In JLF we have India as a world leader, even world beater. It is one of the great success stories of our soft power. We must acknowledge and celebrate this.

 

Jaipur: I am here again, at the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) 2020. Every single year for the last several years, I’ve made it a point to come. The festival itself is celebrating its 13th edition. Unluckily, you might wonder. Actually, as keynote speaker, Oxford mathematician and professor for the public understanding of science, Marcus du Sautoy, observed, “Thirteen is a prime number, indivisible. And the Jaipur Literature Festival is certainly in its prime.” Certainly, in India we don’t consider it unlucky.

As William Dalrymple never tires of reminding us, JLF started on a scale that was too small even to be considered modest. In 2006, JLF attracted all of 16 people in the opening session. Of these, 10 were Japanese tourists, who had lost their way and who left after a while. In the different iterations of that originary myth, that initial number has varied, but the point is well taken. Especially because JLF is now the largest literary festival in the world, with over 300 writers and a staggering 5 lakh footfalls. Size does matter.

What is more, JLF has now moved overseas, with festival sites as varied as London, New York, Toronto, Boulder, Houston, Doha, and Adelaide. Of course, nothing succeeds like success. In its wake there are now over 300 lit fests in India. Jaipur alone hosts all kinds of art, craft, literature, and culture festivals. It’s good for tourism, it’s good for business. That is obvious. Even Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, who inaugurated the festival on 23 January, acknowledged, “JLF is the pride of Rajasthan, it has carved a place for itself in the world. Everyone is in awe of it. I hope the festival will inspire the new generation. It is being talked about across the world.”

Again, it is not only size or market leadership that makes JLF what it is. Dalrymple observed, “At a time when people say that love for literature is dying, we are a proof that it isn’t. Literature is alive and loved and the teeming crowds at the JLF are proof of it.” He attributed the deeper reason for JLF’s phenomenal response to India’s oral traditions. He is right. From ancient times to pre-British Mughal and Hindu court cultures, India has a tradition of celebrating the word in large public gatherings. Poets and performers have recited and enacted stories—kathas and gathas—all over the country since times immemorial. Indeed, JLF has been called not just the Mecca for literature enthusiasts, but to adopt a more desi metaphor, “Sahitya ka Mahakumbh,” the phrase that Gehlot used this year.

I was also moved by festival co-director, Namita Gokhale’s opening comment that JLF was “an act of faith in life, ideas and in the human spirit”. Gokhale’s own life represents this triumph of the human spirit against tremendous odds. Her creativity has flowered under difficult, if not adverse, circumstances. In fact, she’s used the festival backdrop to write a new novel, Jaipur Journal. She didn’t want to lose her writerly self in the process of organising literature festivals year after year. In a style reminiscent in its cattiness of Super, a film magazine that she founded, the novel is full of arch observations and comments on and from real writers, many of whom are JLF regulars over the years. Incidentally, Super was the original rival to Stardust’s with the latter’s popular column, “Neeta’s Natter”.

Very many famous people come to JLF, including Nobel Laureates. A couple of years back it was V.S. Naipaul. Last year, Venki Ramakrishnan showed up. This year’s star attraction is Abhijit Banerjee, who will speak on Republic Day, on “Poor Economics—Fighting Global Poverty”. Festival producer Sanjoy K. Roy, who personally meets and greets every single participant, without regard to how famous or unknown s/he may be, stressed the need to “push back the narrative of hatred”. Quite aptly, the theme of this year’s inaugural session was, “Each other’s stories”. As Sachin Pilot, Deputy Chief Minister of Rajasthan, said that “Every citizen in this democracy has the right to speak.” Prasoon Joshi, chairman of CBFC and famous lyricist and ad-man, said, “Mat-bhed mein bhi garima honi chahiye”—there should be dignity in disagreement.

The local Rajasthani culture is “the guiding light” of JLF. The folk-tales of Bijji were released in the opening session in Vishes Kothari’s retelling. Coming to the opening event, we saw huge puppets walking out to greet us. Local traditions and musical instruments, including conches, trumpets, and drums, are very much a part of the festival. As is Rajasthani cuisine. What also makes JLF so special is that it profiles, supports, and encourages all the arts and crafts, not just literature. As Hindustani Classical musician Shubha Mudgal, who gave the other keynote speech, said, all the arts, in their rich multiplicity and interdisciplinarity, work together: “It is a celebration of the journey with the arts, with countless experiences and sensations; to see both stillness and movement in the same moment. Hierarchies should have no place in the arts and as long as art exists in its richness, we can dream of a better tomorrow.”

Wherever there is literature, culture, art, politics cannot be far behind. But I do not wish to over-emphasise this aspect. Rajasthan Chief Minister Gehlot took a dig at Prime Minister Narendra Modi by saying “Man ki baat aur kaam ki baat bhi zarori hai.” This was misreported in a leading English daily as, “In an indirect attack on the central government and current political unrest, Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot on Thursday said the Centre should listen to the ‘Mann ki Baat of intellectuals and writers” (https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/rajasthan). There have been terrible controversies in the past as in Salman Rushdie’s not being allowed to come to the JLF. In comparison, this is mild.

In JLF we have India as a world leader, even world beater. It is one of the great success stories of our soft power. We must acknowledge and celebrate this, regardless of our ideological beliefs or affiliations. That’s why the directors of over 30 international lit fests are here to find out what makes JLF tick.

Professor Makarand R. Paranjape is Director, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla

 

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