NICHOLA PAIS catches the highlights of the upcoming Jaipur Literature Festival, widely acknowledged as the ‘Kumbh of Literature’
Nothing like a spot of music to set the tone… The full house at the Royal Opera House was transported to the dunes of Rajasthan, as the Mooralala Marwada Ensemble presented their earthy and lively Sufi-inspired set on stage. Jaipur beckons! Here’s what was revealed at the Mumbai preview of the fest, presented by the Royal Opera House Mumbai and Avid Learning, which unfurls coming January…
Twelve years of the Jaipur Literature Festival and it has come a long way, baby. “Our first time at Diggi Palace, 16 people turned up of whom 10 were Japanese tourists who left halfway through because they had thought they were at Amer fort!” Best-selling author and founder-director of JLF, William Dalrymple had the audience chuckling as he recounted the fest’s humble beginnings.
“The journey from there to the now half a million that we got last year, to become not only India’s but the world’s biggest literary festival, has been extraordinary,” he maintained, even as Sanjoy K Roy, MD of Teamwork Arts added, “Today, 12 years later we are very excited to announce that this year of over the half a million people who came in through our doors, 61% of them were roughly aged 25.”
This, he pointed out, was unusual to find at any literature festival anywhere in the world. “For us, it’s important because if we are not able to capture their imagination and their sensibilities, we are not going to make any progress and bring about any social change. It is their time. They must have access to knowledge and information and in our post post-truth world, where WhatsApp and Google count, where the written word is almost negated, and nobody asks the appropriate questions. It is very important to revisit not just the classics but all the incredible outpouring of work that’s happening across the world.”
Festival director Namita Gokhale shared that this coming year, the emphasis is on scientific and empirical thinking as well as on genetics, artificial intelligence, and what the future holds for our planet. From the Importance of Science, to science fiction on the post-human future, cli-fi or climate fiction, and on the unimaginable consequences of the world without bees, there are also sessions on music, poetry, and the arts.
“We examine different facets on myth, memory and religion, address the historical imagination, interrogate rural distress and think aloud about migration and identity,” she revealed. Pointing out that joy, spontaneity, democratic spirit and rigorous programming remain hallmarks of the festival, she said, “We remain determinedly diverse and multilingual, with over 16 Indian languages, 12 international languages, and almost 30 nationality representatives in Jaipur in January.”
Added Gokhale, “In deference to the fact that this has been a year of social and political ferment, of churning at every level, there are special sessions on vibrant democracy to mark 70 years of the electoral commission of India, a tribute to courageous journalists who write the first drafts of history, and sessions that reflect the many upheavals and changes in the struggle for gender equity, from the landmark judgement on Section 377 to the watershed moment of the #MeToo movement.”
Discussing what probably marks JLF as different, Sanjoy explained, “We are not necessarily publisher-driven. Our directors put their lists together not necessarily only from the new best books list but they look at what is important for the times, what do we need to reflect. Across the world we try and represent the same issues of environment, politics, migration, war, philosophy. We have a local, national and international point of view and that’s what makes Jaipur what it is. It’s not only about literature; there is great music happening every evening, the world comes in there to network, and we throw some really mean parties in some of the best locations in the world.” Tough combination to beat!
Hall of fame
Pointing out that they have had a wonderful run of luck when it comes to nabbing the best speakers, Dalrymple shared the list of bigwigs. “Some of the names that we are most proud to have in fiction: after seven years of him saying no, we have finally broken Yann Martel of the Life of Pi. Colson Whitehead who won every single literary prize in the States last year with the Underground Railroad, Andre Aciman the adaptation of whose novel Call Me By Your Name was the big arthouse hit of last year, Irvine Welsh from Scotland, the author of Train-spotting and Train-spotting II, Ireland’s most famous living writer, Sebastian Barrie, and Ben Okri and NoViolet Bulawayo, from Africa.”
In other subjects, there are two iconic feminists in this year of MeToo – Germaine Greer whose the Female Eunuch is probably the most successful and important feminist tract of all time, and a newer entry, Mary Beard the Cambridge classicist whose book Women in Power is going to be one of the keynotes, Dalrymple added. In addition, there are historians and academicians from Oxford, Harvard, Princeton and Yale faculty, a whole range of young new local historians such as Parvati Sharma, Ruby Lall, Sunil Amrith, who is the new professor of Indian History at Harvard, Charles Spencer the brother of late Diana, Princess of Wales, speaking on Charles II, and more amazing journalists, biographers, and artists.
The feast continues post sundown. As well as the main venue at Diggi Palace, the festival decamps in the evening to Clark’s Amer, where JLF raises an extraordinary music stage which is acclaimed as one of the great music festivals of India on its own. “There’s a different crowd, a wonderful mix of stuff,” shares Dalrymple, adding that his fave Californian-Iranian combo, Niyaz who will be playing with Midival Punditz, are among the many acts that will perform.
(Jaipur Literature Festival, January 24 – 28, 2019, Diggi Palace, Jaipur)