The litfest to beat all others: The significance of the JLF

  • Vishakha Saxena, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Jan 20, 2015 21:10 IST

Starting January 21, the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) is set to mark its 10th edition with a formidable line-up of authors and speakers including Pulitzer prize winning poet Vijay Seshadri, Chinese writer Ma Jian, Nobel laureate VS Naipaul, and, embattled politician Shashi Tharoor.
The festival, known for engaging discussions with popular and acclaimed writers, drew a crowd of 220,000 visitors in 2014.

"When we started we had just one venue - the Darbar Hall-and we'd pray it would fill up. This time we'll have 10 venues," says festival producer Sanjoy Roy.

In the wake of the JLF, a number of literary festivals have been established with varying degrees of success across the country and in the South Asian neighbourhood.

So what makes JLF this big?

"It's because we have consistently brought the biggest authors of the year," says co-founder William Dalrymple, who also believes that making starry Indian authors accessible to book lovers adds to the event's appeal.

Author William Dalrymple (Photo: HT)

For Roy, who believes JLF is a meeting ground of "the occidental and the oriental", the grandeur and charm of the Pink City and Diggi Palace play an equal role in its success.

JLF is "where you take the Indian sense of warmth and hospitality and marry it with order-like timeliness and equity," he adds.

Despite its great success, the festival has, of late, been criticised for being elitist and for an excessive dependence on celebrities. Many believe that what started as a humble celebration has, over the course of its editions, encouraged the commercialisation of literature.

Amitav Ghosh's 2012 blog post criticising the controversy that erupted about Salman Rushdie's presence - the author eventually avoided attending - referred to the festival as a "tamasha", adding that he wasn't the only author who felt so.

"I know of many writers and readers who share it, and I suspect that most of us were drawn to the world of books precisely because it provided an island of quiet within the din of tamasha-stan," he wrote.

Author Amitav Ghosh (Photo: HT)

While Dalrymple believes the accusation of elitism is "bonkers" as JLF is a free-for-all event that has its doors open "even for a rickshaw driver", he says that the festival being a 'tamasha' isn't necessarily a bad thing.

"We work hard during the day and party harder during the night. What's wrong with that?"

As for commercialisation, Roy argues that for an event that costs between Rs 8-8.5 crores and is still free, sponsors are not only important but necessary.

"India needs to get over the perception that commercialisation is a dirty word".

Notwithstanding its critics, the festival continues to be popular -- 2.25 lakh people have registered to attend this year.

"The city has taken to the festival and made it its own," believes Roy "and that really speaks for the measure of its success."

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