Ten years on, Jaipur Litfest is still a powerhouse

The Jaipur Literature Festival is one of the few places where you can challenge the greatest minds on earth, and get away with it.

Photo by: Jaipur Literature Festival
Photo by: Jaipur Literature Festival

The festival has been attended by more than 1.2 million people over the last decade.

Updated Feb 2, 2017
Jyoti Malhotra Jyoti Malhotra has been a journalist for several years and likes to write on the intersection of politics and foreign affairs in the Indian subcontinent. @jomalhotra

Ten years of free reading, listening and hanging out with the world’s best poets and writers, book-ended with some great music by Indian and international performers, concluded in Jaipur earlier this week. The Pink City in western India, so named because large parts of this city have been painted pink since it was founded nearly 300 years ago, can now go back to its sleepy rhythms – for the remainder of 2017.

More than 1.2 million people have passed through the Diggi Palace, a minor royal’s former home now turned into a boutique hotel and festival venue, in this past decade. More than 1300 writers and poets and performers have been in attendance. You can challenge the world’s greatest minds on stage – and get away with it in Jaipur.

The success of the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) can be gauged by the fact that it has spawned scores of less-threatening versions in India as well as across the rest of South Asia. Whether it’s Galle on the southern coast of Sri Lanka, Dhaka in the heart of riverine Bangladesh, Lahore which is still widely acknowledged to be the subcontinent’s soul – although Karachi, overlooking the Indian Ocean, may have other ideas – books have become the new weapons of trend.

Throw in some music, to begin the day and to conclude it, and you have a hit on your hands. Provincials wonder what they’ve done in their last lives to have this god-given opportunity to rub shoulders with, or at least feast their eyes on, Bollywood divas and reclusive writers, book-sellers, historians, feminists, Dalit writers, foreign policy wonks as well as those involved in running literature festivals in Palestine, Melbourne and Bhutan.

At the heart of JLF are the troika of the bilingual writer Namita Gokhale, best-selling author William Dalrymple and self-described entrepreneur of the arts Sanjoy K Roy. And since success is the mother of controversy, Jaipur has increasingly become the worldwide nerve-centre of polemic and verbal wrangling. A few years ago, Salman Rushdie first cancelled his visit to Jaipur and then an interview over video-link because a group of Muslims threatened violence. The year after that India’s best-known psychologist Ashis Nandy sparked off a furore with his alleged comments on corruption among Dalits.

This year, the presence of two Rashtriya Swayam Sevak activists, Dattatreya Hosabale and Manmohan Vaidya, were panned, as was the main sponsor, Zee TV. The RSS is the ideological  mother-organisation of the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party and has no hesitation in articulating a Hindu right-wing stance in its politics, while Zee TV unabashedly promotes the politics of the RSS. Vaidya and Hosabale insisted that a “Hindu nation” won’t be a theocratic state but one which encourages spiritual democracy and diversity.

Two speakers pulled out amid criticism that JLF was providing space to the Hindu right-wing and thereby compromising on its fundamental tenets of freedom of speech and expression, but the organisers insisted that all points of view must be taken on board. In the end, it really didn’t matter. Neither RSS activist set the Pink City on fire, a testament to the fact that thin-skinned Indians always so ready to take offence – India was the first country in the world to ban Salman Rushdie’s ‘The Satanic Verses’ – may at last be mellowing down.

But with several sessions this year devoted to the tyrannies of the British Raj, it was clear that the jewel of the empire was striking back. Shashi Tharoor, member of Parliament and author, brought the house down on several occasions in his discussions on the “Dishonourable (East India) Company” and said the hundredth anniversary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 2019 would be the perfect time for the British to apologise for killing so many innocent people.

Several British writers agreed. Several pointed out that the history taught to students in Britain almost always missed out on the gory pieces –  for example, how Churchill had continued to divert food grain to feed the troops fighting the War, thereby creating a huge famine in Bengal in 1943, and when some people protested in a letter to him, he wrote back in the margins, ‘In that case, why hasn’t Gandhi died yet?’

Meanwhile, a replica of the Magna Carta lay in a room towards the back, reminding all participants that this is where it all began 900 years ago.

JLF’s after-parties were almost as much fun. Dancing girls threw down rose petals from the covered archway of the Sujan Rajmahal hotel where the Penguin-Random House party was held. The highlight of the Writers Ball was a concert by Manganiyar performers from Rajasthan backstopped by a team of tabla-players and rubab and sarangi artistes from Afghanistan. In the thick of a cold Jaipuri night they sang in Hindi and Punjabi, Seraiki and Urdu, establishing a continuum of language and the arts, and brushing aside criticism of bridging frontiers in the time of cross-border terrorism.

Jaipur has already taken on the contours of “Kumbhakarna,” the brother of the demon-king Ravan in the Hindu mythological epic, the Ramayana, who slept for large parts of the year. Soon it will be time to waken and prepare for the next edition. In 2018.

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