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Do we still need an on-ground Jaipur Literature Festival?

A look at the recently concluded Jaipur Literature Festival, which returned after a break in on-ground programming due to the pandemic

People walking in to the Jaipur Literature Festival on Sunday, March 13, the fourth day of the festival's on-ground programming at the Clarks Amer hotel in Jaipur
People walking in to the Jaipur Literature Festival on Sunday, March 13, the fourth day of the festival's on-ground programming at the Clarks Amer hotel in Jaipur (PTI)

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Yes, covid-19 has altered us all fundamentally. It has also altered the experience of the Jaipur Literature Festival. What it hasn’t changed is the possibilities that arise when intelligent, contrarian, original minds get together in one venue for a week — there’s immense learning, sure, but also snark exchanged and tantrums witnessed.

If you’ve been following the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) over the last 15 years of its existence, you’d know what it’s like each year: the end-January pleasantness, the predictability of spotting quilted Jaipuri jackets on delegates and attendees alike, seeing and hearing the literary and intellectual stars and their freewheeling thoughts as you sometimes ambled, sometimes rushed around the premises of the Diggi Palace, to attend the many sessions.

In 2020, JLF happened in January as usual, just missing by a thin whisker the wrath that covid brought upon the world. In 2021, the pandemic forced the festival online. JLF kept its digital property going, playing an untiring, year-long host for literary discussions, not bracketed by the usual five days of the festival.

In 2022, in its 15th edition, even as it returned to its original style of on-ground programming, the feel of the festival changed even more. Firstly, JLF moved out of the 162-year-old estate-turned-luxury hotel, Diggi Palace and into the more conventional Clarks Amer hotel. The different locations within Diggi, which JLF had named and demarcated for ease of holding sessions in parallel — the Front Lawn, Durbar Hall, Mughal Tent, and Baithak — had to be superimposed onto Clarks Amer. Secondly, due to Omicron, the festival had to be postponed from its usual time in January, to March. And boy, was the sun also in attendance.

Like much else in our lives now, it was a hybrid festival, with the five days pre-recorded and only online, and another five days being the main on-ground programming. This made it a little too drawn out. Many of the international crowd-pullers — including popular writer Elif Shafak, 2021 Booker winner Damon Galgut, and 2021 Nobel Laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah — were only online; others opted to not fly in for the physical event due to various international travel uncertainties. Yet others, scheduled to be in attendance at the on-ground festival had to cancel last minute. This made the experience somewhat lacklustre, and peppered with some disappointments. Seeing, in person, authors and thinkers who you’d otherwise have barely any access to, even in an age of social media, rushing to get a book signed by them after their panel, the possibility of exchanging a few words with them through the course of the week — it is these little moments that make for the joy of JLF.

The physical experience of navigating it at a different time of year, and in a bigger location — a decision made to accommodate the safety of increasing crowds that JLF has started drawing over the years — was also unexpectedly drastic. If you are someone who attends with diligence and curiosity, the physical exhaustion caused by the heat reduced your ability to actually absorb and engage with any nuanced thoughts in some of these sessions.

Shashi Tharoor in conversation with Vir Sanghvi on the third day of the festival
Shashi Tharoor in conversation with Vir Sanghvi on the third day of the festival (PTI)

But there was much to bring on that comforting sense of familiarity and joy. The annoying pleasure of too many options— do you want to hear fresh voices such as Dariba Lyndem sharing stage with literary legends like M. Mukundan, attend a talk with biographers and historians like Manu Pillai and Ira Mukhoty, or listen to politician-writers Shashi Tharoor and Smriti Irani hold forth elsewhere?

Then, there was the sheer satisfaction of listening to writers who not only treated their art as craft but also made you think—like the session with translators of writing from Indian languages to English. Ministhy S, Fathima EV, and Nandakumar, who work between Malayalam and English spoke clearly about their work, highlighting the need to navigate and understand the cultures held within languages.

Poets had at least one session a day, with the Poetry Hour series, that featured the likes of Kala Ramesh, Anukriti Upadhyay, Karuna Ezara Parikh, Akhil Katyal, and Devendra Bisaria. Well-recognised names like Jeet Thayil, Arundhati Subramaniam, Ruth Padel and Ranjit Hoskote had a session of performance poetry.

There was celebration of work, too— on 12 March, poet Ranjit Hoskote was presented the Mahakavi Kanhaiya Lal Sethia Award for poetry, whose previous awardees have included Arvind Krishna Mehrotra and Jayanta Mahapatra; on 13 March, Arunava Sinha, a prolific translator working between English and Bengali received the Vani Foundation’s Distinguished Translator Award.

As before, there were minor controversies—journalist-politician MJ Akbar, initially invited by JLF, was pulled out of the line-up after questions were raised about the festival rehabilitating those accused in the #MeToo Movement. Others wondered why nothing seems to have been done yet about William Dalrymple, one of the festival’s co-founders and co-directors who was also named by many women.

It also felt just like earlier editions, when some authors and darlings of the literary circles said the most eye-roll-inducing inanities with authority (one confidently declared how a per-day-word-target can help with discipline — better late than never, perhaps). Some got drunk and threw tantrums (an international writer forced the festival volunteers to keep the author’s lounge open late into the night, drinking alone). Many worked hard to prepare for their sessions; others seemed more interested in spotting who else was around, and in being seen around.

As always, with JLF, the genuinely heart-warming moments were off-stage, though not so far from the authors around whom the audiences gather. Readers and non-readers, young and old, settled in expectantly 10 minutes before a session began; bags, notebooks, and pens worked to save someone a seat; there were the earnest but long-winding-more-of-a-comment-than-a-question that invariably spring up when a session is thrown open to the audience. The young couple taking selfies with an author whose book got them talking; happy covid-era debut authors finally physically meeting the editors who helped their books see the light of day; underrated or unknown voices making their presence felt; the troops of school children in uniforms filing in for a panel — it’s all of this that makes us recognise each other as people who want to talk, not just trade barbs on social media; as people who want to engage, and hopefully not just within varying shades of our own beliefs. After the two very long years we’ve all had, here’s to many more such festivals being back on ground, full force.

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