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Get bookmarked, Jaipur Literature Festival opens today

The Jaipur Literature Festival is a unique celebration of writing that has grown into something bigger and more wonderful to anything we could ever have hoped when we first conceived this festival. William Dalrymple writes. Jaipur lit fest is here

india Updated: Jan 24, 2013 15:32 IST
William Dalrymple

The Jaipur Literature Festival is a unique celebration of writing that has grown into something bigger and more wonderful to anything we could ever have hoped when we first conceived this festival eight years ago.

From only 14 guests turning up in 2005, most of whom were tourists who took the wrong turn, in 2006 we had a big enough crowd nearly to fill the Diggi Durbar Hall. About 400 people came in 2007. Last year, we had 120,000 footfalls, and the success of Jaipur has inspired a whole galaxy of other literary festivals not only the 30 that now exist around India but in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and now Burma. We are as surprised as we are proud of this.

Jaipur remains one of the world’s most beautiful cities, with a rich literary and cultural heritage and a proud tradition of local literature. As ever, we still pride ourselves on being the most democratic and egalitarian book festival in the world. All events are completely free; there are no reserved spaces for grandees; our authors mingle with the crowds and eat with them on a first-come, first-served basis. People also know that when they come here they will have a lot of fun.

As Time Out put it nicely last year: “It’s settled. The Jaipur Literature Festival is officially the Woodstock, Live 8 and Ibiza of world literature, with an ambience that can best be described as James Joyce meets Monsoon Wedding.”

But the scale, literary seriousness and reach of the festival are something that still take us all aback.

This year we have so much to offer that it is difficult to know where to begin. My colleague and co-director Namita Gokhale has put together an extraordinary desi list, with the two keynote speeches by the Dalai Lama and Mahasweta Devi and a special theme of the Buddha in Literature.

Namita's bhasha list is a marvel in all its multi-linguistic glory: this year the lawns of Diggi Palace resonate with Bhojpuri and Maithili, Rajasthani and Santhali, Hindi and English, Spanish and French, Sanskrit and Punjabi, Sindhi, Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, and many other languages. It is an occasion to celebrate a vibrant multivocality.

Sessions such as The Language of Literature will have Ambai, Sitanshu Yashaschandra, Benyamin Daniel and Udaya Narayana Singh in discussion about the particular genius of their mother-tongues. This and other panels question the impact of English and world literatures, and search for commonality and difference in subject, language and literary usage.

I am equally proud of the international list which this year is, I believe, the most cerebral, intellectually-stimulating and high-powered we've ever fielded.

We are pleased to present two of the greatest poets in Europe, Simon Armitage and John Burnside. In fiction we have Commonwealth Prize winner Aminatta Forna, Booker Prize winner Howard Jacobson, two Orange Prize winners Linda Grant and Madeline Miller. We have two of the most respected novelists in the Arab world, Ahdaf Soueif and Tahar Ben Jelloun and welcome back two of Pakistan's most celebrated literary wunderkinds Nadeem Aslam and Mohammad Hanif.

Our non-fiction list is especially strong this year. We have no less than three winners of the Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction, Frank Dikotter on Mao, Wade Davis on Everest and Orlando Figes on Stalin's purges, while Pulitzer winner Andrew Solomon will speak on his remarkable new book, Far From the Tree.

From Harvard we have Diana Eck, whose book India: A Sacred Geography has been one of the hits of the year, the philosopher Michael Sandel who brings his popular BBC Radio 4 series -- The Public Philosopher -- to Jaipur and the leading cultural theorist, Homi Bhabha. From Columbia comes the much-revered post colonial and post modern literary critic and thinker Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.

We present three of the world's most acclaimed artists in conversation: Anish Kapoor, Marc Quinn and William Kentridge. Nandan Nilekani will discuss Breakout Nations with Ruchir Sharma, author of this year's bestselling book of non-fiction.

It's going to be an absolutely extraordinary five days and only wish it were possible to clone oneself so that one could attend five of the sessions we will be running simultaneously. See you in Jaipur!

(Dalrymple is a historian and writer and is a director of the Jaipur Literature Festival 2013)