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The Kumbh of literature

Friday, December 07, 2018

It will soon be time for the 12th ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival, so make your plans now, says Menka Shivdasani

When the new year begins, and almost before we know it, it will be time for the 12th ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), an event that has grown from  18 writers and 100 attendees in 2006 to what Asad Lalljee of The Royal Opera House (ROH) calls the ‘Kumbh’ of literature, with a footfall of over half a million people last year.

The 2019 festival will be held between January 24 and 28, and on Wednesday, December 5, the organisers held a preview at ROH and urged literature lovers to visit Jaipur in January. If you find the crowds overwhelming--and certainly many do--then spend time there on the weekdays, said William Dalrymple, one of the founders, and co-director of the festival.

Of course, literature lovers will spend the weekend too, because some of the biggest literary superstars will be there. In the past, speakers have included Nobel Laureates such as Orhan Pamuk, J.M. Coetzee and Wole Soyinka, Man Booker Prize winners such as Margaret Atwood, Ian McEwan, and Paul Beatty, and Sahitya Akademi winners including Girish Karnad and Gulzar. Once, when this writer was at the fest, the queues snaked two miles onto the road on the Sunday morning that Oprah Winfrey was to speak; people had no idea that the harried security staff had shut the gates 45 minutes earlier.

This year, Dalrymple said, they have had tremendous luck with the writers; after seven years of saying ‘no’, Yann Martel (Life of Pi) has finally agreed to come; Irvine Welsh (author of Trainspotting, which was made into an iconic film); Man Booker prize winner Ben Okri (best known for The Famished Road); Pulitzer Prize winner Colson Whitehead (of the New York Times bestseller The Underground Railroad,) feminists Germaine Greer and Mary Beard will be among the several remarkable authors at JLF.

While the subjects will be wide-ranging and include fiction and poetry, this year, the focus is also on science; in fact, the inaugural address by  Venki Ramakrishnan is titled The Role of Science in Today's World, followed by a poetry reading by Ruth Padel. “The emphasis is on scientific temper, genetics and science fiction,” said Namita Gokhale, who could not be present but whose speech was read out by Dalrymple.

In her speech, she also referred to how issues like Section 377, gender identity and #MeToo, will be represented in sessions that promise to be “determinedly diverse and multilingual”, in 16 Indian languages and 12 international ones. The curtain-raiser in Mumbai, in fact, featured a riveting panel discussion that highlighted the complexity of the #MeToo movement.,

Dalrymple had earlier referred to how, despite all the talk of our ‘dumbed-down’ era, the more challenging sessions actually had the most appeal. “Sessions on mathematics, dark matter and other such subjects are packed,” he said. Other sessions that prove popular, he remarked, were the kind that featured “the local Rajasthani poet or Dalit writer’ -- people who had not necessarily yet made their names, so they would start with smaller audiences and word would quickly spread through WatsApp and the space would fill up.

Unlike in the West, where you have to pay to listen to authors, JLF sessions are completely free, and this is one reason--though by no means, the only reason--for their popularity. In fact the festival has grown well beyond Indian borders, to the United Kingdom, United States, and Adelaide. Festival producer Sanjoy Roy, Managing Director, Teamwork Arts, joked: “I was telling Namita and William about setting up a festival at the Everest base camp, and in  Antarctica--see if the penguins get excited!” More seriously, he added: “We believe there is an avenue and opportunity and need for us to create a different world, a different philosophy and a way of doing business and that is why we celebrate the arts.”

JLF’s appeal owes a great deal to Diggi Palace, where it is held, and Sanjoy also spoke about how it was vital to bring art and culture into built heritage, as Royal Opera House had done, so that “people stop tearing down havelis” and make them into cultural spaces instead.

Sanjoy also spoke about how the publishing industry had changed. “In Jaipur alone we sell over 100,000 books in five days,” he said. “Ten years ago, a bestseller would mean 3,000 copies in hardback, but today 30,000 copies in hardback would be a bestseller. And this excitement is across languages, where we have access to some of the most incredible stories, of love and pain and war and everything rooted to the earth.”

The Jaipur Bookmark, a B2B initiative, also has a new programme in 2019. Called ‘iWrite’, it is a call for unpublished manuscripts of short-stories, poetry, fiction or non-fiction. Given the number of young people writing today, this alone should do much to draw audiences.

In its 12th year, the Jaipur Literature Festival promises to be even more exciting. After all, as Namita Gokhale pointed out in the speech that was read out on her behalf, “We are each other’s stories.” That, really, is why JLF has not only become so  popular, but has also paved the way for several other literary festivals in India.

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