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Published on: March 6, 2022, 4:46 p.m.
JLF: Year 15, Year 0
  • It's festival time again, in Jaipur

By Suman Tarafdar

For fans of the Jaipur Literature Festival, there is nothing quite like it. Many designed their January calendars around it. The festival has gone well beyond writers and their fans adoringly taking in their words in picturesque settings in Diggi Palace, the venue since the festival started. From political discussions to celeb spotting, musical evenings, tackling issues of the publishing sector, sampling culinary offerings, a smorgasbord of cultural experiences, exclusive dinners/street-side wonders, even the occasional controversy, Jaipur for those five days has a distinct energy.

The hotels are full, festival delegates can be seen thronging the ‘pink city’ for monument-ing or market-ing, even riding hot air balloons. Festival attendees have even lodged at the city’s railway station – just to be able to hear their favourite authors – for free. In 15 years, JLF has established an identity few can match.

Just like much else, Covid-19 of course impacted this sprawling festival. Come edition 2022, expect changes. The biggest change for many will be the venue – a move that had been in the works – from Diggi Palace to Clarks Amer, more to the south of the city. The festival is also being presented in a hybrid format for the first time. Along with five days of the festival as usual, on ground, there are also five preceding days of virtual sessions.   

Hybrid is here to stay, points out Sanjoy K. Roy, festival producer & MD, Teamwork Arts. “We created this large digital community by accident. The 2021 edition had 27.8 million people logging in. The entire festival is digital; so, we have had to reformat some of the things we do. Digital is free to view across the world, and has a fabulous programme – and much of what we do on ground will go digital, but not everything. It’s a full festival. It runs for five days. And, we have foolishly decided to extend it for another five days. So, instead of a smaller festival, we’ve ended up having a bigger festival – also, with a postponement and, now, with a war.” For William Dalrymple, author and Festival Co-director, “The pandemic has been hard for everyone but literary festivals have faced existential challenges to their survival. Now, we are back and are thrilled to bring our beloved Festival back to the hallowed soil of Jaipur.”

The festival not only got postponed from January due to Omicron, it has also become concurrent to a war that has shaken up the world. The festival addresses the situation. “We have got two sessions – one of them on the Ukraine conflict itself,” says Roy. “We will be showing photographs of pre-war Ukraine by someone who visited earlier this year – as a tribute and a message that the war is definitely wrong. The other is going to be a session on public diplomacy. We are commemorating 50 years of the 1971 war.” 

Themes for the year

Because it’s 75 years of India’s independence, we are looking at commemorating – not so much about bells and whistles, but looking at issues on the ground – around agriculture, democracy, economy..., elaborates Roy. “Also, what we have to be more and more conscious of is the climate crisis. We have a series called the Urgency of borrowed time, which looks at the climate crisis – how to get people to look at this issue much more consciously. Climate is one of those things we tick to put in the box, but how do we get to use that narrative and find that tipping point. And not just one narrative, such as plastics, but everything from water to recyclables, etc, we have tried to bring in as a theme.”

The other theme this year is Baithak – around theatre and dance, photography and film. That’s going to be an accent here on again, according to Roy. “It came about because there was such a vast outpouring of biographies – Zohra Sehgal, Soumitro Chatterjee, Sai Paranjpye, Farookh Dhondy, Dolly Thakore… They all came up at roughly the same time and created a fascinating overlay for a period, which we have somewhat forgotten – the lives of these people, as they were. They lived a different kind of life, inhabited a different world – a flower power kind of space. All of them have crossovers; the timeline crosses over.”

“We have award-winning authors from around the world, as well intriguing new voices waiting to be heard, in a programme that reflects the rich diversity of India and the splendours of world literature,” says Namita Gokhale, author & festival co-director. 

Covid and counting

Covid has been a huge challenge – the creative sector has suffered enormously, admits Roy. “Our thought was whether to host the festival digitally in January – when it was originally scheduled. Then we got hordes of requests from Jaipur saying that the ecosystem has been so impacted that we should consider doing it physically. It will be the first big tourism activity in the country. We have tried to contain the numbers – put in a modest charge. Let’s see. There are new challenges, and we hope that it will be successful.” Yes, this edition is paid – a nominal R200 for general entry and half that for students.

A new venue offers its own challenges. “Any switch, and given the size of the beast we are, is problematic,” points out Roy. “While it’s year 15, it’s also going to be year 0, because it’s a new venue. Till we are running it there, we will not be able to iron out every wrinkle. In Diggi, we grew year by year. The format remains the same, beginning with yoga and music; even the names of the venue remain the same. It is an opportunity to rethink the space.

The lack of a title sponsor is another challenge. “We haven’t had a title sponsor for four years, ever since Zee decided to move on,” says Roy. “Strategically, we have kept away from a title sponsor for now. It has put a huge financial pressure. Naming rights was 50 per cent of our income. With Covid, it has impacted us even more. Hopefully, next year, it will be better.”

Hybrid future

Digitally, the audience has changed completely – that’s been the big story for JLF. “The average watch rate has been going up,” says Roy. “In 2020, our average viewership was about 29,-31,000. In 2021, our viewership was 62,000. Also, the nature of our audiences has changed. That’s been a challenge. Who are we programming for? We don’t know them. We knew the people coming to Jaipur.”  Online tracking suggests major attendance not just from the US and the UK, but now Germany, China, Japan, Indonesia, Uzbekistan…

The last physical festival had about 125,000 footfalls. Roy expects to restrict it too much less. Not if the fans have a say though. 

Star speakers for JLF 2022

A couple of Nobel laureates, a plethora of Booker Prize winners, ministers – Indian and from a wider world, thinkers, biographers, musicians, actors, old favourites, even self-published authors … as usual JLF has drawn up an impressive list of about 500 speakers. Cautionary note: Not all are scheduled to be in person in Jaipur.

Here’s some notable names to look out for:

Abdul Wahed Chowdhury (Bangladesh war hero)

Abdurazak Gurnah (Nobel Prize Winner)

Abhijit Banerjee (Nobel Prize Winner)

Damon Galgut (Booker Prize winner)

Huma Abedin (Hillary Clinton’s Chief of Staff)

Patrick Radden Keefe (Baillie Gifford non-fiction awardee)

Remo Fernandez (singer)

Sharmila Tagore (actor, filmmaker)

Smriti Irani (Union minister)

Taran Khan (Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year winner)

Usha Uthup (singer)

And then there are the favourites:

Arundhathi Subramaniam B.N. Goswamy Colm Toibin D.B.C. Pierre Elif Shafak Farrukh Dhondy Giles Tillotson Jonathan Franzen Kunal Basu Lisa Taddeo Maya Jasanoff Monica Ali Navtej Sarna Nayantara Sahgal Pavan Varma Shashi Tharoor Shehan Karunatilaka Tahmima Anam Zac o’Yeah 

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