On the Jaipur Literature Festival and other festivals of ideas

I returned from the Jaipur Literature Festival on Monday after midnight. This year’s festival was intense – the weather had suddenly turned gloomy and rainy halfway through the week, but still there was an unprecedented footfall of people, and everything was just overwhelming, chaotic but also beautiful in a certain way. It was just what the JLF loves people to remind about itself – it’s the largest free literary festival in the world. Just the week before, Kindle finally published the article on the JLF and other literary festivals, for which I had interviewed the fantastically talented and generous William Dalrymple, in Edinburgh, way back in summer. And then I had gone to attend the mini-edition of the JLF in London. Here’s the unedited version of the article:

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William Dalrymple tells a tale about Bahadur Shah Jafar from The Last Mughal at the JLF in London, summer 2014

I caught up with William Dalrymple the week before the first edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival at the Southbank Centre in London. …

In May, when the weather in London is as balmy and pleasant as that of winter in Jaipur, the new JLF was a one-day celebration of Indian literature and culture that was strongly reminiscent of home. In September, there will be the first American JLF in Boulder and Denver, Colorado, and there may be another version at a third location in the upcoming years.

But a Jaipur Literature Festival so far away from Jaipur? Isn’t the idea incongruous? Not so much when we observe that the Hay Festival, named after the remote, bookish town of Hay-on-Wye in Wales where the original festival is held, now takes place in several locations of the world, including but not limited to Beirut, Belfast, Dhaka, Nairobi and Thiruvananthapuram. It is not the location but the specific ambience and aesthetic of the literature festival that makes it transferable from its primary location to elsewhere in the world.

When asked why he organised the JLF back in 2008, Dalrymple says that it was as much to bring the biggest international authors to India as to bring India to the world. I take this idea of “bringing” as the central point of my discussion. When your favourite international author travels to New York or London for a book tour, the question of “bringing” does not arise. But for the same author to come to India – even to Delhi, the capital of the country and the location of the only growing English-language publishing industry in the world – evokes the idea of a specially arranged additional tour, far away from the traditional centres of the literary world.

The reasons why this is such is better understood when we take a look at The World Republic of Letters (2007) by Pascale Casanova. In this book named after a theory originally proposed by Pierre Bourdieu, Casanova identifies a “universal aesthetic quality” that may attributed to literary works from anywhere in the world, by the means of which they transcend their local themes and become representative of the human condition. For many of us in India, the Booker and the Nobel prizes are our introduction to foreign writers we have never read, belonging to countries and literary cultures from which we have not read anything before. (For instance, Orhan Pamuk was the first contemporary Turkish writer for many of us, or Patrick Modiano the first contemporary French writer.) Clearly, there are certain agents upon which we depend to prescribe the highest – global, transcendental – standard of literary value for us. And even though the writers and their publishers may be located anywhere in the world, the agents are almost always located in the Anglocentric West.

This global, mostly Anglocentric system that negotiate literary value and reach to works of literature is often independent of actual book sales. For instance, Chetan Bhagat may be a massive bestselling phenomenon in India, but few people outside India have even heard his name. In the same way, India may be the largest English-language book-buying nation in the world for the sheer size of its population (by percentage of literacy or reading habit it is still quite low), but in the role of an agent that confers universality to a work of literature it is still quite insignificant. Casanova’s book, written in French, is largely Eurocentric, in which she identifies Paris, New York, London, Berlin and so on as the dominant centres of the international literary space, which makes it possible to connect “James Joyce, an Irishman, with Arno Schmidt, a German, or with the Serb Danilo Kis and the Argentine Jorge Luis Borges; or Umberto Eco, an Italian, with the Spaniard Arturo Perez-Reverte and the Serbian Milarad Pavic”. On the other hand, in the essay “The Rise and Rise of Writers’ Festivals” (from A Companion to Creative Writing, ed. Graeme Harper, 2013), Cori Stewart observes that none of the major literature festivals of the world take place precisely at these dominant centres, with the exceptions of the International Festival of Authors in Toronto and the International Literature Festival in Berlin.

The Hay Festival and the Edinburgh Book Festival, two of the world’s most celebrated literature festivals which also worked as Dalrymple’s model for the JLF, both take place in what Stewart calls “peripheral locations”. Unlike the international festivals at Toronto and Berlin which concentrate almost exclusively on literary discourse and try to transcend their locations, the peripheral festivals are defined by their locations, ambience, engagement with local writing, culture and other forms of art – more than strictly literature festivals, they are, as Dalrymple calls the JLF, “festivals of ideas”. Both the writers and the readers who change two trains from London, followed by an hour-long drive through forests and hilly farmlands to quirky Hay-on-Wye and spend two weeks in Victorian houses turned into bed-and-breakfasts or camping tents pitched under the sky – in this place which has hardly any international literary power or presence through the rest of the year – do not merely go there for the sake of literary discourse. They go for the entire experience, which is meant to be both intellectually stimulating and fun, a break from their day-to-day routines. The same can be said of hordes of students and publishing professionals who take a night bus, train or a quicker flight to Jaipur for the festival that usually takes place around the Republic-Day weekend.

The entire experience is the reason why more and more literature festivals in India are springing up at exotic locations, rather than at major urban centres. The Mussoorie Writers’ Mountain Festival, the Kochi International Book Festival and the Goa Arts and Literature Festival are held in the mild winter months of November and December. The CALM Festival in Shillong takes place in May, when the hot summer in the major cities makes a literary retreat to the north-eastern hills seem highly desirable. What these locations lack in international literary power, they make up for with the peripheral attraction of travelling to iconic tourist destinations in India. With this they attract both local and international writers, as well as a great number of audiences looking for a entertaining vacation tinged with a literary flavour.Of course, there are also book launches, readings, discussions, exchanges of ideas, media and publishing-community socialisation in situations that are not accessible to everyone, but the peripheral attractions are equally important for the larger public culture of the festivals. The festivities, so as to say, serve the other important function of bringing writers and their works to the readers.

The JLF has been at the forefront of this diverse offering right from its inception. Originally conceived in 2004 as a part of the Jaipur Virasat Festival – an event that displays the works of the traditional performers, craftsmen and artisans of Rajasthan – the JLF has always included ticketed evening performances by acclaimed Indian and international music artists. The time at its signature series of debates is always kept by a nagara drummer onstage, who starts performing each time a speaker crosses their allotted time limit. The festival takes place at the Diggi Palace, an opulent eighteenth-century Rajasthani haveli-turned-hotel, its grounds and trees teeming with flocks of parrots and the occasional peacock, where the guests are lodged and so can members of the audience. Dalrymple said he particularly enjoys the non-ticketed nature of the festival, which encourages schoolchildren to come and interact with well-known writers.

Yet another point of significance emerged from my conversation with Dalrymple in May. “There’s been throughout history a tradition of the public performance of literature,” he reminded me. “Shakespeare’s plays are not written to be read in a schoolbook, they are designed for the bawdy London playhouse of the sixteenth century. Homer didn’t write to be read. And, in India, this tradition of performance has been particularly rich. You read Mirza Ghalib’s poetry in a book today, but it is written to show off and beat Zauq in a poetry competition in the Lal Quila. I think the fact that India has a performance tradition gives it a different dynamic. There is a particular cachet in being a good performer.”

Literature and storytelling as they exist beyond the page are a tradition closer to the surface in India and many other non-Anglophone communities, which probably makes them a fertile ground for literature festivals like the JLF. Gathering in a public place to watch and listen to stories or conversations resonates with more people than merely reading, the reason why cinema and television have penetrated more easily to remote parts of India where books are still unpopular. The act of imparting and receiving literature live is also a step against the seclusion of the written word, and feels like a more intimate, irreplaceable act. The way Dalrymple sees it, while books may continue to be the basic unit of conversation between the writer and the reader, events like literature festivals are here to spread that act of conversation further and among diverse ranges of people, and can only do good to the entire process.

***

This is the link to the article as it was published in Kindle.

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