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A cocktail of classless elegance

Bajre ki roti in a dinner blessed by Shiraz Cabernet? J. M. Coetzee holding a cackling audience of Indians to silence with his grim tales in a festival which, straight-faced, can offer a session called "Cinema Bhojpuri" where the nuances of Bihari popular culture is discussed threadbare to an audience in splits? N. Madhavan writes.

art and culture Updated: Jan 26, 2011 19:29 IST
N. Madhavan

Bajre ki roti in a dinner blessed by Shiraz Cabernet? J. M. Coetzee holding a cackling audience of Indians to silence with his grim tales in a festival which, straight-faced, can offer a session called "Cinema Bhojpuri" where the nuances of Bihari popular culture is discussed threadbare to an audience in splits?

If Jaipur is mixed-up in this season of the literature festival, we can blame no-one. Perhaps, the JLF is symbolic of the new-new India in a Raghu Rai-like photograph that compulsively blends contrasting, even opposing, elements in a pastiche of sensuous images, dark and bright at once.

Visitors to the Pink City may still drive past elephant dung and camel carts while its young run a marathon to mimick the spirit of Boston and Mumbai. Perhaps it is this catch-up spirit that found a strange blessing in the JLF.

But there is more to this than catching up – there is a turning of the tables, as it were. A decade ago, Page 3 parties were the ones to be crashed into. But the Jaipur festival has been well and truly crashed in its charmed winter afternoon light by the regulars.

Perhaps it helps that entry is free. The buxom girl with grey eyes that I last saw at a luxury goods conference in New Delhi was there, winding her way down to Diggi Palace in a multi-coloured harem pant that would not go well with the agonizing dark-blue tales of human rights violations being discussed in ritual sessions on AfPak or Kashmir in the lawns and the tents. However, there they were, providing visual relief.

Can we blame Jaipur's own local elite – the police officers, bureaucrats and the extra-endowed trader – for showing up with family/progeny in such an ambience?

Perhaps, the dose is overdone. Milling schoolchildren in rows and rows of cluelessness, escorted by teachers to something that would appear "big" to them – two Nobel laureates in attendance, mind you – seemed incongruous until the appearance of Ruskin Bond on Sunday morning.

As it turned out, the queue to get signed copies of a Bond tale was longer than the serpentine rush for Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk.

Pamuk may have ducked difficult questions on Islamism and stuck to the nuances of writing in his German-like English accent, but he provided both raucous humour and romance – with partner Kiran Desai in toe – decidedly confusing those who might have expected him to lend gravitas.

So it fell upon Coetzee and Dalit writer types to bring to balance the event. Literature, by some unspoken consensus, is more about the serious, human side of the printed word but this is Shining India where publishers need to sell.

A Merrill Lynch-funded tent, Coca Cola sponsored events and the glitterati have made the festival an abode of serious chic, and if that sounds oxymoronic, it is symbolic of what JLF has evolved – or regressed – into.

But we are in an India that sings for inclusive growth. Just as well that we had a cackling session on "Aisi Hindi, Kaisi Hindi" in which rockstar writers like Prasoon Joshi celebrated rather than moaned outside influences in the language. Bollywood lyricists Gulzar and Javed Akhtar must have easily contributed to the surge from Jaipur streets that provided glorious contrast to the metropolitan wannabes in shades.

Perhaps the Pink City needed a bit of the punk influence. But how much is too much in the publishing industry's quest to glamourise the written word? The bajre-ki-roti, dipped in sauvignon blanc rather than lassoon ki chutney, is spelling a new kind of momentum. Puritans may step aside. This is Jaipur 2.0.