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Every festival is a vacation

Let’s hear it for festival tourism. Yes, I know what you are thinking. And you are wrong.

When I say ‘festival tourism’, I don’t mean going away for Holi or Diwali or Christmas. That’s always been fun. But these days when people talk about festival holidays, they mean something entirely different.


As I write, the madness has begun in Cannes.  The French seaside town is best known for the Cannes Film Festival, a celebration of life, madness and sometimes, cinema.


   I went to the Cannes Film Festival only once—in 2013—and I have never forgotten quite how enjoyable and surreal the experience was. I suspect I was not the only one to feel that way. The town was overrun by thousands of people, many of them with only the tiniest of connections to the film industry. They were there because Cannes, when it shines, can be the greatest show on earth.


   That’s what I call a festival holiday.


   Festival tourism is a big thing these days. I am willing to bet that many of those at Cannes this year also had little to do with the film industry. When I went, years ago, it was to shoot a TV documentary on the festival and I had the full Cannes experience. Landing in Nice, helicoptering to Cannes, staying first at the Martinez and watching the stars gather in the lobby and then at the Carlton where agents and producers thronged the lift, eating nearly every meal at the Michelin two-star La Palme D’Or while gazing down at the crowds from its balcony, walking the red carpet as the paparazzi clicked away (on the off-chance that I might be a movie star who had gone to seed) and lunching on the yachts that dotted the bay.


   But what I remember most now is the energy on the Croisette, the seafront walkway (like Mumbai’s Marine Drive). You might find Vanessa Paradis performing for free; a contingent of drag queens rushing along; make-up artists pulling their valises as they went from one assignment to another; men in full evening dress waiting for their dates to arrive and street performances of all kinds.


   If work ever took me back to Cannes, I would gladly forsake the choppers, the Michelin star-meals and the suites at the Martinez and the Carlton, just to walk the dizzy streets when the festival was on.


   You don’t have to go to Cannes to enjoy a festival. In 2007, I was a delegate at one of the functions to mark the India@60 celebrations in New York City. It was the kind of festival of India that made you proud to be an Indian. New York buses were painted in the colours of our flag, the percussionist Sivamani stopped traffic at Times Square, dancers performed Kathakali at the exits to Grand Central Station, and Bryant Park became a centre of modern Indian culture as such artistes as the Colonial Cousins performed.


 "The Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, which I only went to once, had all of Australia’s greatest chefs strutting their stuff along with tastings of local produce and even the odd competition."

   It was one of the more dazzling celebrations that New York—a city that is used to dazzle—had ever seen and it symbolised the hope that Indian democracy and pluralism represented.


   I know people who now plan entire holidays around festivals of one kind or the other. Food and wine festivals are the obvious choices. Many years ago, when it was still not globally renowned for the diversity of its food scene, Singapore began to organise the Gourmet Festival/Summit. Some of it was about the local food of Singapore but most of it was about the world’s great chefs.


   I went for about four years, chatted to Ferran Adria about life after molecular gastronomy, discussed the global popularity of Thai food with David Thompson, enjoyed talking about the best way to eat bone marrow with Fergus Henderson, found out about the origin of nouvelle Chinese cuisine from Susur Lee, one of its pioneers, and watched bad boy butcher Dario Cecchini demonstrate his craft.


   The Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, which I only went to once, had all of Australia’s greatest chefs strutting their stuff along with tastings of local produce and even the odd competition. One night, I went to a tasting of Australian and New Zealand Pinot Noir to decide which was better. The largely Australian audience had to concede that New Zealand made the better Pinot Noir.


   My wife likes to joke that the literary festival is to this century what the fashion show was to the end of the 20th century. There was a time, you will recall, when people who had no interest in fashion would turn up at fashion shows in India’s urban centres and treat each show as a social occasion. Some of it was down to simple babe-watching. But a lot of it was because fashion shows were the place to be seen.


   I am not sure she is entirely correct when she says that the same is true of literary festivals these days. But yes, there is certainly a place-to-be-seen element to such events as the Jaipur Lit Fest.


   I don’t really mind. I’d much rather that people should want to be seen at a literary event than at a film party. I have been speaking at the Jaipur Lit Fest (JLF) for years now and like the joyous energy that characterises it. At this year’s festival, it was gratifying to see packed-out halls for discussions on poetry and fiction. More interesting, from my point of view, was the kind of reception that someone like Shashi Tharoor, who spoke about pluralism and tolerance, got. Audiences treated him as if he was Shah Rukh Khan and then discussed what he said for days afterwards.


   One of the things I enjoy about JLF is its egalitarian nature. For those of us who have written books, it offers us an opportunity to interact with (and often be insulted by) people from all walks of life, and of all ages—from enthusiastic students to thoughtful retired folk.


   So, I wondered how a JLF in the Maldives would work. The festival was held at Soneva Fushi which offered, for those attending the JLF, rates that were about a quarter of the normal Soneva rates. Even so, it was a much more expensive festival to attend than anything JLF has done before.


   As it was, it worked out just fine. A surprisingly large number of people turned up because they saw it as festival tourism; as a chance to have a holiday in one of the world’s most glamorous destinations with the added benefit of listening to, and mingling with, distinguished writers and thinkers. (Or, it could just be that this was probably the cheapest way to partake of the full Soneva experience because of the special JLF rates.)


   The idea of a literary festival at a beautiful location is not new: there have been festivals in such places as Bhutan and Kasauli before. And if you can do it the way the JLF did it in the Maldives with time for fun between the sessions, then it does become an unusual and rewarding holiday.


   A holiday in a lovely place is always fun. But a holiday built around a festival is so special that the memory will stay with you.



Posted On: 27 May 2022 11:21 AM
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