It may be a dusty provincial city, but the noisy and colourful jumble that is Jaipur — better known for its pink palaces and forts that exude a faded charm —, has become a perfect setting for what has arguably become the world’s most electric meeting of literary minds.
Unfailingly, mid-January every year, the ultimate Indophile author and co-founder of Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) William Dalrymple draws the major luminaries, including the likes of Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood, Hanif Kureishi, Oprah Winfrey, plus international laureates J.W. Coetzee, V.S. Naipaul, Orhan Pamuk, even the Dalai Lama. Mix that with the boundless enthusiasm of hundreds of thousands of young book lovers that descend on the desert city to celebrate the freedom to write, speak, read and listen.
Celebrating its 10th anniversary this month, panels and discussions at JLF — where writers and reading traverse large distances — are diverse. They range from the relevance of William Shakespeare in a modern world and transformation of Bollywood actors to zombies, war journalism, politics and literature, of course.
All consider themselves privileged enough to mingle freely with the literary superstars and poets-in-waiting under the flowing orange tents on the lawns of fanciful 19th-century mansion Diggi Palace. Sure enough, complex literary conversations, a lot of selfies, groupies and vlogging do the rounds nearly as feverishly as the whirling Rajasthani drummers and dancers. The five-day event entails book readings, debates, performances, workshops and other interactive activities.
The vibe and visuals at the see-and-be-seen event is more than a lit fest. A vital part of the festival unfolds outside the festival venues, in the nighttime, at the parties where professional and personal alliances are forged.
“It is a properly festive festival, with hundreds of thousands of enthusiasts and students milling around. We bring in major international names and provide a platform for regional literature as well. In the evening, the writers give the stage over to music and dancing. We also let off fireworks at night,” Dalrymple told Weekend Review earlier in an interview.
No wonder then that JLF is born out of a music and dance festival. In 2004, Dalrymple was invited by Faith Singh, the organiser of Jaipur Heritage International Festival of music and dance, and asked him if he would like to give a small reading while he was there. It piqued Dalrymple’s interest almost immediately, and 14 people turned up for his reading.
That evening, the acclaimed writer and historian suggested to Singh to start a small book festival around her heritage festival.
Two years later, the Jaipur Literature Festival was born. The first outing attracted a mere 18 authors and 100 passing visitors. But in less than a decade, it has become the largest free literature festival in the world, rivalling Edinburgh, Melbourne, Frankfurt and Berlin.
In 2016, it won an audience of 370,000. So far, JLF has hosted 1,300 speakers and more than 1.2 million book lovers.
Apart from more than 200 Indian and South Asian writers who write in over 30 languages, every year Dalrymple and co-founder writer and publisher Namita Gokhale get a Nobel laureate, a clutch of Pulitzer winners and most of the Booker shortlist at the lit fest. While Dalrymple’s responsibility is to get popular international writers and thinkers to speak at the festival, Gokhale’s mission is to celebrate Indian writing, especially the literature of regional Indian languages.
In its 10th edition, beginning January 19, the festival will host more than 250 authors, thinkers, journalists, and popular culture icons, including “The Color Purple” author Alice Walker, “Negroland: A Memoir” author Margo Jefferson, winner of the 2014 Man Booker Prize Richard Flanagan, Scottish art historian Neil MacGregor, acclaimed novelist Vikram Chandra, poet Anne Walkman and British-Bangladeshi writer Tahmima Anam. This year, the theme is “The Freedom to Dream: India at 70”.
“Each year, we try to produce a programme more remarkable than the year before, but 2017’s Jaipur list is certainly the most astonishing we have ever fielded. We have gathered talent from across the globe — from Jamaica to North Korea and Tasmania to Zimbabwe — to present writers of genius as diverse as the war correspondent Dexter Filkins, the economist Ha Joon Chang and the Italian aesthete, Sanskritist and polymath Roberto Calasso,” Dalrymple said. He added that novelists and poets of the Caribbean, Turkey and Iran will also be represented this year.
The popularity and growth of the festival, which media mogul Tina Brown once described as “the greatest literary show on earth”, has been gradual.
In 2006, the JLF had its first global star, Hari Kunzru. In 2007, it moved up couple of notches as it hosted that year’s Booker winner Kiran Desai as well as Suketu Mehta and Rushdie.
In 2009, JLF hosted 160 authors, performers and musicians, and 20,000 people turned up to hear them.
Since it inaugural edition, the festival has hosted international literary icons such as Amish Tripathi, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Eleanor Catton, Marlon James, Pamuk, Pico Iyer, Thomas Piketty, Vikram Seth and Wole Soyinka, as well as renowned Indian language writers such as Girish Karnad, Gulzar, Javed Akhtar as well as the late Mahasweta Devi and U.R. Ananthamurthy.
In 2016, joking that to be invited as a keynote speaker, she must either be very important or very old, literary superstar Margaret Atwood best summed up the growth of JLF. “To see this festival, which started very, very small and has now become the largest book fest in India and the largest free book fest in the entire world — that’s an amazing achievement.”
In terms of programming, every year the festival makes an effort to ensure that Indian languages are represented while its industry arm, Jaipur BookMark, focuses on the art of translation.
This is set to continue in 2017 with more than 25 Indian languages represented in works of a variety of writers to promote the diverse range of life, culture and stories. This year for the first time JLF is inviting aspiring writers to share a synopsis of their work, which will be assessed by a panel of literary agents, publishers and critics.
Spreading its wings beyond the borders, JLF also started its international extensions in two cities — at London’s Southbank Centre in May and at Boulder, Colorado every September.
Those who can’t make it to Jaipur can still tune into all the talks and panel discussions through the live stream. With at least five sessions taking place at once, the live broadcast allows one to switch between the rooms and listen in on all the talks.
There are also pictures and video updates on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for the festival followers.
Over the years, the lit fest, more than anything else, has created some memorable sights and sounds, from Margaret Atwood, the “doyenne of dystopic fiction”, delivering the keynote address and revolutionary economist Thomas Piketty giving an impassioned speech on capitalism and inequality to “Being Mortal” author Atul Gawande exploring the intersections of medicine and mortality and photographer Steve McCurry discussing his iconic Afghan Girl image.
In 2016, Stephen Fry left the audience in tears as he talked about how Oscar Wilde had influenced him not only as a writer but as a man trying to cope with society. It was sad, Fry said, that a playwright as brilliant as Wilde died thinking that his “name would be toxic for generations to come”. Ironically, Wilde’s tombstone was restored two years ago as its polished surface had been corroded by people kissing it. “If only he could come back alive, just for five minutes,” said Fry.
And then, the delightfully candid Fry made everyone laugh imitating Winston Churchill and Rowan Atkinson, and talking about J.K. Rowling.
Although most writers are happy to attend the festival, some such as Arundhati Roy and Amitav Ghosh boycott the festival. Citing the festival’s corporate sponsorship, Roy considers it as some kind of a capitalistic sin. Ghosh’s disenchantment with the festival lies in a “reply-all” mail mishap few years ago when he sent his regrets for not attending the festival with a long list of his prior commitments, to which a top functionary of JLF, replying all to it, wrote “What a pompous Bengali [expletive]”.
On a few occasions, JLF had to surrender free speech to the wishes of extremists: 2012 was an infamous occasion. Salman Rushdie’s 2012 visit had to be cancelled after a religious organisation threatened to kill the “The Satanic Verses” author and intensify protests. Even a live streaming of his talk was cancelled.
“It was an unpleasant decision. The most unpleasant we have ever taken but those were very, very tense days,” Dalrymple told Huffington Post India. In 2013, it was the turn of Dalits to claim they were offended by political psychologist Ashis Nandy’s casual comments on backward castes. Scores of them marched to the venue, waving at the television cameras, to state that they were very offended.
In 2015, celebrating V.S. Naipaul’s name-making 1961 novel, “A House for Mr Biswas”, the festival staged the author’s and Paul Theroux’s public reconciliation. Theirs was among the most poisonous of literary feuds. Frail 82-year-old Naipaul, who was wheeled on to the open air stage, broke down in tears as Theroux, his protégé-turned-adversary, compared him to Charles Dickens. It was, said Theroux, “the foundation of Naipaul’s genius” — a novel without precedent, about a little man from Trinidad with big dreams. He recalled discovering the novel in 1966. “It’s one of the finest books I’ve ever read.” Naipaul and Theroux fell out in a spectacularly bitter war of words after Naipaul sold some of Theroux’s gifts at an auction in 1996.
As India’s love affair with literature remains on ample display in Jaipur, with music and dance thrown in for good measure, this festival, described as “the most carnival-like” by author Pico Iyer, is the perfect getaway for book lovers and those with a passion for ideas and debate.
“Where else would you go from Shakespeare to contemporary politics to V.S. Naipaul and then Sufi music — each in such a full-bodied way,” said Iyer when he visited the festival in 2013.
Suparna Dutt-D’Cunha is a writer based in Pune, India.