To enjoy the full Mail & Guardian online experience: please upgrade your browser
23 Jan 2015 00:00
The Zee Jaipur Literature Festival runs in Jaipur, India until January 25.
Set in a (functioning) palace in the middle of the Rajasthan desert, the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival is like Bollywood
for the brain. All the cerebral
celebrities are here, recognisable by the yellow-bibbed volunteers that usher
them between stages, signings and interviews.
The Nobel laureates are on the
bill (VS Naipul, Amartya Sen).
So too are the bright young things (Eleanor
Catton, Samantha Shannon) and the Cool Brittania crew (Hanif Kureishi, Will Self).
Even South Africa is represented by some intellectual heavyweights (Damon
Galgut, Mark Gevisser).
You could easily think of the Zee Jaipur Literature
Festival as just another elitist gathering, but then it does something no Bollywood
film dares – offer its fans free access to the wit and wisdom of its stars
through a packed programme of themed talks and panel discussions,
simultaneously taking place in five venues over five days.
room only when Amartya Sen fulfils his role as the keynote speaker for this,
its eighth year. And don’t think it will be any easier when Hanif Kureishi,
Amit Chaudhuri, VS Naipaul and Paul Theroux take to the stage to find a “House
for Mr Biswas”.
That’s because the festival prides itself on being egalitarian
in a way that India is not. As William Dalrymple, celebrated author and
co-director of the festival puts it “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.”
More or less … if you
ignore the colour of the lanyard strings that separate the speakers from the
delegates, the press from the crowds. You can buy a delegates pass to gain
“exclusive lunches and dinners with speakers and authors”. But in theory, no one
is off access – not the speakers and not the cultural music events, available
to anyone and everyone at 400 Rupees (less than R100) per event.
William Dalrymple, a historian, writer and the co-founder and co-director of the literature festival.
theme seems genuinely entrenched in the festival’s ethos. From the choice of
speakers to the variety of topics, the festival does not separate the literary
from the visual arts; the traditional from the popular; giving equal access as
it does to filmmakers, physicists, actors, chefs and artists alike, even
launching the pinup for popular culture itself in the “Masterchef India
festivals might excuse their dwindling numbers with the usual “the book is
dead” rubric, this festival proudly embraces its sponsorship model, welcoming
branded stages and product placements alongside a growing audience that reached
250 000 people last year. And not an ageing audience either. The sight of giddy
school groups chasing autographs is as commonplace as international tourists failing
to hide their practical Western shoes under playful Indian silks.
When you see some
of these literary giants, dwarfed by the big stages and crowds, you would be
forgiven for thinking them smaller and older than their book sleeves would have
you believe. But then they start speaking in poetic rhetoric that could open
parliaments or send soldiers skipping into battle and you know for sure that
they are true literary stars, doing what they do best – making you examine
society, your life and how these intertwine in a way that questions the very
meaning of your existence. Especially as a writer.
In the end it’s
really about the reader and the writer coming face to face instead of page to
page, which can be as exhilarating as seeing your favourite literary character
come alive on the silver screen or as disappointing as watching a movie kill
your favourite book – as Hanif Kureishi and others will be attesting under their
theme “adaptation” in days to come.
The hard truth is that not all writers
make great orators; not all laureates can inspire beyond the blank page. And
there in lies the rub but also the genius of a democratic festival that lets
you plan which speakers and themes to seek out, only to let the masses (of
elbows) decide for you. And so you stumble on a new author or subject matter
the way you might a good book – because it availed itself to you when no-one
else would. How I love the element of surprise.
The Zee Jaipur Literature Festival runs from 21 -
25 January in Japiur, India.
Create Account | Lost Your Password?