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Published on: March 12, 2021, 4:17 p.m.
JLF embraces the digital way
  • Singh: overwhelmed by the response

By Suman Tarafdar

Noam Chomsky, Nobel laureates Joseph Stiglitz and Malala Yousafzai, Bill Gates, Douglas Stuart, Priyanka Chopra and literally hundreds more … once again the galaxy of stars that graced that annual January jamboree in Jaipur – the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) – was a veritable who’s who. Only, for the first time in the festival’s history, like much else in the pandemic-struck world, it was forced to go online, so the stars were not actually in Jaipur. Indeed, the big question for many regular attendees of JLF during much of last year was the shape the festival was going to take.

At the end of the festival’s largest edition – in terms of number of speakers (well over 400), sessions (about 160) and duration (18-28 February, instead of the usual five days), the organisers are basking in the glory of having pulled off what had seemed improbable just months ago. “The festival set benchmarks in the area of virtual events and received unprecedented viewership from across the world,” reveals Sanjoy K. Roy, managing director, Teamwork Arts, and producer, Jaipur Literature Festival. Adds Preeta Singh, president, Teamwork Arts, “We are overwhelmed with the response we have received over the past 10 days”.

Shifting mediums

The decision to go online was taken by September/October, says Roy. “We knew we had limitations of what we would do and the risk of doing an on-ground festival was way too much. We realised that the risk was too large. So, we decided to keep the entire festival online and move the live recordings to Delhi. We didn’t want to put anyone at risk – many of our writers are in the co-morbidity situation.”

Of course, JLF’s multiple editions globally – eight at last count – going online laid the groundwork. “By the first month, we realised we were getting an enormous amount of traction not just in our regular markets like America or the UK, but places we had never reached out to. Germany, for example, was our fifth largest viewership,” says Roy.

“This understanding of the virtual world and literally doing it over the last six or seven months really paid off in terms of creating a whole new audience because, by the end of edition four of JLF Brave New World and Words are Bridges, we had about eight million viewers. These were new audiences. In an average session in Brave New World, we were getting 29,000 to 32,000 people in our Front Lawn – literally doubling the number of people we could get to every session. Similarly, when we did JLF London, it gets 1,200 people per hour – that’s our capacity, whereas by the time we finished the two-and-half days of JLF London, 250,000 people had viewed sessions. All of this learning together collectively helped create the online version.”

Roy also points to online fatigue as the reason to do up the much-discussed 3D backgrounds for the virtual sessions, providing a sense of familiarity and continuity. “We were under the impression that people were tired of being online,” explains Roy. “So, we recorded some of the sessions live in Delhi. As most of the audiences coming to us had no sense of Jaipur or what the festival stands for, we decided to give them a sense of the built heritage that forms a pillar of this festival. So, we shot all the openings and closings in Diggi Palace, Amer Fort or Albert Hall. That, along with the fact that we were able to do a 3D rendition of the Front Lawn our regular audiences are familiar with, gave them a sense of nostalgia. The reach we were able to establish, both in terms of the audience as also in the kind of speakers, has been quite substantial.”

“We spent most of last year building an audience base, morphing into the digital format,” adds Singh. “There are tonnes of content available free online, but audiences came mainly because of the brand we built online. In the one year of lockdown, we were up to our gills with digital free content. It’s all about what’s been built over 13 years. There are fond memories of being at Jaipur. The kind of sharing we had on the social media about the past was the groundswell that got this whole campaign going and has given lots of ideas for the next year as well.”

 Changes, challenges

Going digital first meant multiple changes, and challenges. As digital is now the main product, we have had to edit, shoot, record, look, design, create graphics, points out Roy. “We didn’t want to replicate what we did on ground. We even recorded at 1 am, which was quite a challenge. We had to increase our digital and online presence.” Bandwidth has been a nightmare, even in places such as America, he rues.

Raising revenue for a ‘free’ festival is always crucial, Singh points out. “It hasn’t been easy with last year being a complete shutdown year. Our long-standing relationships have all stood by. Reckitt Benckiser has been a key corporate partner, while about 30 brands came on board, including for the first time, we brought on Amazon Books as a partner – the first time we had an online book sales partner.” It was also the first time that the festival asked for contributions. “We have a ‘contribute’ button. We want to keep it free.” She admits that revenue raised not matched previous years. “The whole digital medium is a fraction of the cost of real media.”

Authors missed being in Jaipur and many were nostalgic. “January is my favourite time of the year, not because it’s cold here in England and it’s normally raining, but because I get, sometimes, an opportunity to come and talk to the visitors to the Jaipur Literature Festival, all the other authors, the organizers – it feels like home to me,” says Peter Frankopan, writer and historian. “So, I’m sorry that we’re doing all this on Zoom. I hope we will get back to normal as before. The joy and the buzz of arriving into Jaipur is just such a pleasure…”. 

Prasoon Joshi, poet, lyricist and communication specialist, echoes the sentiment. “I have so many memories of the festival. I have been there for most years, sometimes sitting in the audience, sometimes being on the stage. I can never forget what Jaipur Literature Festival means to me as an artist.”

There were unexpected positives too. Not having to travel possibly meant more speakers than usual, leading to doubling of the festival duration. “We didn’t want to flood people with too much choice online as we ourselves were not sure of how this would pan out,” says Roy. “We didn’t know that tens of thousands of people would watch online.”

The festival has undeniably altered. Notwithstanding what it has pulled off – including 50,000 registrations – the online goal is 10 million once the content goes on social media platforms, myriad innovations are likely to endure. This format has allowed JLF to track which session someone watched and for how long. “Here it’s been a distilled, varied audience from across India and the world. Digital is here to stay, there is no going back,” asserts Roy. “The physical gap year that we have had has allowed us to rethink the physical experience. Next year, there will be a difference. It’s ‘work in progress’ right now, but there will be substantial difference.” Amen to that as JLF has passed arguably its sternest test yet.

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