27 January 2010

The Word Caravan

No longer a footnote, the Jaipur literary festival grows, tries different voices and spawns others, says TRISHA GUPTA

THE JAIPUR Literature Festival, whose fifth instalment runs from January 21 to 25, started as a three-day literary appendage to the Virasat Foundation’s Jaipur Heritage Festival in 2006. “There were just 16 authors reading then,” laughs Namita Gokhale, one of the Festival Directors. “We invited 18, but two didn’t show up.” By 2009, there were over 140 writers participating, and 12,000 in the audience, spread over five days and 50-odd parallel sessions. This year, there will be more than 150 writers, including such literary stars as Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, Hanif Kureishi, Geoff Dyer and Vikram Chandra.

Gokhale admits that some of those who’ve seen the festival grow are nostalgic for the initial phase when there was only one session at a time, held in the Durbar Hall of the charming Diggi Palace, with pigeons flying in and out. But that feeling of intimacy, of having stumbled upon a secret, came at the cost of being relatively unknown, and having very limited contact with the immediate surroundings. By its fourth year, 2009, the festival felt much less like a visiting satellite from some alien planet that had landed in Jaipur for a few days. According to the organisers, 30 percent of 2009 festival visitors were from abroad and 30 percent from Indian metropolises, but local attendees from Jaipur – from journalists and housewives to the poetry-reading government servant and surprisingly attentive hordes of school and college students – made up a whopping 40 percent.

While the festival is largely Anglophone, there is some attempt to represent India’s vibrant regional literary cultures, not just catering to Jaipur audiences with sessions in Hindi and Rajasthani but also bringing on, say, a Nalini Jamila, her fluid Malayalam sentences instantaneously rendered into English by K Satchidanandan and Paul Zacharia. “I think there was some suspicion in the beginning because bhasha writers are quick to feel slighted. And the playing field is not even, let us admit,” said Gokhale. “But I think now bhasha writers are enthusiastic about it. And international writers who come also feel that it’s the festival’s multivocal, multiphonic nature that gives it a unique flavour.”

But if someone like Tash Aw, Taiwan-born and London- based author of the acclaimed The Harmony Silk Factory, loves Jaipur, “because the majority of the public is Indian [unlike] other literary festivals in Asia, which seem tailored to expats”, the festival has its critics. While for Gokhale the fact that that “you can see these people offstage, so to speak – Vikram Seth looking for a chair, or Nandita Das queueing up for dinner”– underlines the festival’s “democratic surroundings”, there are those who think of Jaipur as another link in the cocktail circuit, “full of high-fliers”, tainted by the culture of celebrity that surrounds us.

ONE SUCH group of people has, in fact, initiated an alternative literary festival in Kerala this year which hopes to become “the obverse” of Jaipur. Being held for the first time on January 8 and 9, the Kochi Letters International Festival 2010 (LIFE) seeks to “raise book lovers from the level of consumers to that of participants in thinking”. Featuring talks by thinkers like Marxist economist Prabhat Patnaik, cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek and a host of Kerala-based intellectuals, the non-fiction centred Kochi LIFE sees itself as a reaction to the “compulsory, compulsive media of today”, says organiser Sashi Kumar. With two such different festivals in the space of a month, the literary scene in India seems spoilt for choice.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 02, Dated January 16, 2010

No comments: