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JLF is now the single most successful Indian literary festival

Outside a storm was raging as giant waves rocked the angry sea.

But inside the Out of the Blue restaurant at Soneva Fushi, the Maldives island resort that is regularly listed as one of the world’s best hotels, the author and Oxford professor Peter Frankopan was explaining what could be done about global warming.


And then, after a gourmet dinner, the action shifted to the island’s Turtle Beach where the singer Sonam Kalra and her musicians played sufi music.


  It was a slightly surreal experience but it was just the latest iteration of the Jaipur Literary Festival (JLF). Ever since the festival first become a success in the Rajasthan capital, there have been requests to take it around the world. And so there has been a London edition of the JLF for many years now, first at the South Bank and now at the British Library. The New York edition has been going for six years. JLF has gone to Doha, to Adelaide, to Houston, to Belfast and will go to Rome next year.


   It is now the single most successful Indian literary festival ever, much in demand all over the world while continuing to attract thousands to the original festival in Jaipur every year. There are also online editions every month that feature writers from all over the world.


   Nearly every edition has been a response to demands from other cities. Namita Gokhale, one of JLF’s guiding lights (along with Sanjoy K Roy and William Dalrymple), says that she is astonished by the number of requests from other cities. Some years ago she was approached by an American couple at the Jaipur festival. “Frankly, I thought they were hippies,” she laughs. “They told me they wanted to host JLF in Boulder, Colorado. It was not a place I knew anything about so I was startled by the suggestion.”


   She did a little research and discovered that Boulder was a university town which had also become a centre of Buddhist learning. “I found that it had more PhDs per square mile than any city I know of,” she recalls, “and was surprised when the town council said it would support JLF.”


   The Boulder edition of the JLF has been a great success and it has brought home to her, she says, that there is something special about JLF that makes it so much in demand internationally.


   What is that special quality? Why do cities and towns which are perfectly capable of organizing their own festivals, want to host editions of the JLF? Sanjoy Roy attributes this to a global desire for diversity. People want to be multi-cultural, they want to look at things from a new perspective, he suspects.


   At most of its foreign editions JLF makes some attempt to encourage discussions on issues that directly concern the host city. At the Belfast edition, Ireland’s religious conflicts were discussed at length with both sides in the dispute represented. Even so, remembers Roy, there were raised eyebrows when Tara Gandhi, grand-daughter of the Mahatma, praised the controversial IRA leader Bobby Sands on the grounds that by going on a hunger strike while in prison he had upheld the traditions of her grandfather.


"William Dalrymple told the audience at the Maldives edition of the festival that the world had never been more into reading than it is now."

   The JLF faces criticism in India too, says Roy, when the Festival invites speakers from both left and right to Jaipur. Many of his friends berate him for inviting people whose views they know he profoundly disagrees with. “But that’s the whole point,” he argues. “One of the strengths of JLF is that we like to have debates about ideas and opinions. The world is losing itself in hatred. Far better to have a forum like JLF where there is room for a civilized debate.”


   There is something about the platform, he believes, that makes people who normally express outrageous opinions aggressively on mass media, take a more reasoned approach in front of a JLF audience.


   Central to JLF’s global appeal is that it is not just about publishers and books. While there are book fairs that operate mainly for the publishing industry, there is only a handful of festivals where people are invited to discuss issues. It helps if speakers have written a book but JLF is emphatically not a vehicle for book publicity.


   It has now become difficult for the JLF team to decide which global invitations to accept. For instance when Sonu Shivdasani, the founder of Soneva Fushi, first reached out to JLF, Roy was skeptical. “We like to think of ourselves as being for everyone. So did we really belong in a top resort?” he wondered.


   But Shivdasani won him over when Roy visited Soneva Fushi for himself and realized that the hotel tries to go beyond luxury. For years Shivdasani has hosted the Slow Life symposium to discuss sustainability. The actress Tilda Swinton, a Soneva regular, has had gatherings of artists at Fushi, to exchange ideas.


   Roy became convinced that a JLF edition at Soneva Fushi would work even though it would not be cheap. Despite the huge discounts Shivdasani has offered guests it is hardly an inexpensive hotel. But writers and speakers get food, rooms and air tickets for free. And nobody makes a profit on the Festival; not Soneva and not JLF.


   Like all JLF editions, the formula is the same: serious discussions during the day and music in the evenings. This approach has worked well in Jaipur and JLF has successfully taken it around the world. Gokhale still remembers the crowd dancing right into the fountain at the South Bank during a London edition of JLF when the Rajasthani folk musician Kutle Khan preformed. At the Maldives edition too, the music was one of the highlights.


   Can JLF keep growing? Founder William Dalrymple told the audience at the Maldives edition of the festival that the world had never been more into reading than it is now. His British publishers had their best year yet, he said, because people began to read again during the Pandemic.


   And certainly, the audiences at JLF editions are growing. At the mother festival in Jaipur this year, Shashi Tharoor attracted such huge crowds that security-men had to form a protective ring around the writer-politician to get him to his car from the venue.


   And yet, Roy accepts that even as the demands for overseas editions keep pouring in, there is only so much JLF can do. The Festival has never paid a speaker, no matter how eminent, and survives either on grants from local councils eager to host editions of the JLF in their towns or from corporate sponsorship.


   This year, in a break with a tradition, it charged a small entry fee for the mother festival in Jaipur. It made no difference to the numbers.


   So perhaps Dalrymple is right. People are reading more books — and therefore are more interested in listening to writers and intellectuals— than ever before. And there is no better example of that phenomenon than the global growth of the JLF.




  • Dr. Mohammad Aleem 19 May 2022

    Sir, I always enjoy reading your articles. Congratulations

Posted On: 16 May 2022 10:50 AM
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