As a kid in kindergarten I thought festivals were a uniquely Indian phenomenon. Christmas in the west is part of what they call the holiday season. Diwali for us marks the festival season. It is this difference in turn of phrase that misled me. My love for literature grew from such early reverence for words. But with the passage of time, my ideas about what is ‘Indian’ predictably became more complicated. I think of this in context of India’s largest literary event that has entrenched itself in my annual calendar like the festivals I grew up with- the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF).
The word festival evokes deities, community and gaiety. JLF incorporates aspects of all three, literally or otherwise. But like with traditional festivals, to discover its true meaning one must go back to its origins.
The festival came together organically over time as did its core team- directors Namita Gokhale and William Dalrymple, and producer Sanjoy Roy. In 2002 Namita Gokhale had organized an event supported by the ICCR with Indian writers from home and the diaspora- At Home In The World, at Neemrana, Rajasthan. In some ways this was a rough prototype of JLF. But despite its terrific success there were neither funds nor support from the state to make this an annual feature.
Meanwhile William Dalrymple, who would run into Indian authors at lit-meets abroad, had been feeling for a while that they needed a regular platform in their own country. In 2004 when he was invited to read at the cultural festival of the Jaipur Virasat Foundation he saw an opportunity. “It was an impromptus reading at a backroom in the Jaipur University. 10 odd people attended, half of them were Japanese tourists who seemed to have got lost,” he recounts. But undeterred, he convinced the foundation to include a literary segment in the annual fest. Gokhale came on board for the work she had done with At Home In The World. For the first couple of years it was a very modest part of a large cultural festival scattered all over the city. Their first international author was Hari Kunzru who Dalrymple lured in to see Jaipur when he was on a stop-over in India, en route to New Zealand to see his girlfriend. In 2007 the participation of Salman Rushdie got them a larger audience. There was now a sense that this podium was ready to come into its own.
In 2008, due to various logistical reasons, it broke away from its parent festival and became the DSC Jaipur Literature Festival. It was at this stage that Sanjoy Roy joined directors Dalrymple and Gokhale as its producer. They started small- 65 authors, roughly 7000 people in attendance and with no guaranteed monetary resources- an uncertain future. But H.S. Narula whose company, DSC sponsored the first edition was already certain about the extent of success this venture was to achieve. In 2009 he bought the naming rights for the next three years with a right to first refusal for seven more years for Rs. 20 lakhs, a sum that would seem to be a pittance now.
As predicted by Narula, the festival continued to grow. But it was the rate of growth that was startling. Every year, the number of people in attendance nearly doubled, bringing the approximate numbers to a staggering 60,000 last year- making it the largest festival in the Asia Pacific. While this number might not be much in the context of India’s population, no other literary festival in the world has expanded at this rate. Owing to the burgeoning crowds and increase in the number of authors participating from 65 to the roughly 260 expected this year, the budget of the festival has gone up from Rs 1 crore in 2008 to Rs 5 crores. With amplified media coverage the brand value of the festival keeps going up, attracting more sponsors but the ratio of sponsorship to the rise in budget is still not wholly satisfactory. In 2010 the festival finally broke even, only to go back into the red in 2011 because the organisers simply could not predict the numbers that would show up.
This year the size of the venue is being considerably increased and music events in the evening are being ticketed at a modest price in an attempt to discourage riff-raff and allay safety concerns. Last year it was found that fake delegate passes (a number them bearing Roy’s name) were available locally. All passes handed out on registration this year are being bar-coded. The organisers are also for the first time buying elements of the infrastructure that they had so far been renting out, making a greater investment in the future of the festival. But the future is unchartered territory. “There is no existing business model for the festival but if it has to sustain it must become a financially successful enterprise,” says Roy.
Dalrymple, Roy and Gokhale think that the growth might plateau in a couple of years. But they all agree that changes in management are in order. Gokhale sees institutionalization as a viable option. But the consolidation of the festival as a separate identity might also throw up difficulties of establishing ownership and dealing with red tape. And red tape is a familiar dread for the organisers. Arranging for visas and getting political clearance to invite speakers from countries on various ‘watchlists’ is a formidable task.
Wary of state interference the organisers get up to 90% of their sponsorship from private bodies. But with unexpected hype comes unexpected scrutiny. Last year the festival was criticized for associating with a number of allegedly tainted corporates, drawing maximum flak for accepting sponsorship from Shell and Rio Tinto. This year, all three members of the core group admit to have mutually decided to pay closer attention to where the money comes from. But they are also clear that their collective conscience and instinct will have the final say on where these lines are drawn. Gokhale explains that since none of the sponsors are allowed to dictate the content of the festival there is hardly any cause for worry. Dalrymple does not want to get drawn too far into the colour of money debate either. “The best we can do is take money from them and use it for a good cause,” he says chuckling over having got Merrill Lynch to sponsor a debate on Che Guevara.
It is this clarity of purpose and strength of spirit that has made JLF what it is. But deconstructing its mind-boggling success is a complex proposition. Unlike most other festivals, both its directors are practicing writers enviably networked with writers all over the world. Wherever they travel they are in Gokhale’s words always looking “through the Jaipur lens.” Dalrymple keeps a look out for international authors who perform well on stage during the numerous book festivals and tours he attends. He has managed to rope in some of the greatest names in literature, academia and journalism, including a number of Nobel, Booker and Pulitzer winners, as well as introduce international stars who are lesser-known in India to a new readership. He tries to deviate from the usual emphasis on the Anglo-American voice and include English writers from other countries. There is an attempt to balance women and men, fiction and non-fiction and mix up the sessions to facilitate conversations across countries and communities- avoid “White on white,” as Dalrymple puts it.
Conversation or “samvad” is at the heart of our efforts,” says Gokhale. She is passionate about her charge of bringing in an equal number of writers from Indian regional languages- the underrepresented and unsung chroniclers of the plural realities of India.
JLF has a strong infusion of wide-ranging local and global political debate- from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan to Dalit issues. But in the midst of it all there is likely to be a small session on the most unexpected quirky topic like the adventures of Florence Nightingale and Flaubert in Egypt in the 1850s. Unlike most other festivals the focus in Jaipur is not simply on new releases. The breadth of subjects can be baffling. An amused Gokhale remembers how in 2010 there were simultaneous sessions on Dalit writing, Sanskrit and the life of the Queen of Burma.
The wealth of the authors who attend is enviable. Dalrymple claims that most of those he asks accept even though unlike festivals like Hay, none of the authors at Jaipur are paid to attend. He credits the charms of Rajasthan in January. The romance of the historical city is enhanced by the venue, Diggi Palace. Its manicured lawns, 200-year-old haveli, arched pillars, frescoes, water fountains, fairy lights and peacocks are irresistibly charming. But Gokhale misses the parrots that would dart in and out of the venues during sessions. They don’t come anymore- it is too crowded.
The crowds are mostly attributed to the fact that all sessions are free for everybody. They have considered charging admission fees but dismissed the idea because it would interfere with the basic values of the festival. JLF aspires to be a festival where anyone can come and be treated equally. Its democratic and egalitarian values are sacrosanct for Gokhale, Dalrymple and Roy. There are no green rooms for authors and no reserved seating for VIP’s- Nobel laureates, ministers or sponsors. Last year a rickshaw driver was stopped at the gates by a security guard. When Roy intervened he said, “I heard there are stories here. I sleep on the street across. I will never be able to send my son to school or buy him a book. I thought if I came here and he heard a story, it would change his life.” “That he crossed the gates of the haveli makes us a successful festival,” says Roy, clearly moved by the incident.
JLF has often been dismissed as a “white” or elitist shindig. But one look at the demographic of attendees proves otherwise. There are retired couples with sandwiches, hordes of school children sometimes all the way from Assam and ordinary readers from all over India in the same space as film stars, socialites, journalists and dignitaries. There are also musicians. The evening music sessions are perhaps the most underrated part of this extravaganza that the organisers often liken to the great Indian wedding. The careful selection of performers has led to it being named one of the five best music festivals in India by The Guardian.
Another welcome outcome of JLF is the facilitation of business. Trade has never been one of its aims but last year the official bookshop sold 40 lakhs worth of books. In addition the publicity generated by the festival continues to encourage sales long after it is over. Every year more and more publishers and agents from across the globe attend JLF and literary hopefuls roam the grounds with manuscripts and ideas hoping to catch their attention.
The success of JLF has spawned literature festivals all over the sub-continent but none of them have been able to create a distinct identity so far. There is a growing sense of cynicism about the trend and it remains to be seen if it has a future at all. But if the buzz for its upcoming 5th edition is anything to go by, JLF has little to worry about for now.
The festival is greater than the sum of its parts. The sense of electric energy in the precincts of Diggi for those five days is as unmistakable as it is inexplicable. Gokhale uses the Hindi word “rom-harsh” to describe it but any attempt to entirely encapsulate it in words is futile. Ironic for a literature fest. But then JLF is about toasting ironies and reveling in chaos. It is different things to different people. It is a fete. It is about faith. It is about our country, that made books before the birth of many civilizations. It is about this country’s appetite for reinvention. And in all of this, it is a true Indian festival.
Originally Appears in The Hindu