Almost all the coaches of the Shatabdi Express train from Delhi to Ajmer emptied out at Jaipur, a station that falls between the two. The platform and the parking area outside the station were full of people heading to the Jaipur Literature Festival. The normally sedate station was buzzing with activity, and business was roaring.
It took me an unusually long time – about half an hour for a three-wheel cab – to get transport for the venue. I was hoping that the driver knew the venue as the euphoria generated around the festival attracts the attention of the whole country. But the man on the street in Jaipur seems unaware of an event that is touted as the largest literary festival in the Asia-Pacific.
The venue is in the heart of the city – huge colorful banners hang at the entrance of the lane to announce the entry to the venue, Diggy Palace. Hordes of people were jostling with each other to register for admission. Once you pass that initial barrier, there’s a world full of people – and chaos. Initially it’s difficult to navigate and get a sense of what’s going on.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Perhaps that’s one of the reason the JLF organizers like to compare it with “Kumbh Mela,” the biggest gathering of Hindu pilgrims at the banks of river Ganges every six years. The festival has shown phenomenal growth over the last few years in terms of attendants. In 2009 it registered some 10,000 people; in the three years since this has multiplied tenfold. This year, an estimated 100,000 people attended the four day event, making the festival a “Kumbh Mela” of literature.
For the world outside, the only major news emerging from Jaipur this year was the forced absence of controversial Indian-born British author, Salman Rushdie. Except for the mention of his name during a few sessions on the first day, Rushdie was a non-issue for the event. On the third day, Oprah Winfrey held her session on the front lawn, an event that was overflowing with people. At the same time, there was a packed crowd listening to a session on Burma. So the festival clearly attempts to cater to all kinds of literary tastes.
“You know I came all the way from Delhi because you have so many names and so many issues to talk on in the Jaipur Literature Festival. I feel privileged to attend that,” says Sunita, a marketing professional.
The Canadian author David Malone who recently wrote a seminal book on India’s foreign policy, Does the Elephant Dance, described it as “a place where you get to interact with lots of people and that is a good platform for the free interaction of ideas and mind.”
The festival isn’t all about pure literature; it’s also a platform where the issues dominating popular discourse are discussed. The situation in Pakistan, developments in Burma, the Arab Spring, extreme Maoism in India, agitation in Kashmir, the challenges of nation building, issues involving politics and literacy in Africa – all of these topics drew huge a audience.
“We have become the crucial catalyst in platforming new literary communities in South Asia, with regular speakers from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Myanmar,” says Sanjoy Roy, one of the festival’s three organizers.
And there’s also a lighthearted side to this annual event. The day-long discussions and sessions give way to music and the free flow of alcohol in the evening – festivities that carry on until 10 p.m. The rich Rajasthani food also titillates the palate of those who come from different parts of the globe.
Critics find the festival a mix of the serious and the profane.
“The festival is a serious literary affair at its very heart and a comic circus on the fringes,” writes Manu Joseph, a journalist and an author.
He told me he doubts Indian literature and art get the attention they deserve at such festivals. Joseph feels that the literary event is an attempt to find a market for authors publishing their works in Britain and America.
“The pomp of the Jaipur festival is disproportionate to the size and the quality of Indian writing in English… There’s an unspoken hierarchy among Indian writers that has nothing to do with quality: The writers who have been published in Britain and the United States get more attention in India than those who have not been published abroad,” Joseph argued.
Criticism apart, the Jaipur Literature Festival has become an important event on the national calendar. It has added value to the city of palaces and become one more attraction for tourists visiting the medieval ramparts and ruins of the pink city, as Jaipur is also known.
Regardless of whether the festival exists to promote literature, tourism or something worse, it does have the backing of “new” India. The number of youngsters hailing from different parts of the country shows that a new generation is looking for its own space. The festival gives them an escape from the normal routine and allows them a platform to engage with literary India today.
Sanjay Kumar also blogs at Indian Decade.