In this interview, Sanjoy K. Roy talks about the key attractions at the upcoming JLF, the festival’s journey, what goes behind organizing the festival every year, while touching upon its growing global popularity.
Sanjoy K. Roy is not just the man behind the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF). Roy also works closely with various industry bodies on policy issues within the cultural space in India. He is also the managing director of Teamwork Arts, which organizes the JLF, the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (META), and the Mahindra Kabira Festival, among other cultural events, both in India as well as abroad. This year, the Jaipur Literature Festival looks set to return to its pre-pandemic glory. During its much-awaited 16th edition, it will be held from 19th – 23rd January, 2023 at Hotel Clarks Amer, Jaipur.
In this interview, Sanjoy K. Roy talks about the key attractions at the upcoming 16th edition, the festival’s journey, what goes behind organizing the festival every year while touching upon its growing global popularity. Roy, who recently got bestowed with the Tagore Prize for Social Achievement, also talks about the relevance of Tagore in the present times.
Q. As the Jaipur Literature Festival returns to its pre-pandemic glory, what will be the key attractions this time?
A. I think Abdulrazak Gurnah actually coming in person is amazing. Then we have so many Booker and Pulitzer winners. I think it’s the largest award-winning list that we have got this year. We have some of the leading academics from the US, Australia, UK, and Europe with focus on very diverse range of subjects. History again is a major area of focus along with environment. You will see lots of discussions around gender, business, and democracy. Not so much G20 but we are doing a couple of sessions around geopolitics and energy, among others. Of course, there will be lots of stuff around Russia, Putin, Ukraine with the likes of Simon Sebag, Luke Harding, Orlando Figes (The Story of Russia), Antony Beevor (Russia: Revolution and Civil War, 1917-1921), and Jonathan Freedland. Perhaps, so much not on the immediate war but on the perspective of what is Russia, what is the relation, and therefore the war.
Then there is a whole focus on the visual arts and photography. There is Gayatri Sinha’s book ‘The Archival Gaze: A Timeline of Photography in India.’ We have a couple of sessions from Dayanita Singh who has won the Hasselblad Award for 2022. Then there is Alka Pande. Also, Dr. Ambarish Satwik is also doing a session on photography. So, photography this year is a big thing. Then we have Shovana Narayan and her big book on dance.
We will also be hosting a session on India’s relations with China which has seen numerous highs and lows, featuring journalist Manoj Joshi, India’s former foreign secretary and ambassador to China, Vijay Gokhale, and former foreign secretary Shyam Saran, in conversation with journalist and foreign policy expert, Suhasini Haidar. At the Festival, Saran will be also seen at a session featuring former IFS officer and ambassador, Lakshmi Puri. They will be in conversation with former diplomat and ambassador, Navdeep Suri.
Q. What can we expect at the Jaipur Music Stage this year?
A. We are bringing a range of exhilarating performers to the Jaipur Music Stage, which like every year will be running parallel to the Jaipur Literature Festival. Our focus continues to indie centric. This year we will showcase acclaimed artistes, including the ultimate fusion band Pakshee, contemporary electronic music production house Lifafa, Rhythms of India featuring BC Manjunath, Darshan Doshi, Nathu Lal Solanki, Pramath Kiran, and Praveen D Rao, the trans-cultural musical factory of ideas Peter Cat Recording Company (PCRC), Neo-classical band Shadow and Light, and Neo-Folk Fusion band Kabir Café.
Q. Amidst the reemerging global scare surrounding COVID-19, what are your recommendations and cautionary advice to those attending the festival this year?
A. Like always, we are fully committed to abide by the government guidelines. As of now, 2% of international passengers arriving at its airports are going to be randomly for COVID-19. So, we will basically follow whatever the guidelines are. Additionally, we will also be issuing an advisory requesting everyone to wear masks as a precautionary measure. We will follow whatever protocols apply.
Q. What does it take to bring a single edition of Jaipur Literature Festival to life? How do you look back at this journey right from its inception?
A. Jaipur Literature Festival is Teamwork Arts’ biggest flagship event so everybody has their hands on deck. Our programming colleagues work with William Dalrymple, Namita Gokhale, and I to be able to coordinate each of our lists, put them together and shape the sessions. The entire team has to look at the content. The cues have to be created, the authors must be spoken with, visas must be obtained, permissions have to be sought, and people have to be flown in. It’s a complex festival with so many different ingredients and it takes a whole year of planning to realize it.
The first time, I remember standing and waiting to receive folks at the Durbar Hall. At that point of time it was the only venue. Who would have thought that we would have 250 people coming? I remember asking a colleague to remove some chairs. But people arrived in groups. The very first year we had a footfall of over 7,000 people and the next year it doubled to 14,000. In the third year, it increased to 30,000 which further increased to 40,000 in the fourth year. It’s really a combination of many things. The programme is spectacular and the fact that it’s Jaipur, a place of great romance, and heritage, the hospitality, the food, the color, and the music—all of this makes the Jaipur Literature Festival what it is.
Q. You have taken JLF to many countries across the globe. What do you attribute its growing global popularity to? Tell us about the global calendar of JLF for 2023.
A. The interest today in international literature is growing. What’s interesting is that though there are so many festivals across the world but the format that we use is still a unique format in the sense that most festivals are publisher driven. Say, for example, the publisher gives your name. So typically the session would only be on your book and your reading of the book. We, on the other hand, talk about the ideas behind the book. And we also bring it a lot of diversity and universal perspective unlike a lot of the British and American festival which are very white-centric or local. And the interest to receive a global perspective is growing which works to our advantage.
Regarding the international calendar, we will be making two announcements in Jaipur and so you will have to wait for that. But, this year JLF will continue to be in London and Belfast. In the US, we have it in New York, Houston, and Boulder. In Canada we have it in Toronto and we may increase one this year to Niagara. Then in Australia we have it in Adelaide. In Europe, we will have it in Rome and we will be making one more announcement. We will continue to have JLF Soneva Fushi in Maldives.
Q. You recently got bestowed with the Tagore Prize for Social Achievement. How do you look at the relevance of Tagore in the present times?
A. Tagore continues to be as relevant as ever. I feel people like Tagore, Gandhi, Kabir, etc. will continue to be relevant because of what they have written. Just imagine had Tagore not written something or it hadn’t lived on or not got translated. The keynote address by Prof. Ganguly at the Tagore Literary Award ceremony for me was one of the major highlights. It’s amazing to learn that Tagore’s work was first translated in 1913 in Cuba. We are talking about the first translation in the Latin American countries. How far Tagore’s teachings had already traveled even without fax, email or Whatapp. Similarly, a common sense of Kabir, for example, travels. Or, Swami Vivekanand or Kennedy. These are great world leaders whose statements have lived on beyond them. And that’s what has created the legacy. Like Tagore’s ‘Ekla Chôlo Re’ or his writings to Gandhi on nationalism and internationalism. Those continue to be so valid even today.