What is it like to attend the Jaipur Literature Festival?

By Sunil Kumar

I can answer this question as I’ve attended the Jaipur Literature Festival 5 times, 2012, 2013, 15, 17 and this year 2019.

Mixed feelings about this self-proclaimed ‘largest show on earth.’ Admittedly, first experiences are often the most exciting as there’s this element of novelty and curiosity. It was a fascinating and heady trip the first time around and the crowds were far lesser.

My blog from all those years ago;

http://aglaia.co.in/the-lit-fest…

There’s a celebrity and controversy quotient in this lit fest always, and the first time I attended, Oprah Winfrey was a major draw and it was controversial due to the appearance and eventual no-show by Salman Rushdie as Rajasthan was under a Congress government which predictably buckled due to threats by Islamic fundamentalists.

Seven years later, the wheel has turned full circle and we again have the same party in power, with Vijayraje Scindia’s five years a memory.

Before I list the cons here, I would like to focus on the positives- why visit Jaipur five times from Mumbai all these years, when it’s always held in freezing winter and with due respect to the citizenry, I don’t find the city all that appealing.

The eclectic and heady atmosphere of some of those sessions mesmerize me to make a repeat journey. Like all the pseudo-liberal angsty events held in India, this is definitely skewed to pander to the views of the moronic and pompous leftist cabal.

Lutyen’s Delhi makes a beeline to this place as their incestous posturing is ably supported by the main organising team: Sanjoy Roy, William Dalrymple and Namita Gokhale. I may disagree with their political views and the fawning, servile nature inherent to most Indian cultural events, but still due credit to some nice volunteers in the Diggi Palace grounds and the sheer exuberance and literary brilliance of some sessions.

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and interacting with different people on these grounds and also listen to some fascinating discussions from writers across the political and literary spectrum.

If there’s a ‘nationalist’ ideologue like Sanjeev Sanyal, you can also find Kancha Illiah spewing venom. Over the years I’ve met Tarun Tejpal, Nobel Laureate Venki Ramakrishnan(this year- 2019(, Mark Tully, Gurcharan Das, Pushpesh Pant, Deepak Chopra, V.S Naipaul, Paul Theroux and Bibek Debroy. Some people have fallen from grace like Tejpal; while others such as a BJP member who gave me his card in a Delhi litfest, went on to become the current tourism minister – K.J Alphons.

Meeting the authors of some books I have like Victoria’s biography-AN Wilson or SPQR- the classicist Mary Beard is possible only in the JLF. A large proportion of people from India and all over the world come here to listen to some of the modern world’s thought leaders. Getting a few books as an audience prize from an avidly watched childhood favourite Siddhartha Basu was also wonderful. Also, this year, friends with a funny Irish photographer and India buff Paul Cullen who was charmingly and wittily anti-British.

But, it’s usually Indians both on the dais and the ones asking questions who feel that they have to steer the discussion to politics and inane commentary on the ‘precarious’ situation. Crushing crowds and people on ‘fashionista’ trips are also something I heartily dislike.

Listening to satirical poets like Ashok Vajpeyi and scholarly writers like Narendra Kohli in JLF 2019 was a treat however. It also depends on the skills of the questioner on the other side of the podium to elicit relevant and insightful responses from the speaker.

The venues where there is held- the front lawn is always crowded(overflowing in recent years), Baithak- ornate decoration from years ago, Samvad,the Mughal tent et al add to the atmosphere and are literally choc-a-bloc with very little jostling space especially on weekends.

I remember watching a wonderful Baul singer and an amazing classical music performance in earlier years 2012, 13 etc that has now been morphed into a separate section held at some five-star venue or fort with tickets from the venue or BookMyShow. They’ve also branched out internationally with events in Boulder(Colorado, U.S.), London(UK), Australia etc. So, inevitable commercialisation creeping in.

That sums up my experience of attending the Jaipur Lit Fest over the years. Maybe I’ll be there next time or after a few years depending on time, schedule, inclination. If you’ve not visited, worth going once for a peek if you can withstand the crowds or everything is accessible through social media(official/unofficial Facebook pages, YT videos, podcasts et al).

With Venki Ramakrishnan(Nobel Chemistry Winner-2009, Current Head- British Royal Society Science)

With an Irish friend, Paul Cullen.

Some more photos/snippets over the years;

Book On Victoria signed by AN Wilson, noted historian and the author

The CM then- Vijayraje Scindia

Books – Audience Prize from Siddhartha Basu

Me with Sanjeev Sanyal – writer and former financial head, currently in an advisory capacity to current government.

Iti!

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