How hard is it to organise a popular and apolitical literary fest?

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Film Director Karan Johar caused a stir with his Freedom of Expression comment
Film Director Karan Johar caused a stir with his Freedom of Expression comment

The Jaipur Literary Fest (JLF) was started by the Jaipur Virasat Foundation in 2006 as part of the Jaipur Heritage International Festival and since 2008 is being produced by Teamwork Arts. With the exotic location of the Diggi Palace in the heart of Jaipur, the weather pouring in the favours of a mild sun and cool breeze and the diverse line-up of writers, historians, politicians, business leaders, sports personalities and entertainers, the annual event has become an important mark on the calendar. Apart from giving rise to the trend of mushrooming literary fests on an unprecedented scale, JLF has in fact fashioned literary tourism in India.

This year’s program from 21-25 January spelt a carnival of around 222 participants ranging from Man Booker winning Margaret Atwood and Marlon James to Padma Shri author Ruskin Bond and Malayalam poet K Satchidanandan. Festival director William Dalrymple called it “a positive circle” adding, “the sponsors get to sell their things, writers get their books read, readers get to be entertained and fans get to meet their heroes.”

The success of the event can be attributed to this something-for-everybody assortment of speakers and content wrapped within the glitz of cultural performances, food corners, after parties and not to forget, extensive media attention. For first-timers, the experience can be overwhelming as 23-year-old lawyer Raghav Sethi said, “The vibrant atmosphere of JLF pulled me to the event. I was particularly attracted to the Swachh Bharat talk as I wanted to understand how such a policy could be effectively implemented in our country.” Also, getting to see all the celebrities like Stephen Fry, Karan Johar, Kajol or Anupam Kher in close proximity certainly attracts a lot of crowd.

Actor Shatrughan Sinha while talking about his biography Anything But Khamosh: The Shatrughan Sinha Biography, began by welcoming the “creamy people”, “the intellectuals” who had gathered to partake in the confluence of art and ideas. The “largest literary show on earth”, which has come a long way from being a congregation of a handful, has indeed evolved into a jamboree of the largely urban creme-de-la-crème.

Congratulated for being a free event where people can listen to literary and cultural giants free of cost, one could enter the Diggi palace through prior on-line free registration or on-spot registration at Rs 100. But then if one had the means and wanted added facilities, such as access to lunches at the venue or dinner and musical performances at Hotel Clarks Amer (the after party venue), then provisions for ‘delegate’ registration (Rs 3500 or 4000 for each day and Rs 14000 or 16000 for five days) was also there.

The journey from a manuscript to a book is not all about arts. Among all the politics that is involved along the way, one undeniable factor is that of the book being a ‘product’ that caters to a ‘market’ of readers. And this is where the literary agents and the publishing industry come in as mediators of public discourse. Both writing and reading are no longer activities performed in isolation and literary festivals pitch in as supposed agents of the formation of public aesthetic culture. Through interaction with readers, book reading and book signing, literature has come to be performance at different literary festivals.

But the magnitude of the performance at JLF was so vast, that it became self-defeating. With a 40 percent increase in footfall as compared to an estimated quarter or a million since last year, the venue was packed to the gate. And as happens with too much pomp and splendour, the very essence of being able to closely interact with the author and immerse in engaging discussions was lost.

“This time JLF has disappointed me to the core. With merchandise stalls at every corner and too many disinterested people with the sole purpose of clicking selfies with famous personalities, about whom they can barely say a word, it seemed more like a New Year’s Eve party than a Lit Fest,” said Upama Biswas, a junior editor with a book publishing firm. Too many with too little interest in literature is something that helps in the economics of arranging such fests but certainly not its content.

Add to the fact that there was just one book-stall, Full Circle Bookstore, but a range of stalls selling everything from accessories and clothing to home décor. Cafes, eateries, lounges, all overpriced, crowded the space to such an extent that there was hardly a corner to sit and think about what one has just heard in one of the talk sessions or read one of the books one has just bought. The book-stall itself was one patron of the authors who were participants in the fest since the stock consisted mostly of their books apart and perhaps too self-consciously, a couple of copies of Amitav Ghosh’s  Sea of Poppies . Ghosh had earlier expressed his intention of keeping away from literary festivals since he believes “books should have lives of their own and that writers could only diminish the autonomy and integrity of their work by inserting themselves between the reader and the text.”

An event of this scale requires enormous resources. And this is where sponsors make headway into an already tight-fisted nexus of book business. The list of JLF 2016 sponsors form a literature of its own with every session beginning with advertisements that looked more like some television award ceremony instead of a serious literary event. But behind all the commerce, it is the content of the fest in terms of speakers, the topics of discussion and the way they were organised that decides the quality of the fest.

“Having heard a lot about the JLF, I was very keen to attend this edition. However, it was slightly underwhelming experience,” said lawyer Aman who was attending the ‘Eyeless in Gaza’ session. “I found the flagship sessions that I attended bordering rhetoric,” he added. The primary themes of this year’s programs revolved around issues of privacy, modernity, migration, health and mental well-being and translations. “The topics of the sessions have fallen into repetitive pattern and we have a set of writers and speakers who come down each year,” said Siddharth Chandra, a research scholar with Jawaharlal Nehru University. Regarding the process of selecting the content Dalrymple said, “Namita [Namita Gokhale, co-director of JLF] and I cover for each other. I bring in the international names and she reaches out to the roots.” It is a tight rope that JLF walks trying to include every aspect of contemporary discourse without in a pleasing manner.

The event came to its conclusion with an outrageous session on the issue of freedom of speech in India. Debating whether the freedom ought to be absolute or conditional, the argument catapulted into a mud-slinging political debate between the speakers, something which perhaps the organisers of Jaipur Literary Fest would have wanted to avoid given the chance.

Snippets; “The society told me I am different”- Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, transgender activist

“Silence is not my mother tongue”- Ruby Hembrom, executive director, Aadivani

“I was an extremely effeminate child. I wouldn’t know where my hands and legs were going”- Karan Johar, director

“Government can’t provide you jobs anymore. Just become an entrepreneur.”- Amitabh Kant, senior civil servant

“A writer should write what he wants to write.”- Javed Akhtar, lyricist

“Being a banker I am very risk averse. I resigned only after the earnings from my royalty became more than my salary check.” Amish Tripathi, writer

“India is bigger than Modi and Kejriwal.” Suhel Seth, entrepreneur and columnist

“Burning of books is a prelude to burning people.” Salil Tripathi, journalist and writer