Photograph Credits: Teamwork Arts Pvt. Ltd.
A Literary Repast: The Jaipur Literature Festival
The 16th edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival proves without an iota of doubt that the literary heart of the country as well as the world is alive and pulsating with life.
Is interest in serious literature declining? This seems to be a matter of debate as well as quiet conversation among book lovers and academicians all over the world. I also felt the first niggling of this disquiet when as the editor of a literary magazine, I realised that the readership for serious literary content was difficult to come by. And then I discovered the Jaipur Literature festival. I also learnt that 80 percent of the attendees were below the age of 25. And my belief that serious literature would outlive contemporary ‘literary’ trends, was restored.
The 16th edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival proves without an iota of doubt that the literary heart of the country as well as the world is alive and pulsating with life. The festival was inaugurated by none other than Abdulrazak Gurnah, a British novelist, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2021. This seemed to set the tone for the entire festival that was abuzz with names of creative wizards from different countries of the world who had made a name for themselves in varied literary genres. What added charm and a rhythmic ambience to the festival was the seamless braiding together of literature and music. Every day began and ended on a musical note, with traditional as well as fusion artists regaling the audiences with classical, folk as well as western music. Whether it was the fusion band, Pangaea, comprising composer-songwriter Mike Hogan; tabla player Saptak; and sitar player/flautist Mayank, and their soul-stirring Indian classical piece or a recital by award-winning Carnatic vocalist Sushma Soma or Pop icon Usha Uthup’s rendition of the sultry and mischievous ‘Darling’. The dance performance titled Āhuti by Nrityagram Dance Ensemble, in collaboration with the Chitrasena Dance Company of Sri Lanka, featured Kandyan and Odissi dance with stunning visuals and choreography.
The sessions, across the 5-day event, were contoured in a way so as to appeal to the palate of the most diverse reader. For those who are inclined to read the works of Nobel Prize, Booker prize or Pulitzer Prize winners, the place was a veritable treasure trove. Perhaps the most coveted session for me was the one in which Nobel Prize winning author Abdulrazak Gurnah shared his life’s experiences and talked about how they shaped his literary work. The one nugget of Gurnah wisdom that resounded with me the most was his ‘take’ on writing. For Gurnah, “Writing, above all, is about upholding the ideas and beliefs that we think are important and that we value. When someone says, ‘writing as resistance’, these are the kinds of things I think of rather than fighting tyrants or necessarily standing on platforms making powerful speeches to energise people; but more the ordinary, mundane business of not forgetting, of making sure that what is important is always kept alive.” It is this concept of writing that inspired me the most.
International Booker Prize winners Geetanjali Shree and translator Daisy Rockwell, in conversation with Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar recipient Tanuj Solank, talked about breaking stereotypes, which again is necessary for literature that is new and innovative. When talking about breaking stereotypes, one cannot forget what Booker Prize winning Srilankan author Shehan Karunatilaka did in his book ‘Seven Moons of Maali Almeida.’ A ghost’s point of view is definitely cutting through the set-in-stone stereotype of a narrator. Shehan’s comment, “what if I write from the ghost’s point of view and it took me to this idea of what if Sri Lanka’s dead could speak” stuck with me.
For history buffs, the session with Caroline Elkins, Pulitzer Prize winning Professor of history at Harvard University and author of the book ‘Legacy of Violence: A History of British Empire’ would be very illuminating as she talked about a variety of themes, including the global history of empire, its violent undertones, the legal case that was filed against Britain and its manifestations in South Asia. Through the book, Elkins said, she hoped to connect the dots of what happened across the colonial events of violence in 1857 India and 1954 Kenya, among others. She says that while these are explained as one-offs, they are in fact rooted in the very ideology of liberal imperialism which was deeply violent. The fact that the well-known politician, Shashi Tharoor, drove the conversation, made the session extremely interesting.
For lovers of poetry, especially Hindi and Urdu poetry, there was a treat in store with sessions devoted to Gulzar and Javed Akhtar, well-known and respected poets of India. Gulzar was in conversation with award-winning translator, writer, and literary historian Rakhshanda Jalil, to discuss A Poem a Day, a volume of Indian poetry selected and translated by Gulzar. Gulzar sahab said, “You will get the sense that shayari is not something that can be kept in the textbooks. It is as alive as you are, and the way you breathe, the poem breathes…” Javed Akhtar on the other hand talked about his conversational biography, ‘Talking Life’ and regaled the audience with snippets of information from his interactions with stars like Amitabh Bachchan, Rajesh Khanna etc.
I was particularly riveted by a panel of speakers (under the aegis of Jaipur Bookmark) who discussed the importance of building communities of readers. The panel talked about making efforts to strengthen these communities and educate them to promote readership. This I thought was needed in today’s day and age. There is lots more to write and discuss but the literary buzz and pulsating life of this unique festival cannot be replicated by a handful of written words. Suffice it to say that it is indeed one of the greatest literary shows on earth and offers a repast that every literature lover can savour and cherish.
In an interview with The Wise Owl in August 2022, Namita Gokhale, the co-founder & director of the Jaipur Literature festival had told me, “When we began, I had a vision, a dream - but what we have now managed to collectively conjure up is beyond those early expectations. William Dalrymple, Sanjoy Roy, and his committed colleagues at Teamwork Arts- all bring their special understanding and interests, and the whole is greater than the parts. The festival has a throbbing life of its own - let’s see where it takes us next.” The festival has scaled great heights. It has promoted serious literature as well as or perhaps even better than any other literary forum in the world. Whatever comes next will surely be bigger, better and brighter.
Nasreen Munni & Javed Akhtar
Gulzar & Rakshanda Jalil
Geetanjali Shree & Pushpesh Pant
Caroline Elkins & Shashi Tharoor
A doctorate in English literature and a former bureaucrat, Rachna Singh has authored Penny Panache (2016) Myriad Musings (2016) Financial Felicity (2017) & The Bitcoin Saga: A Mixed Montage (2019). She writes regularly for National Dailies and has also been reviewing books for the The Tribune for more than a decade. She runs a YouTube Channel, Kuch Tum Kaho Kuch Hum Kahein, which brings to the viewers poetry of established poets of Hindi & Urdu. She loves music and is learning to play the piano.