), Kunzang Choden ( Bhutan's first female novelist) and all the other esteemed guests. See the full list here.

A lucky autograph hunter gets a signature from Her Majesty, The Queen Mother of Bhutan.

Full house for all sessions at the Royal Bhutan University Auditorium.

Amitav Ghosh also signing autographs, Dhamey Tenzin Norgay in foreground.

Myself in conversation with best selling author Graeme Simsion (The Rosie Project)
As is my habit I organised an itinerary for other writers to join— a twelve day tour of Bhutan including two days at the festival and a climb to the famous Tiger's Nest Monastery for our grand finale. By the time we arrived at Mountain Echoes we had a little more understanding of what it means to live in a country of tall mountains and rushing rivers, where the only way to anywhere is via a single wild, winding mountain road (made even wilder by the national road widening project currently underway). A journey from one valley to the next, timed to take four and a half hours, took eleven, due to landslide delays, rain and mud — all grist for the writer's mill, with some great poems and stories eventuating from my group. Each valley so different from the next, each monastery, temple, dzong, totally unique. How perfect then to arrive at the festival with so many questions on our minds about this extraordinary mountain nation we had been traversing.

Our Writer's Journey group, happy they have made it across another pass.

The famous iron link bridge.

The Dzong in Trongsa, with moody Sept skies.

Sessions on Climate Change (with Amitav Ghosh), Brand Bhutan, Retelling Our Stories and Histories, Of Everest and Unclimbed Mountains, Story of The Lotus Born Guru, all helped to expand our knowledge and fuel our group's discussion on the Bhutan Government's aspirational policy of Gross National Happiness.  Is it working or not?  How can a government gauge if its people are really happy, or not quite happy yet? It was interesting also to witness the close relationships between Indian and Bhutanese writers, and the support given to this event by one of their chief sponsors, the Tourism department of the Rajasthan Government. Represented at the festival by their Chief Minister, Vasundhara Raje  who spoke in the session enitled, Of The People For The People, about her hands on approach to governance and helping to empower village women.

The Chief Minister of Rajasthan in converation with Malvika Singh.
A wonderful introduction to Kashmiri poet, Lal Ded.
In a performance event by Mita Vasisht and Sangita Kathiwada we learned of the fourteenth century Kashmiri poet Lal Ded. Married off at age 12, and mistreated by her husbands family, she renounced material life and marriage to wander naked as a follower of Lord Shiva. Her poems are the earliest compositions in Kashmiri language and she is still quoted and worshipped by everyday Kashmiris.  How wonderful to discover her in this place!

At the writer's dinner at the Taj Tashi Hotel, I was able to catch up with Bhutanese authors I had met on my first trip to Bhutan. Rinzin Rinzin and Chador Wangmo were launching their new books at the festival— Chador's novel Kyetse, is the tale of a girl born in a time rife with superstitious beliefs, and Rinzin's Depa Bondeypa's Relatives tells "of the world of a legendary mermaid and riches, and also to the times of kings when modern road was not even a dream." Launching with them was Lingi Jamtsho's Gyalo — a sneak peek into the life of a Bhutanese soldier. It was great to see local and emerging writers being supported by the festival. Chador introduced me to Bhutan's grand dame of letters, Kunzang Choden. I'd read her wonderful novel Circle of Karma and a number of her childrens books after my last trip and was thrilled to experience in person her softly spoken wisdom and  generosity of spirit. 

Ciler Ilhan, myself and Chador Wangmo.
I also met  festival co-director Siok Sian Dorji, a wonderfully intelligent and articulate speaker who gave the opening address,  along with screen writer and author Venita Coelho and Turkish writer Ciler Ilhan. Ciler's collection of short stories, Exile, won the EU Prize for Literature in 2011. Each monologue tells of the suffering of fictional and real life characters caught up in global injustice. While the moderator at her first session, Zak O'Yeah, a Scandanavian crime writer and translator, described her work as dark, if not very dark, Ciler is a delightfully bubbly person. At the same table I met Sadaf Saaz, poet, writer, entrepreneur and women’s rights activist who co-founded the Dhaka Literary Festival in 2011 and  is the author of That Which Cannot Be Said, a collection of stories about Bangladeshi women's experience. Another festival to add our wish list!

Pico Iyer in conversation with Namgay Zam
On day two, the renowned Indian travel writer, Pico Iyer, stole the show with his session on The Art of Stillness, telling how after his family home burnt down he went to stay for three days at a Benedictine retreat centre  As well as stillness, he discovered that "home is not where we live, but what lives inside us"and urged everyone to try just sitting still for at least five minutes a day. (See his Ted talk on stiillness here).

Another highlight of the day was the session with singer and ex diplomat, Dasho Tshering Wangda, and Indian musician Rahul Ram, in conversation with Kunga Tenzin Dorji.  Each told their musical history in song, playing and singing together and apart, treating us to Hindi and Bhutanese favorites that had the crowd swaying in nostalgic bliss. The Memory Project introduced us to the writings of Renuka Narayanan, whose memoir, A Madrasi Memoir details her story of growing up female in a high caste Brahmin family in Tamil Nadu. Her Bhutanese counterpart Lily Wangchuk, author of Facts about Bhutan: The Land of the Thunder Dragon, recalled her journey to discover the father she never knew, through the photographs he took from the 50s until his early death.  

In the afternoon, following a delicious lunch, I listened to Omair Ahmad (India), Witi Ihimaera (New Zealand) and Kunzang Choden (Bhutan) in conversation with Sadaf Saaz (Bangladesh) on Retelling Our Stories and Histories. Each had important things to say on the value of storytelling, and when Witi began his talk in Maori song, I found myself moved to tears. His way of story telling had much in common with the next panel, where oral story tellers, grandmother Angey Nagley,  and ex monk Agey Dregang, told tales in dzongka, with translations on the screen for non dzongka speakers.  They introduced us to lozey, stories told in poetic form, sometimes sung, which were commonly performed at festival times or when workers gathered together in the village.

Dancers at the festival entertaining the writers and delegates.

Outside in the tea breaks writers and students attending the festival gathered for delicious snacks entertainment by dancers and a roving jester. Groups of students had came from Rajisthan, Nepal and other parts of Bhutan and had asked some of the best questions at the end of sessions. I was thrilled to meet a group of literature students from a college in Trongsa (where we had spent a magical day and night) and was more than happy to be mobbed by autograph hunters from Mayo College, Rajasthan.

With the students of Mayo Colllege from Rajasthan.

Amitav Ghosh in conversation with journalist Namgay Zam  ended the panels for the day, describing how writing a character is a long process — slowly you get to know them, then you find you can't let them go, which is why he ended up writing his Ibis trilogy. To finish the day a group of Rajasthani folk musicians took to the stage as a warm up for a free evening concert in the Clock Tower Square with Rahul Ram's band Indian Ocean and local band Yangchen and The Able. The square was packed as young and old came out to see and hear their compelling raga rock rhythms.

Singer, songwriter Shisir at the open mike. Photo Mt Echoes.

Sadly we had to leave on day three, but with two venues running it was even more jam packed with great panels and events. The festival ended with an open mike event where many visiting and local authors and poets gave readings and performances. Catch up with all the fun here.

While it is impossible to mention all the sessions and writers, I hope  to have given a taste of the literary and cultural delights that Mountain Echoes offers. With its efficient team of organisers and volunteers it is surely one of the best festivals in Asia and maybe one of its best kept secrets.  It usually takes place in the second half of August, attendance is free for all, so start making your plans now to visit the hidden kingdom of Bhutan, with Mountain Echoes as an added bonus.

Mountain Echoes Festival is produced by the Sihayi team in association with the India Bhutan Foundation and the Rajasthan government's Department of Tourism.

Many thanks to festival producer Mita Kapur and her team at Siyahi, as well as directors: Siok Sian Dorji,  Namita Gokhale, Pramod Kumar KG, Tshering Tashi, and all officials and volunteers!

View Mountain Echoes website here and their Facebook page here.

Siyahi is India's leading literary agency and works towards carrying Indian literature to the world. They also organise literary events of all types, from international festivals to intimate readings and book launches.

Jan Cornall is a writer, performance poet and singer based in Sydney Australia. Since 2004 she has taken part in a number of festivals in the Asia Pacific region, including: Ubud Writers and Readers Festival (Bali)  Utan Kayu Literary Biennale (Java)  Irrawaddy Literary Festival (Myanmar), Hong Kong International Literary Festival, The Northern Kingdoms Poetry Festival (Cambodia),Open Art Festival (Beijing), Women's International Playwrights Conference (Mumbai), Wordstorm (Darwin), Two Fires Festival ( Braidwood),  Woollongong Writers Festival,  Sydney Writer's Festival.

Jan also teaches writing and runs international writing retreats. Her next writer's journey is to Morocco in Jan/Feb 2017. Find out more at

In Bhutan Jan travels with Bhutan and Beyond and the Tourism Council of Bhutan.

(c) Jan Cornall  Sept 2016. Photos by Jan Cornall except first and second last pics from Mountain Echoes Facebook page.