The Jaipur Literature Festival this year faced criticisms of overcrowding and an indiscriminate choice of sponsors. There was also at least one incident of assault. Here, the three organisers of the festival respond to the critique and discuss the festival’s future.
‘Success is sometimes harder than failure,
SANJOY ROY Producer of the DSC Jaipur Literature Festival
Photos: Garima Jain
You’ve been involved with the festival for four years now. Your thoughts on the challenges of managing an exponentially growing festival?
Success has its own problems and is sometimes much more difficult to handle than failures. The problem with crowds, for instance, includes getting people into places, starting things on time… all the logistics involved when you do something on this scale in a place like India with all of its security concerns. In a big stadium event or a big conference, you have gatekeepers either allowing or not allowing certain kinds of people in. Yet, the philosophy of this festival is to have equitable access on a first-come-first-seated basis for anybody who comes off the street.
Near the fountain area, I saw a man and his son being stopped. I walked up to them to ask them where they were heading and the man said, “I sleep on the footpath outside the hospital, and I heard you had children’s stories here. I will never be able to send my children to school. But I thought if he hears a story, it will change his life.” And immediately we had to change our thinking in terms of allowing people in. How can we be gatekeepers and say such people are not allowed?
You spoke of security concerns. There was an incident where author CP Surendran was slapped. He said in an article that it is about the elements that had been allowed entry…
I couldn’t disagree more. CP may take a high moral stand with regards to the kind of people who should be allowed in, but this incident was about him going up to a Sikh gentleman and asking for a light. This gentleman — he is an industrialist of some repute — is British and because they are a diasporic minority and are battling racism all the time, they take this kind of stuff seriously. The crowd at the festival (has been well-behaved); every session has been packed. I haven’t heard a mobile phone going off.
Did you have a chance to look at the letter about the sponsorship issues?
Oh absolutely. I’ve answered it twice or thrice. We haven’t looked at the colour of money so far and I think that we do need to be somewhat sensitive to the kind of sponsorships we raise. Having said that, we know that the festival needs money to create an equitable platform to allow access to all. (I think we are fine) as long as we aren’t stopping any criticism of any of these sponsors.
The constant criticism levelled against the Jaipur Literature Festival is that it is too glamour-driven and too focused on the UK and US-based writers to the detriment of those who write in Indian languages.
‘Lots about JLF deserve to be criticised’
Namita Gokhale Founder and co-director of the DSC Jaipur Literature Festival
My desire is to break out of the UK-US dominance that happens in most literature fields. (But) I think that is the fault of media perception as well. There are lots and lots of things about the Jaipur Literature Festival that deserve to be criticised, just as everything deserves to be criticised. But if there are four sessions and the media tends to report what is glamour-driven or easy to understand people do get a skewed impression of what it is about. Anybody who comes to Jaipur and gets the spirit of it cannot dispute its integrity.
Was the festival well-balanced this year?
I think it was. I think the international writers who came were either writers Indians know or deserve to know, like AC Grayling. Although he wasn’t so well-known to Indian audiences, his session was a hit.
What about the Indian language writers?
I’m delighted by the response they got; all the sessions by Indian language writers were full. We had a range of almost 13 languages.
Where would you like to see the festival go from here?
While it’s charming to have an elite-centred, balmy winter afternoon with the sun shining and us listening to these great writers, I think the hunger of people for books, of real people coming in real numbers that represent India and listening to our real languages (needs to come through).
It’s very important that the so-called Bharat meets the so-called India. Young people from Jaipur meeting Candace Bushnell as well as people from around the world coming to hear about traditional water harvesting practices in Rajasthan. So everything should be open to everybody. We should not have stereotypes about who is a reader or a writer. We need representation, not tokenism.
We may have to ticket the weekends’
William Dalrymple Founder and co-director of the DSC Jaipur Literature Festival
Are you rethinking some aspects of the festival?
The big problem this year was space — we doubled the size of our venue but numbers topped 60,000. We’re lucky to not have had accidents. The space was fine for the weekdays but it was a scramble on the weekends. There are five more acres in the property we can open up. Also, a decidedly non-literary crowd comes in for the music and raids the booze. In one small instance, some people were attacked. We’re going to have to rethink the free evening music or ticket the weekends.
Before the festival there were allegations in a magazine article about you to which you replied…
The writer of the article, Hartosh Singh Bal, has never visited the festival or checked its website, because he said it was a festival which was dominated by Brits. How wrong can you get it? Thanks to Namita’s work, this is the premier showcase for bhasha writing — it’s the only place where a writer from Kashmir can meet a writer from Tamil Nadu, an Odia speaker can meet a Gujarati and all perform in front of a large audience. Today, there’s no question our biggest hits are Prasoon Joshi and Gulzar. See the figures. We had 224 authors — 64 from 32 countries, 162 desis. Seven Brits. It was a huge mistake on my part to reply. It eclipsed the work of my colleagues.
What about questions of sponsors like Rio Tinto and Shell?
Ideally, it’d be nice to have the money delivered by some generous patron. We’ve been turned down by the Indian corporates who only want polo matches and fashion shows. As the American bank robber Willie Simpson said when asked why he robbed banks, ‘‘Coz that’s where the money is’’. The crowd regards it as a triumph — the biggest free literary festival in the world where Nobel prize winners queue up for their meals with school children. I’d fight hard to keep it free and open to everyone.
Originally published in Tehelka.