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Jaipur Literature Festival 2023: Finding JLF in the chaos

The Jaipur Literature Festival wrapped up its 16th edition earlier this week. Where can it go from here?

The JLF had outgrown Diggi Palace (above), where it started, necessitating its move to Clarks Amer, a five-star hotel.
The JLF had outgrown Diggi Palace (above), where it started, necessitating its move to Clarks Amer, a five-star hotel. (Getty Images)

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The 2023 edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) ended on Monday. It was the 16th successful edition, including its all-online 2021 version and 2022 extended hybrid format during the pandemic.

Its origin story has been told multiple times, and, over the years, the JLF expanded to the US, Canada, UK and the Maldives. In an interview to Lounge in 2017, William Dalrymple, one of the two festival directors, noted that the JLF had “grown like a monster in a Puranic myth, rising from the deep, with tentacles reaching out” beyond Jaipur. In keeping with this, they announced a JLF in Spain, too, this year.

When it started in the mid-2000s at the now 163-year-old Diggi Palace in Jaipur, the JLF was a little spot of joy, waiting to be discovered. In the early 2010s, it had started making serious waves. Despite courting its share of critique and controversy about speakers and sponsors, the JLF remained that bright kid in class even the strictest teacher would grudgingly admire, the well-read, cool kid with whom everyone wanted to spend time.

And they all could. For close to 14 years, it was free. All anyone had to do was register. For a whole host of people, especially millennials in high school or college from the late 2000s to the early 2010s, this was a big calendar event. Whatever your background and educational obligations, the JLF felt like the most heady crash course in liberal arts.

You could see your literary heroes in the flesh, put up your hand and challenge them with a question at Baithak, bump into them while having a chai in the Front Lawn, discover a new voice at Charbagh, meet them at the festival book store and exchange recommendations at the signing tent after their sessions.

For readers—whether of commercial, literary, historical fiction, or of non-fiction—the JLF was the space to find their larger tribe. Regardless of ideology, the JLF had been an almost idyllic place for readers and writers to meet and enrich their worlds.

Now, it’s a teenager. And the teens are never easy.

Last year, fresh off the pandemic, the 15th edition of the festival was held at Clarks Amer, a five-star hotel in Jaipur, as the JLF had outgrown Diggi and space for social distancing was a necessity. Entry and registration was no longer free, at Rs. 200 per day, and Rs. 100 for students. This continued this year, too, but if the aim was to disincentivise crowds, it barely worked.

In his paper The Jaipur Literature Festival And Its Critics: World Literature As Social Practice (based on the 2017 edition of the JLF and published in ‘Anthropology And Humanism’ Vol.44, Issue 1), author Per Ståhlberg writes that when Sanjoy Roy, head of Teamworks Arts that produces the festival, “was interviewed...about...its rising success...he mentioned very little about authors, books, sessions.... What he talked about at length was the crowd of visitors, how it had consisting of those 400,000 or more people.... It was apparently very important for the producer to declare that the JLF is the largest literary festival in the world in terms of the audiences.”

The JLF has always had chai and food stalls (not including separate dining areas for speakers, the press, and for those who pay for special packages), a festival book store, and local boutiques’ kiosks for craft and knick-knacks. Alarmingly, this has now grown into a full-fledged flea market with clothes, handmade jewellery and more, and three carnival-style zones for food. It is distracting, and disheartening, taking away from what the festival was understood to be.

During the sessions at the Front Lawn this year, many used the chairs to rest and eat their snacks, no matter who was on stage—whether crowd-pullers like singer Usha Uthup, lyricists Gulzar and Javed Akhtar, writer-politician Shashi Tharoor, respected literary figures like Booker-winner Daisy Rockwell, or lesser-known stars like Wainwright Prize winning biologist-writer Merlin Sheldrake.

The disturbance was not limited to the exchange of biryani and ice cream. At one point, a session paused at a sudden, long hoot—a gaggle of students exclaiming over something in the stalls barely a hundred metres from the last row of seats.

If critics had been talking of the JLF beginning to lose its soul a few years ago, the recent changes have made the shift all the more palpable.

The editorial heart of JLF’s programming, however, continues to beat strong. The breadth of voices and their relevance—from Booker winners talking about craft and narrative to experts speaking about the future of AI and the socio-legal histories of countries—shows that the JLF still cares to have something for readers of all stripes.

It is from this strength and the depth of conversations that a reader-attendee can take heart. Even the casual listener has a chance to catch lawyer Saurabh Kirpal make a point about why he thinks landmark sexual harassment cases are not irrelevant to a book on laws affecting India’s financial landscape; writer Avinuo Kire on how folklore can highlight social inequities; or Nobel laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah recall his immigrant experience in a matter-of-fact manner.

Teenage is hard for everyone. When we hit 16, we try to avert the angst to make milestone decisions. We think about college, about the general direction our lives might take; sometimes as we find new cities and new homes, we try to remind ourselves of who we are, the friends we want to keep. Growing up ought not to be too different for this 16-year-old.

Moments from the Jaipur Literature Festival 2023

Marlon James x Emily Benn

A 50-minute conversation between UK politician and social activist Emily Benn and 2015 Booker Prize winner Marlon James was laced with his wit and her punchline-like interjections. The session was titled “Moon Witch, Spider King”, after his 2022 book, the second in his Dark Star trilogy—its first book came out in 2019. Both titles inhabit the same world but each tells the story of a different character. The ideas of truth, authenticity, the white gaze, formed the bulk of the conversation, with James also drawing from the other panels he had been part of during the festival. “European backwardness is so refreshing. Your reviewers are so basic. Why do they think our oral traditions are primitive?” asked James at one point, speaking of the discursive nature of storytelling traditions in Indian, Jamaican and Mexican cultures.

Shehan Karunatilaka x Nandini Nair

This was easily one of the most riveting and entertaining conversations of JLF 2023. Karunatilaka, the Sri Lankan writer and man of the moment given his 2022 Booker win, and journalist Nair discussed The Seven Moons Of Maali Almeida and children’s writing. Nair topped off the session with a rapid-fire round. Audience questions were a treat: A young boy asked Karunatilaka about writing about such tragedy with hilarity. “How do you make sure you are not laughing at them?” he asked, receiving applause from the audience. Karunatilka’s answer about distancing himself from the narrative through his characters didn’t fully live up to the intelligent question. But, when Nair was curious about his research on the events of the Sri Lankan civil war and how that history was recreated, the author responded: “I wasn’t recreating (anything). I was imagining based on researched evidence.”

Katherine Rundell at Jaipur BookMark

One of the best parts about being at the JLF is discovering the passion, clarity and humour with which writers spontaneously express themselves. The charm and enthusiasm with which writer Katherine Rundell spoke was electrifying. At one of the Jaipur BookMark sessions on children’s literature with Bijal Vachharajani of Pratham Books and illustrator Kristin Roskifte, Rundell, who is also an academic, said: “You can get away with bullshit in academia. But children won’t wait while you pontificate.” Her voice and thoughts are so unique that picking up her 2019 essay, Why You Should Read Children’s Literature, Even Though You Are So Old And Wise, is as enjoyable as listening to her in-person.

Breaking into Indian languages

Despite JLF’s attempts to make space for non-English writing over the years, many panels were seen as Anglo-centric. Lately, an industry-wide interest in translations has led to a noticeable increase in non-English discourse. In a session on “The Spirit Of Bihari Literature”, an audience member asked the panellists, including poet Anamika and writers Akshaya Mukul and Abhay K., to speak in any of Bihar’s languages and not in English. The nudge was good enough for Abhay. Poet Meena Kandasamy’s conversation on the Tirukkural with Penguin Random House India’s editor-in-chief Manasi Subramaniam was a highlight, too, but this one for her easy recitation of Tiruvalluvar’s many verses from memory throughout the talk.

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