Showcasing literary India to the world: Jaipur LitFest begins today

  • William Dalrymple, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Jan 21, 2015 09:56 IST

Each year at Jaipur we showcase literary India to the world, and world literature to India. This year's programme is our biggest and most exciting yet. Eleven years ago, in 2004, I gave a reading at Diggi Palace on the edge of the 'Pink City' of Jaipur. Fourteen people turned up, of whom 10 were Japanese tourists who had got lost. A decade later, however, by some strange yogic sleight of hand, what became the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival has shape-shifted into the largest free literature festival in the world, with footfalls last year approaching quarter of a million.

In our wake, no less than 70 other literary festivals have now sprung up across South Asia. We have become a catalyst for a major renaissance in a very ancient South Asian tradition: The public performance of literature. This is a tradition, which stretches back to the poetry recitals of Sangam-period Tamil Nadu, through the medieval bards who orally recited the Mahabharat from town to town, to the mushairas of the Mughal court where Ghalib would compete with Zauq spontaneously to form the wittiest couplet. We are proud to have been instrumental in bringing this ancient Indian tradition back from the dead.

Each year we get a Nobel laureate: This year it is VS Naipaul, who will be celebrating 50 years of A House for Mr Biswas. We will also showcase a clutch of Pulitzer winners, including Kai Bird, Adam Johnson and Gilbert King, and most of the Booker shortlist, including this year Eleanor Catton, Sarah Waters, Will Self and Neal Mukherjee. We welcome Alberto Manguel, one of the great literary thinkers and critics of our time and the author of A Short History of Reading and one of the most successful travel writers of all time - Paul Theroux of The Great Railway Bazaar. Nicholas Nasim Taleb will talk about Black Swan Theory: How rare and unpredictable events have a deep and lasting impact on our lives.

'The Poetic Imagination' will be the theme of Wednesday's morning's keynote speech, delivered by three of the most eminent poets writing today; acclaimed writer and translator Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Sahitya Akademi Award winner Ashok Vajpeyi and Pulitzer Prize winner Vijay Seshadri.

Legendary actor Waheeda Rehman recalls a life in cinema with noted biographer and director Nareen Munni Kabir. We have an incredible bandwidth of literary talent across India's diverse language belts: Amit Chaudhuri, Raj Kamal Jha, Rakhshanda Jalil, SR Faruqi, Janice Pariat, Urmila Pawar, Sushama Deshpande, Ashwin Sanghi, Chetan Bhagat, Amish Tripathi, Mahua Maji, Sangeeta Bandhopadhyay, C. Mrunalini and many others.

Rohan Murty introduces "The Murty Classical Library of India", with readings from the original and in translation from Bullhe Shah in Punjabi, Abul Faz'l from the Persian, the Therigatha from the old Pali, Allasani Peddana from Telugu, and Surdas from old Hindi. Sheldon Pollock, the editor of the MCLI, will speak on the need and necessity of a library of Classical Indian Literature.

We have sessions on how to write erotica, criticism, art history, historical novels and memoir; we'll take a new look at Lawrence of Arabia, Homer and Marie Antoinette; and we'll have sessions on tigers, lesbians, bumble bees, Neanderthals, pirates, aesthetics and erotics, detectives and spooks - where we'll explore the world of the CIA and the wilderness of mirrors that spies inhabit.

Meanwhile, my colleague Sanjoy Roy and his colleagues at Teamwork have their work cut out. Over the next six days we will be deploying at Jaipur some 300 speakers and musicians from nearly 60 countries representing 22 languages, over 2,000 workers to ready the venue, over 500 crew and volunteers.

It's going to be an utterly amazing few days and I can't wait. The festival is completely free and open to all: Please come and join us!

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