Sanjoy K. Roy is widely regarded as the man behind the popular Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF). Roy, who also works closely with various industry bodies on policy issues within the cultural space in India, is the managing director of Teamwork Arts, which organizes the JLF, the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (META), and the Mahindra Kabira Festival, among various other cultural extravaganzas, both in India as well as abroad. This year, the Jaipur Literature Festival is coming back in full swing on the ground and online. The online festival starts from the 5th of March to the 14th of March and the on-ground festival is from the 10th of March to the 14th. It was initially scheduled to take place from January 28 – February 1, 2022 on-ground in Jaipur and until February 6th online but it had to be postponed owing to the third wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In this interview, Sanjoy K Roy talks about what goes behind organizing the Jaipur Literature Festival every year while touching upon the challenges in bringing back the festival on-ground in Jaipur this year. He also looks back at the festival’s amazing journey, highlighting its commitment to boost the art and culture scene, especially after the hiatus enforced by the pandemic.
Excerpts
Q. What can we expect at the Jaipur Literature Festival this year?
A. This year, the Jaipur Literature Festival will be back in full swing on the ground and online. The online festival starts from the 5th of March to the 14th of March and the on-ground festival is from the 10th of March to the 14th. Not all our sessions online will be available on the ground and not all our sessions on the ground will be available online. Apart from that, we have a fabulous lineup of Nobel laureates, Booker Prize, Pulitzer Prize, Sahitya Akademi Award winners and so much more, covering all the themes that we normally do, including a special series on climate change called “On Borrowed Time.”
Q. Tell us about the precautions you are taking this year keeping the pandemic in mind. What is your advice to those attending the festival?
A. The festival, of course, has been moved to Clarks Amer to ensure that we have more space and to ensure that all our authors, guests and visitors are safe. We will be following all Covid-19 protocols that have been laid down from time to time. We are hoping all our guests will be doubly vaccinated or would have an RT-PCR test and comply with any other Covid guidelines that may exist at that time.
Q. In a country where Bollywood is known to grab all the limelight, the Jaipur Literature Festival has emerged as a formidable platform for literature enthusiasts, which has inspired so many literary festivals of its kind all across the globe. How do you look back at this journey right from its inception?
A. In a country where Bollywood grabs all the limelight, Jaipur has always had a sprinkling of stardust. It’s not that we shy away from films—even this year we have Manoj Bajpayee with several books written on him and a variety of speakers. We have been very clear that our work is to really look at the deep-dive knowledge and information. We have had the unique opportunity not to worry too much about the biggest names in the business because they come to the festival anyway. Our effort has always been to surprise young and old audiences, both young at heart, with incredible new knowledge and information which they wouldn’t have been able to access apart from some of the leading universities in the world and some of the best authors that you have.
The first time, I remember standing and waiting to receive folks at the Durbar Hall which was the original and the only venue at that point of time. Who would have thought that we would have 250 people coming? I remember telling my colleague that “Hey, can we remove some chairs?” but people arrived in groups. In the first year we had a footfall of over 7,000 people and the next year it was 14,000, the third year it was 30,000, and the fourth year it was 40,000 and the rest is history. As they say, it’s a combination of so many things—the fact that it’s Jaipur, a place of great romance and heritage. The programme is spectacular, the hospitality, the food, the color, the music—all of this contributes to making the Jaipur Literature Festival what it is.
Q. How challenging has it been for the Jaipur Literature Festival to deal with the uncertainty created by the COVID-19 pandemic? How has the pandemic impacted the festival’s reach and viewership?
A. Covid has been both a blessing and a problem. Blessing in the sense that when Covid struck, the lockdown happened around the 23rd of March 2020. We pivoted online with the JLF “Great New World” series starting on the 4th of April 2020 and our effort then was to continue to ensure that there was a free flow of knowledge and information even as every condominium and every gated community village started seeding from its neighborhood trying to lock themselves down.
Our biggest concern was how knowledge and information will float. How will we resolve the issues that Covid-19 has thrown at us. It was really during JLF “Great New World” that we had Sharad and Paul from New Zealand who first talked about how the virus had jumped from the pangolin, then to human beings. It’s where Siddharth Mukherjee talked about people not dying necessarily of the virus but of the cause of blood clots that the virus caused in the body. In the initial weeks, we had no idea who was watching but pretty much after the first 6-8 weeks, numbers started coming in. We realized there were a lot of people watching. When we did the JLF digital series—the digital online festival in 2021—we had over 26.7 million people who watched the 160 odd sessions which was quite incredible. It changed our viewership; it changed the places from where people were viewing.
Initially, on the ground, we primarily used to have people from the USA, UK, India, Jaipur—the maximum, Delhi, Gurugram, Mumbai and so forth. Now, much of this has changed. Our maximum audience is from Delhi and Gurugram and Mumbai. They come from the east and then from smaller cities in the South. Internationally, while the USA and the UK are still one and two, respectively. Third is China and Germany—they keep switching positions. Then we have Indonesia, Uzbekistan, and Saudi Arabia that has popped in the top 10. So, it’s now a completely different viewership to what we had before.
Q. How do you expect the festival to boost the art and culture scene, especially after the hiatus enforced by the pandemic?
A. The Jaipur Literature Festival 2022 will really be one of the first big outings for the cultural world. We all have our fingers crossed that everything will go well. It needs to be a celebration. From what we are hearing from the city of Jaipur—everybody is looking forward to it. We could have very easily done the festival online as planned in January 2022. It would have cost us less, but we decided to host it on the grounds because the city was so keen. All our supporters and the ecosystem were appealing to us, saying that there was so much devastation due to Covid that they really want us to do something on the ground to support whether it is restaurants, hotels or venues. We took the decision to postpone the festival from January to March and we are hoping it will be a fabulous occasion.
Q. What does the Jaipur Literature Festival mean to Teamwork Arts? What kind of interactions typically takes place between you (as Managing Director of Teamwork Arts) and the festival directors, Namita Gokhale and William Dalrymple? Also, tell us about the planning that goes into it.
A. In Teamwork Arts, we have over 100 colleagues and everybody has their hands on deck. It is our biggest flagship event. Our programming colleagues, Anubhav Nath and Neha Dasgupta work with William, Namita, and I to be able to coordinate each of our lists, put them together and shape the sessions. Much of the heavy lifting is done by William and Namita. All our colleagues are looking at content—the cues must be written, authors must be spoken with, visas must be obtained, permissions must be done, people have to be flown in—it’s a complex festival with so many different ingredients that it takes a whole year of planning to make sure that it happens.