A decade ago no one could have imagined that an Indian literary event would become a catalyst for the literary world, which is something that the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) has achieved. Since its inaugural edition in 2006, the festival has grown into a celebration of literature, often being described as the “greatest literary event on Earth”. But it isn’t just literature that is on the JLF’s main agenda this year. In the event itinerary, due attention is given to music. “We take literature extremely seriously yet the festival is also a joyous thing. Everyone goes exhausted after the day’s intellectual download towards the music stage. I love the mixture — the seriousness of the day and the lightness of the evening” says William Dalrymple, writer and co-founder of the festival.
It is the only literary festival in India which endeavours to step outside of the realm of Indian literature. Although the world is replete with literary festivals but what sets JLF apart is that it remains to be world’s only and largest free festival of its kind.
Surely, there are a few more free events but none as big as the JLF, and indeed none are as respected as the JLF. According to Namita Gokhale, writer and co-founder of the JLF, the festival, in spite of its huge success has managed to stay grounded. “Jaipur Literature Festival creates a space to breed and to think. I feel that we have been able to nurture a very important platform which will remain intact.”she says.
Another feature of the JLF that distinguishes it from other literary festivals, both Indian and foreign, is the youthful age of its attendees. “Our average age is around 25 years,” says Dalrymple. “We have so many young people barging in—you would find them sitting on the floor, standing in aisles, and the minute the speaker stops, their hands shoot up for questions. It is hard to find such earnest, dedicated and engaged audiences elsewhere” he says. Gokhale further adds, “I have heard a lot of writers say that they have spoken around the world but they have never seen audiences such as those at Jaipur. They are learned, they are well prepared and the young people are so startlingly brilliant.”
The ninth edition of the festival is scheduled to be held between 21-25 January at the majestic Diggi Palace.The JLF team is all set to enchant the audience this year with an impressive list of speakers, over 200 of them, across 175 sessions. These sessions are not limited to literature alone but also touch upon numerous issues concerning the world today.
The festival could easily qualify as the “mecca for literati” due to its ability to lure some of the world’s greatest minds comprising of writers, poets, journalists, humanitarians, historians, biographers, politicians, business leaders, sports personalities, entertainers and politicians. “Each year at Jaipur we try to improve what we did the year before. I must say that this year’s line-up of speakers is remarkable and unrivalled. It consists of more than 65 international writers including Pulitzer prize winners, Booker prize winners and we present them for free,” says Dalrymple. He argues that elsewhere in India this sort of international participation in a literary festival is hard to come by.
The list of speakers include likes of Canadian writer, poet and critic Margaret Atwood, India’s most beloved storyteller Ruskin Bond; this year’s Man Booker Prize winner Marlon James from Jamaica; Colm Toibin, possibly the greatest living Irish novelist; Bosnian born American writer Alexander Hemon who has written a lot on the country of his birth; David Grossman, probably the greatest living Israeli writer; the creator of one of the landmark series of modern American literature—Tales of the City—Armistead Maupin; and Dalit Indian activist and writer Bant Singh, whose tragic story mirrors the faults in our feudal society.
Other notable speakers include the French economist Thomas Piketty, a voice on wealth and income inequality; India’s most celebrated psychoanalyst and author Sudhir Kakar; humourist and polymath Stephen Fry; the New Yorker journalist Dexter Filkins who covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for the New York Times; British Journalist Christina Lamb, famous for coverage of the Afghanistan war for the Sunday Times; the Hindi journalist, poet and novelist Uday Prakash; Hindi novelist and short story writer Alka Saraogi.
The JLF 2016 will examine the eternal classics—Shakespeare, Proust and Andal. It will explore a vast array of subjects as diverse as the bleak depths of depression to the heights of the Silk Road, the Emergency of 1975, the freedom of speech, media trails, the crisis in the Middle East and the Arab Spring, the role of women writers, the creative process of writers, the rise of Shiaism and its revival, medieval mystic poetry, the agonies of Gaza, dying languages are some among the many subjects to be discussed.
To organise a massive event like JLF is a gigantic task for those working behind the scenes. The months leading up to the festival are exhausting and hectic for the organisers. “For years I have been wondering, “says Gokhale, “Why am I doing this? It has taken a lot out of my life.”
“But then, when the time comes, when we walk towards the Diggi Palace on the opening day with music and everything, we see all these people attending just for the joy of it, and that is when I realize why I do this. This spirit is the most essential part of the festival and it isn’t sustained by me or those associated with the festival, it emerges from the people who attend it.” She relates.
JLF clings to its literary label and has managed to create an entire cultural ecosystem of shared narratives, of ideas, of dialogues and debates. “For me every writer who comes to Jaipur is a stellar writer. We don’t believe in billboard rankings. We are honoured and proud to bring some of the greatest living writers to the festival.” says Gokhale. “But there are many voices which are still unheard of and if we can give them a platform then that is something to our credit.” she says.