Lake Toba Writers Festival – A new pioneering and collaborative initiative by Amol Titus

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Ceremonial cake cutting by Ibu Rita Tavip Megawati senior government official (centre) seen with festival co-visionaries (LtoR) Saut Poltak Tambunan, Tetti Naibaho, Amol Titus and Thomson H
Ceremonial cake cutting by Ibu Rita Tavip Megawati senior government official (centre) seen with festival co-visionaries (LtoR) Saut Poltak Tambunan, Tetti Naibaho, Amol Titus and Thomson HS

Lake Toba Writers Festival – A new pioneering and collaborative initiative by Amol Titus

Jakarta based intellectual, advisor, writer and educationist Amol Titus is renowned for his pioneering and collaborative initiatives. His latest one is co-visioning and launching the Lake Toba Writers Festival that was successfully held at Samosir island in the centre of the spectacular Lake Toba caldera in North Sumatera on 26-27 September 2023. Poonam Sagar of www.indoindians.com caught up with Amol Titus to understand about the event and his latest literary and creative endeavors.

PS           : Hi Amol, congratulations on the successful launch of the Lake Toba Writers Festival. It is a wonderful initiative. Please advise about your vision behind this prestigious event.

AT           : Thank you Poonam. North Sumatera is one of the most vibrant provinces in Indonesia and I have been visiting it periodically for close to two decades. Apart from being rich in commodities like timber, rubber, palm oil, coffee, fruits, vegetables, and aquaculture products the region is rich in culture. The ancient home to the proud Batak people, it boasts a unique language called Bahasa Batak apart from distinctive dance, music, textiles, architecture, cuisine, customs, and traditions. Sub-ethnicities and clans provide additional diversity. As a writer I was fascinated by this ancient culture that has inspired my creativity and writing.

Lake Toba provided a spectacular setting for the Literary and Creative Arts Festival
Lake Toba provided a spectacular setting for the Literary and Creative Arts Festival

My strategic advisory firm PT IndonesiaWISE has been undertaking research and conducting capacity building workshops on Sustainable Tourism for over a decade in major destinations of Indonesia like Yogyakarta, Central Java, East Java, Bali, North Sumatera, and West Nusa Tenggara. The 3 core pillars of Sustainable Tourism are Environment, Culture and Community. Therefore, preservation of culture is a priority especially at a time when there are many external cultural influences in Indonesia and ancient traditions, cultural values and handicrafts are struggling for survival. Several of these are orally passed down and require proper documentation and socialization amongst youth of the country and internationally.

Lake Toba Writers Festival was conceived in a collaborative manner with my friends from the Batak community Bp Saut Poltak Tambunan who is a senior writer in Bahasa Batak, Bp Thomson Hutasoit who is a writer and director of Opera Batak and Ibu Tetti Naibaho, who is the Director General of Culture and Tourism at Samosir regency. With open sharing of ideas and strong teamwork we were able to turn the dream into reality within a relatively short period of time. More at www.laketobawritersfestival.com

Three co-visionaries Saut Poltak Tambunan (second from left), Amol Titus (third from left) and Thomson Hutasoit (third from right) featured with some key speakers at the event
Three co-visionaries Saut Poltak Tambunan (second from left), Amol Titus (third from left) and Thomson Hutasoit (third from right) featured with some key speakers at the event

PS           : That is great. Tell us about the agenda and program of the recently concluded Lake Toba Writers Festival.

AT           : For those who have not been to Lake Toba it is highly recommended as it is the world’s largest volcanic caldera with breathtaking views. It was caused after the largest known volcanic eruption on Earth that occurred around 74,000 years ago. Slowly the lava cooled, and the crater was filled up with rainwater and rivers from the Barisan mountain range. It is a sacred lake and we decided to organize the festival by her side and seek her blessings.

The program brought together writers, readers, creative artists, media, academic experts, officials, and culture lovers from around the region, Indonesia, and the world. After a welcome dinner held on 25 September there were 8 sessions spread across 26 and 27 September. On Day 1 there was an inaugural session in which tributes were paid to a legendary poet from North Sumatera Bp Sitor Situmorang and music composer Bp Nahum Situmorang whose songs have given local poetry much melody. 3 sessions followed on the themes of Lake Toba Inspirations in Literature, Literary Explorations of Nature vs Nurture and Confluence of Ethnic, Regional, National and Global Identities.

On Day 2 there was a special tribute to another famous poet of Indonesia from the region Bp Chairul Anwar and Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore whose iconic abode Santinekatan in West Bengal, India was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO a few days before the Lake Toba Writers Festival. Since it is rare for writers and creative artists to get the recognition they deserve nowadays, we felt it was important to pay homage to the great writer and preserver of cultural traditions. 4 Sessions followed on the themes of Challenge for Poets and Poetry in a Post-Truth World, Linguistic Prowess and Expertise of Asian Writers, Relevance & Revival of Batak Language and Literature and a Special Batak Opera Performance.

Senior delegates at the inauguration of the Lake Toba Writers Festival on 26 September 2023
Senior delegates at the inauguration of the Lake Toba Writers Festival on 26 September 2023

The sessions were participative and well attended. Response was very positive, and the event got good media coverage. Local, regional, and central government agencies have also welcomed the initiative and requested that the event becomes an annual event.

PS           : Will Lake Toba Writers Festival become an annual event?

AT           : Yes, we hope to make it an annual event. It is hoped to be organized in the second fortnight of September each year. But this plan also requires support from various stakeholders. For example, Embassies and cultural centers can sponsor writers to attend the 2024 festival and beyond. Universities can send delegations of professors and teachers as was done by Unversitas Sumatera Utara that sent a group specializing on Batak Language and Literature to the event. Sponsor support would also be welcome as this is a very worthwhile undertaking and association with it can enhance the reputation of brands and organizations.

Amol Titus and with Opera Batak Director Thomson Hutasoit and team
Amol Titus and with Opera Batak Director Thomson Hutasoit and team

PS           : What are some of the unique characteristics of Lake Toba Writers Festival that distinguish it from other literary festivals?

AT           : Thanks for the good question. There are 4 distinctive characteristics of the Lake Toba Writers Festival. First, many so called literary festivals today have digressed into becoming discussion forums on politics and sensational news. There are many avenues for such discussions in the public space, on TV and social media. We want to focus on the literary and creative craft, traditions, themes, trends, and challenges. Second, literary and cultural festivals have become elitist and exclusionary due to control over who is invited to speak and high costs for attendance. Lake Toba Writers Festival is designed as a very inclusive event. Writers, readers, teachers, students, experts, and just ordinary folk can easily participate, contribute and be part of a unique celebration of creativity. For example, we found a group of farmers had driven close to 2 hours to attend. They had found out about the event and felt the urge to meet writers and share their thoughts which was so nice.

Third, the festival is tri-lingual in support of linguistic diversity of Lake Toba. It supports Literature in Bahasa Batak, Bahasa Indonesia, and English. In this way there is a great confluence of languages, cultures, and themes. These are celebrated in prose, poetry, opera, and academic writings discussed at the festival. Fourth, various CSR programs were integrated into the festival. These included a Crafts Bazaar to help promote products from local SMEs and cooperatives, Books Donation to local libraries, a Capacity Building Workshop for schoolteachers employed in teaching Bahasa Batak to youngsters and the preservation of the endangered art form of Opera Batak through sponsorship of a special performance at the conclusion of the event.

PS           : That is excellent Amol. Can you tell us about the sessions in which you spoke?

AT           : As you are aware my critically acclaimed new work of dialogue poetry The Fellowship of Krakatau was released late last year at an event in Jakarta organized by the Indonesian Heritage Society. It poetically explores various legends and mythologies associated with ancient volcanoes. Several of the stories deal with the theme of Nature vs Nurture so I shared my insights in the session bearing this topic. An earlier poetry collection Modern Traumas has explored the issues occupying creative sensitivities in the post-truth world that we find ourselves in and it was also discussed. I am close to finalizing a novel set in Lake Toba and will be happy to share details once it is released.

PS           : As one of the foremost chroniclers of India-Indonesia linkages can you share about some of your findings at Lake Toba region.

AT           : As we know there are ancient linkages established through trade and North Sumatera is also geographically quite close to India. Influences can be found in the Batak language whose script is strongly influenced by the ancient Indian Brahmi script, in the tradition of writing on leaves and bamboo pieces, in the prevalence of handloom weaving and racial lineage from the times of early Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms and expansion of the Chola empire from Tamil Nadu into Southeast Asia. Bollywood films and songs are very popular.

However, it must be noted that unlike Bali, Lake Toba region is predominantly Christian apart from the presence of a significant Muslim population. There are no ancient Hindu temples or customs practiced today. As I have written in my collection of 33 stories, poems and a play called Me Sambal You Chutney it is best to celebrate the similarities and respect the differences. Batak culture is very distinct and has many strands of influence and evolution.

PS           : Thank you so much Amol. We hope our readers will stay connected with your literary, creative and leadership endeavors and also visit the wonderful Lake Toba region and the inspirational Lake Toba Writers Festival in 2024.

Scene from a Batak Opera performance. This is an endangered art form and Lake Toba Writers Festival is helping ensure its survival.
Scene from a Batak Opera performance. This is an endangered art form and Lake Toba Writers Festival is helping ensure its survival.