‘Greatest Literary Show on Earth’: The Jaipur Literature Festival
Kabita Dhara, of Melbourne-based, Indian-focussed publisher Brass Monkey Books, reflects on her love affair with the Jaipur Literature Festival.
After attending the Jaipur Literature Festival for two consecutive years, I missed out this year. And what a year to miss! The five day festival was scheduled to play host to Salman Rushdie, one of my literary heroes. But news of his impending appearance sparked protests and threats from some Muslim groups – and to prevent any harm to festival-goers and organisers, Rushdie cancelled his visit. This led to other writers reading from The Satanic Verses and panels on censorship and freedom of speech in India, not to mention extensive Indian and international media coverage of the incident.
But Rushdie wasn’t the only guest to attract crowds and the international media. The other huge drawcard was Oprah Winfrey. This meant that the festival, which is free to the public, was swamped with gawkers; a kilometre-long queue formed outside the festival grounds. Dressed in designer Indian garb, Winfrey spoke of her love for India and its paradoxes, and of what she had learned on her visit, endearing herself even further to the already mesmerised audience.
Although only five years old, the festival has boasted some of the biggest literary (and not-so-literary) names around. Orhan Pamuk, Wole Soyinka, Junot Diaz, Alexander McCall Smith, Anita Desai, Vikram Seth, Andrew O’Hagan, Claire Tomalin, Geoff Dyer, Hanif Kureishi, Jamaica Kincaid – the list goes on and on. But what makes the festival really special for me is the way it also showcases the talents of Indian authors – both established and upcoming – in sessions designed to really offer food for thought.
One session that stood out for me in 2010 was a panel on Dalit literature. ‘Dalit’ is the term used for a group of people regarded as ‘untouchables’ in the Hindu caste system. As the authors on the panel spoke about their work, much of which chronicles their ill-treatment at the hands of the majority of Indian society for centuries, I looked around at the mostly educated, middle-class audience and was struck by the irony of the situation. But I was impressed by the way in which the audience listened and engaged with the authors, an experience that I imagine might have been confronting for many in the room.
Also confronting, in a different way, is the fact that there is no real Green Room for the authors. Some of them find this stressful; it means that anyone and everyone can walk up and start a conversation, however awkward, or hassle them for an autograph (many school groups of eager autograph-book-toting students attend – and can make an intimidating rush for an author or speaker as they exit the stage). For the punters though, the casualness of this arrangement does lend some excitement to the occasion: who knows who you’ll meet and where you’ll meet them?
Hardcore festival-goers, usually publishing industry and media types, can buy delegate passes. This entitles you to lunch and dinner in a separate section of the festival, along with the authors and speakers at the festival. Large unreserved, communal tables mean that, once again, you don’t know who you’ll end up next to over naan and curry.
One afternoon last year I ended up lunching with a moderately famous author who, interested in what I was trying to do with my company (Brass Monkey Books), offered to speak to her agent about being published by me in Australia. On the other side of me, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was being quizzed mercilessly by a writer friend of mine, arguably her biggest fan.
At the Writers’ Ball the year before, held on the last night of the festival at the spectacular Amber Fort and complete with decorated elephants, my friend, a huge fan of Alexander McCall Smith, was smitten even further when she started a conversation with him at the bar. (This was after the bus ride to the fort with Hanif Kureishi, Stephen Frears and other assorted literary types.)
Literary credentials (and name-dropping) aside, holding a literary festival in a palace that dates back over 150 years makes for a very special experience indeed. The sessions at the Jaipur Literature Festival are held in large tents dotted around the grounds, most of which are decorated in colourful Rajasthani fabrics and rugs. Some sessions are held in the beautifully ornate Durbar Hall, a room fit for a royal audience. As the day progresses and temperatures drop, chai-sellers in bright turbans hand out small earthern cups to festival-goers. If you stick around well into the evening, the main stage presents musical entertainment. It might be traditional Rajasthani music, or a hot new Indian band, or even an author with a musical bent. Impromptu dancing in the aisles, or any available space, has also been known to occur, lending a further festive atmosphere to the festival.
Tina Brown, editor-in-chief of the Daily Beast and author of The Diana Chronicles, has called the Jaipur Literature Festival the ‘Greatest Literary Show on Earth’. It’s a big call, but she isn’t far wrong.
Kabita Dhara is publisher at Brass Monkey Books, a Melbourne-based publishing company that specialises in bringing Indian writing to Australian audiences.