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William Dalrymple on JLF: It’s like a super-university pitching its tents in Jaipur

In just over a decade since its start, the Jaipur Literature Festival is widely recognised as the world’s largest, and most exciting and most influential book festival. In the process, it has inspired over 300 smaller literary festivals that have sprung up like magic across South Asia.

JaipurLitFest Updated: Jan 24, 2018 13:33 IST
William Dalrymple
William Dalrymple
Hindustan Times, Jaipur
Jaipur Literature Festival,JLF,Jaipur Literature Festival 2018
This year, the Jaipur Literature Festival will host writers from almost 20 international languages and literary backgrounds, including constellations of Harvard, Yale and Oxbridge faculty as well as Nobel, Booker, Pulitzer, Sahitiya Akademi and Samuel Johnson winners.(Himanshu Vyas/HT Photo)

There are across the globe six or seven truly great book festivals: Hay on Wye, Sydney, the New Yorker, Mantova, Frankfurt, Adelaide, Edinburgh and St Malo. But in just eleven years, the Jaipur Literature festival has grown to overtake all of these and is now widely recognised as the world’s largest, most exciting and most influential book festival. It is moreover the only one of the A-list to be completely free and open to all.

How has Jaipur managed this in just over a decade - and in the process inspired over 300 smaller literary festivals that have sprung up like magic across South Asia? The reason I think is first and foremost the incredible amplitude of our programming.

On one hand, every year we unfailingly bring the greatest names in world literature to Jaipur: This year we host writers from almost 20 international languages and literary backgrounds, including constellations of Harvard, Yale and Oxbridge faculty as well as glittering cohorts of Nobel, Booker, Pulitzer, Sahitiya Akademi, and Samuel Johnson winners. It’s like a super-university pitching its tents in Jaipur for five days and opening its doors to all comers.

On the other hand, we bring to world attention the very greatest writers from across India, in all of this country’s fabulous diversity, in a huge variety of India’s many languages. My brilliant co-director, Namita Gokhale, every year curates a bhasha list of unrivalled breadth and depth: This year she has programmes thirty powerful writers who represent Hindi literature including celebrated names like Akhil Katyal, Anu Singh Choudhary, Ashok Vajpeyi, Avinash Das, Chitra Mudgal, Mridula Garg, Pankaj Dubey, Satya Vyas, Saurabh Dwivedi, Vinod Dua, Yatindra Mishra among others, and over 50 speakers representing 15 other major Indian languages including Bengali, Gujarati, Kannada, Maithili/Bhojpuri, Malayalam, Marathi, Nepali/Gurkha, Odia, Rajasthani, Sanskrit, Santali, Sindhi, Tamil, Telugu and Urdu.

Book lovers started arriving at the JLF venue, Diggi Palace, two days before it officially opens on January 25. (Himanshu Vyas/HT PHoto )

We also remain true to our Jaipuri roots and are committed to showcasing the remarkable literature and the finest writing on the arts of Rajasthan: BN Goswamy will lead a session on Rajasthani art, we look at James Tod and Rajput arms and armour, the ecology of the Aravallis and the inner life of camels, while major authors from Rajasthan at the Festival this year include Abhimanyu Singh Arha, Arvind Singh Ashiya, Bulaki Sharma, Mridula Behari, Nand Bhardwaj, Raghvendra Rawat, Rajendra Bora, Reena Menaria, Rima Hooja, Vimlesh Sharma, Vinod Bhardwaj and Yash Goyal.

This year we probe several areas we have never seen before and have gathered talent from across the globe—from Afghanistan to Patagonia and Tasmania to Turkey—to present writers of genius as diverse as the great literary critic Homi K. Bhabha, travel writer Redmond O’Hanlon, terror expert Peter Bergen and theoretical particle physicist Lisa Randall. We import some of the world’s most admired playwrights and novelists, including Tom Stoppard, Michael Ondaatje and Amy Tan. We delve deeply into areas of world literature we have so far failed to explore, notably the novelists and poets of Scandinavia, Syria and West Africa while returning to examine eternal classics such as the works of Conrad, Shakespeare and Virginia Woolf.

We will explore a vast range of subjects from the history of headhunters to nature writing and the decline of pollinating insects; from the Russian Revolution to the perils of celebrity; study biographies from Lenin to Cleopatra, Bin Laden to Bruce Chatwin; we hear tales of book smuggling in Timbuktu and river journeys up the Congo; we look at the art of film and screenwriting and ask whether the page is mightier than the screen; we probe the reason for the Reformation, ask how to save the Ganges and uncover the secrets of alQaeda; we share the agonies of Syria and Palestine and the pleasures of Chinese philosophy and Sufism, as well as learning about dinosaurs and dark matter.

We are delighted to have Pico Iyer return to the Festival after a long gap. Excited audiences await Helen Fielding, author of Bridget Jones’ Diary, whose work combines high comedy with deep reflection on the changing lives of women. We have a session celebrating The Beatles and their visit to Rishikesh 50 years ago. And we have session with Shashi Tharoor speaking on P.G. Wodehouse and his puzzling and perennial appeal to Indian readers.

Festival organiser Sanjoy Roy at the training session for volunteers at the venue. (Himanshu Vyas/HT Photo)

We pride ourselves that this is the most democratic and egalitarian book festival in the world. Anyone can walk in for free, and there is no VIP reserved seating. Our programming reflects this: Angela Saini will speaking of why women are not visible in the sciences. Namita Waikar of Pari and a perceptive panel discuss ‘Visible Work, Invisible Women’. Iconic writer Ma Thida from Myanmar will be visiting the Festival for the second time now. Manoranjan Byapari, the great Bangla Dalit writer, discovered his literary aptitude while ferrying the legendary Mahasweta Devi in his rickshaw, and New York based Dalit superstar Sujatha Gidla talks on her acclaimed memoir Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India.

We are a young festival. Just over 60% of our audiences for 2017 were below the age of 25. Snighda Poonam leads a panel on ‘Dreamers: Looking at Young India’. Debut novelists Preti Taneja and Prayaag Akbar speak of dreams and dystopias. Anyone who wishes to see the draw should visit Jaipur Railway Station one evening and see all the book-loving students camping on the platforms. They may not be able to afford a hostel bed but they’ve found ways of getting to Jaipur from Tamil Nadu, Assam and Kashmir to supercharge their minds. Our audiences are the youngest, brightest and most enthusiastic of any festival I know.

It’s going to be an incredible few days. Come and join us: we are completely free and open to all, and everyone is welcome. Just register online and turn up!

First Published: Jan 24, 2018 13:32 IST