In search of an identity


wbf4The World Book Fair in Delhi is trying to hold on

For long it was an eagerly awaited institution in Delhi. Held every other year in the beginning of February, city residents in their thousands poured in daily for the 14 odd days the World Book Fair (WBF) was on. The usual suspects were all there – young toddlers, middle school groups, teachers, scholars, bibliophiles, even most of the intelligentsia. Unsuspecting but regular attendees included young lovers and the occasional West Delhi shopkeeper with his extended family. Bargain hunting was the chief sport, though there were a few who sought out Munshiram Manoharlal’s tomes on India, or bought Survey of India maps. Pragati Maidan for long was one of most picturesque infrastructure venues in the capital, and it was next to Appu Ghar, once Delhi’s top entertainment park. Lots of food stalls ensured the basics were taken care of. The publishers networked during the day and attended each others parties. It was a high point in the city’s calendar.

Those times have long gone. Today WBF is but a pale shadow of itself. The President may still do a ritual inauguration, a lot of its core supporters have left. With 1,200 Indian and 31 foreign exhibitors at the 22nd edition of the World Book Fair 2014, it is safe to say that even the most ardent bibliophile would have had to skip more than he or she could see. WBF, held in Delhi’s Pragati Maidan, albeit in halls it is unaccustomed to as its traditional venues are being renovated, once attracted the city’s book reading junta. Yes, the elite migrated to Jaipur years ago.

A session in Hindi. WBF provides a platform for many Indian languages
Post their global merger, Penguin and Random House had a joint stall for the first time at WBF
Post their global merger, Penguin and Random House had a joint stall for the first time at WBF

The making of the WBF into an annual event, which coincided with the downturn in the economy a few years ago, has hit the publishing world hard. Spending annually means double the budget in the same time, while earnings, most participants say, have steadily declined over the years. Hiked stall rates, at nearly Rs 50,000 per stall – and many leading participants take up to 20 stalls – escalated the cost. National Book Trust, the organisers of the fair, reportedly spent Rs 12 crore on the fair last year, a bulk of which was rent.

Increased participation by authors was an encouraging sign. Arup Bose, Publisher, Srishti Books, said, “The WBF allows the author to reach out to a large audience concentrated at one given place at one time.” He admits however that the chances of a debutant author being heard amongst the cacophony of multiple events, standard in today’s book fair, is quite low! Author Priyanka Baranwal said fairs such as this “give writers a chance to understand about their readers’ likings of the subject which plays an important role in their next work.”

Another author Mani Goel, contrasting more high profile literary festivals, said, “While most well-known authors prefer to be seen at a literary festival or at a specialized event, in a country like India, where reading habit has certainly picked up amongst the young, book fairs provide a rather fun, bustling and casual environment for even new and lesser-known authors to engage with their readers and perhaps attract more readership and buyers.”

Participation by international book fairs and related agencies remained limited. The guest country this year was Poland. “Participation at this book fair is the best way to promote books for us in India,” said Elzbieta Kalinowska of the Polish Book Institute, Krakow. “We see this fair as an opportunity for Polish and Indian publishing industry to cooperate better,” Anna Tryc-Bromley, Director, Polish Institute, Delhi, said. Polish illustrators have won high acclaim globally, and a number of them were present on hand to thrill guests with their interactions. A number of Polish publishers, agents and authors also participated in a number of events and workshops during the fair.

Zikrur Rehman, representing the Abu Dhabi Book Fair, said ADBF recognised the increasing importance of the Indian economy and its role as literary hub. Seeking greater participation from Indian publishers at ABDF, he outlined the special packages available to Indian participants. “Arab publishers are interested in collaborating more with their Indian counterparts,” he said.

The theme for the festival this year was Kathasagara: Celebrating Children’s Literature. Children remained the mainstay of the fair, enthusiastically wandering around stalls, having a good time with friends and family, eating a variety of fast food, and buying the occasional book! A number of big name authors, from Gulzar to Ruskin Bond, dropped in, giving a much needed boost to the profile of the this mega but underutilised publishing platform.


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