The Jaipur Literature Festival has, in its 10 years, redefined what a literature festival is. It’s free, open to all. It’s a crazy riot of colour and music. It’s fun, even exciting. And it’s cool. For the past five days, the festival has been the place for young Indians to meet friends, be seen, take selfies, preen at the bar, and engage with writers talking about everything from Donald Trump to the British Raj.
The festival, known as JLF, offers a template for what is possible for literary festivals across the world, including in Australia. For two days in February, Melbourne Writers Festival will put on a summer ‘pop-up’ Jaipur Literature Festival for the first time. Its director, Lisa Dempster, travelled to India last year to experience it.
The first thing she noticed was the sheer number of people – JLF started with 7000 visitors in 2008 and last year had 330,000. About 11% of people attending are international visitors, and more than 20% of those are Australian. While literary festivals can feel like theatre events, where you pay for your ticket and sit quietly, JLF ‘feels like a music festival’, says Dempster. ‘It’s quite electric, it’s very dynamic. You get a sense that it’s a show. The discussions are very important and it’s also fabulous to soak up that atmosphere.’
It is held at a great venue – the historic Diggi Palace Hotel in Jaipur, a city of more than three million people in the northern desert state of Rajasthan, known for its ancient forts, deep cultural and artistic heritage, as well as its white-knuckle traffic.
Walk in to Diggi and you’re at a party. Overhead are streamers of every colour. Indian dancers welcome you. The opening event featured classical music and an Indian choir, as well as – according to a school student standing next to me – a send-up of a popular television show, India’s Got Talent. And there were fireworks – at a literature festival.
The five-day event is held mostly outdoors in colourful tents. You wander from venue to venue depending on your interests – there are no tickets. The biggest venue is the Front Lawn, and there was standing room only for Man Booker Prize–winner Paul Beatty, and a riotous welcome for Indian film legend Rishi Kapoor.
It was packed for a discussion on ‘The Legacy of the Left’, a debate about the crisis of progressive politics from Britain to India. It was full, too, for ‘The Art of the Novel’, and for a spirited session on shattering the myths around the positive impact of British colonialism in India. That session featured politician and writer Shashi Tharoor, who is hugely popular in India and who will deliver the keynote address in Melbourne.
JLF is about ideas, novels, poetry, politics, economics, and current events; it’s a festival where audience participation is as critical as anything the official speakers have to say. You stop for inexpensive Indian and international food when you like, and there’s a music program at night. Most sessions are in English.
One idea that defines the festival is that it is free – it boasts that it is the biggest free festival in the world. In his opening address, the festival’s producer Sanjoy Roy said that the reason was that ‘in societies where there is inequity like India and America, the only thing that can bring about substantive change is knowledge and education.’ Here were the great minds of the world, and ‘anyone can walk in completely free.’
Melbourne’s Jaipur tie-in joins two others in London and Boulder, Colorado. JLF Melbourne will also be free (except for the Opening Gala), and will feature sessions on Indian women’s writing, the upending of travel writing in a globalised world, as well as events with Australian writers such as George Megalogenis, who has written extensively on Australian immigration. Dempster says that Australian literary festivals have much to learn from Jaipur, and the pop-up will attempt to capture its flavour.
Another principle is the festival’s insistence on a diversity of views. In a session on cultural appropriation, Australian writer Yassmin Abdel-Magied said that while writers could write what they like, the critical things for her were intention and respect when it came to writing about minority groups or people of colour. Colonialists had taken everything, ‘and now they try to take our identity?’ She did not write about cultures that were more marginalised than her own – ‘let me empower you so you can tell your own story.’
Yassmin Abdel-Magied (centre) with Mark Singleton (left) and academic Jim Mallinson (right) discuss cultural appropriation at JLF.
Last year, Abdel-Magied walked out of a Brisbane Writers Festival speech being given by American author Lionel Shriver, accusing her of fostering the ‘unfettered exploitation of the experiences of others, under the guise of fiction’.
At JLF, she was challenged by writers including Mark Singleton, a University of London Sanskrit scholar and yoga researcher, who said he had been questioned at the festival about why a white man could write about the Indian tradition of yoga. His view was that the idea of cultural appropriation could be dangerous, presenting the idea that ‘if you are not the right colour, born into a culture, then go away, hands off. It can rarefy certain groups, it can plug into identity politics … and in the hands of demagogues it can become a dangerous idea.’ It was a similar story at most sessions – there was no uniformity of opinion.
Sanjoy Roy says ‘we must have all views’, not so much to uphold a narrow notion of balance, but because it was essential at this time of great upheaval when even the idea of truth was under challenge. The festival was criticised this year for ‘selling out’, he said, because it held one session featuring a right-wing Hindu nationalist group, RSS. This is at a time when many famous Indian writers have attacked the national government for repressing free speech on the grounds of nationalism. Roy says the criticism is ‘nonsense’ – it was just one panel among hundreds.
‘If we stop listening, if we stop creating these platforms for consideration, we are not going to change anything’, he says.
‘The liberal mindset is in question. If you see America, if you see Britain, India, I’m sure Australia – the reason why right-centric governments or propositions are being passed is because people hate the liberal, they think the liberal is the establishment. They feel that we have controlled the situation, we have set the agenda and they don’t want it anymore.’
Because of the festival’s timing, Donald Trump was a regular thread. There were good lines – Paul Beatty said Trump’s victory was America’s ‘dick pic’ to the world, and keynote speaker, American poet Anne Waldman, said we faced a ‘war on imagination’.
Australia’s Booker Prize–winner Richard Flanagan believes that in dark times, novels are more relevant than ever.
‘There’s been a profound shift in the West … people no longer believe that politics can bring change’, he said. In such a world, ‘books are the new counter-culture’ in which people can seek out meaning beyond their value as an economic unit. ‘Books are not in the thrall of power and money. They will become more important rather than less so.’
For Vidya Shah from Mumbai, the festival is about discovering writers she has never heard of before. This is her fourth festival, and this year she discovered Flanagan, who won the Booker Prize for his novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North, about prisoners of war forced to work on the Burma death railway during World War II.
‘I found it amazing’, Shah says. ‘I did not know about the death railway, even though the railway was being built so (the Japanese) had easier access to India. I just found it a very interesting style of writing, he goes back and forth. There’s so much about relationships, memory, loss of love. Every year I go back [from JLF] with two or three authors that are new.’
Vidya Shah, left, from Mumbai, and her friend Anita Waghani attend JLF.
The Jaipur festival is so preposterously successful that it has a novel problem: the crowds. At times, it is crushing and uncomfortable, and some festivalgoers I spoke with suggested that it was time to charge a fee to attend. That would be a shame, and is something Sanjoy Roy resists. He says the Diggi Palace offers more space every year. The crowd ebbs and flows, and you end up meeting people from far-flung places around the world.
Roy has described the festival as a ‘big fat Indian wedding with the depth of literature, music and everything else’. He laughs. ‘What I keep saying is, this is a literature festival, not a rock concert.’
Gay Alcorn is a journalist and editor. She has won three Walkley Awards for her work with The Age and was a foreign correspondent based in Washington for three years. She was deputy editor of The Age, and edited the Sunday Age for four years. Alcorn is currently the Melbourne editor for Guardian Australia.
Join the celebration at JLF Melbourne, 11–12 February 2017 at Fed Square. View the JLF Melbourne program.