Keeping Jaipur a storytellers' paradise even as it grows
Jaipur's literature festival grapples with how to stay informal while its popularity booms
Jaipur, also known as the "Pink City", is generally regarded as an essential destination for anyone navigating the subcontinent. There are palaces and forts, elephants and camels, and fabulously rich splashes of Indian culture to be absorbed.
In recent years, the city has also become known for its annual literary event that has gone from humble beginnings (10 attendees at its first incarnation in 2005) to epic proportions (122,000 people last year). The DSC Jaipur Literature Festival is today arguably Asia's largest and most esteemed literary gathering. And it's free for anyone to attend.
"It's seen a sort of miraculous, almost monstrous transformation," says author William Dalrymple, who shares the role of festival director with Indian writer Namita Gokhale. They have created something "really quite remarkable", says Dalrymple, who seems almost shocked at the success of the event.
The buzz continues to grow, with authors from all continents and contingencies coming together to discuss, debate and master literature in all its forms. The five-day event is held at the beautiful Diggi Palace, a stately 200-year-old mansion replete with gorgeous courtyards and rambling gardens that's been turned into a hotel.
"The venue creates a particular blend of vibes - you get the sense that there are a thousand stories waiting to be told behind every window, every door," says Sanjoy Roy, managing director of Teamworks Productions, which organises the event. "The festival is about storytelling - it is about literature and all its forms."
But perhaps more than this, it's the openness and inclusiveness of the venue and the occasion that makes it a lively attraction for people from all walks and all agendas. "It's like the great Indian wedding. We tend to lay it out for all of our visitors - you can walk into a session without knowing anything about the authors," says Roy.
Gokhale, too, thinks the venue is partly responsible for the appeal and success of the mela (the word for gathering, or festival, in India). "It is a location - both physical and emotional - where people come, and they can see themselves in their own mirror," the co-director says.
In January last year, the festival attracted the attention of the world when it was revealed American media mogul Oprah Winfrey had invited herself, and then again soon after when author Salman Rushdie was forced to pull out of the event due to death threats.
Perhaps it was the psychological and emotional aspects of this gathering of minds in a beautiful city that attracted Winfrey to the 2012 festival. The directors have been clear that they want the event to remain a "cerebral enterprise", in Dalrymple's words, and make what they insist is a "great effort not to invite any celebrity". But the festival is an open event and anyone can attend so long as they do not expect special treatment.
Although Manhad Narula of DSC - title sponsor of the festival - says the fuss that evolved over Winfrey's visit was a memorable part of last year's event, it showed more importantly "that people of that stature want to be invited and that's very encouraging to see". It's the power of the festival, he says.
While Winfrey's presence and the subsequent crowds raised questions about the lack of space, and a potential need to address the formula of a simple place where minds can meet and mingle, the absence of Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses - which is banned in India - brought up other concerns. Rushdie attended as a speaker in 2007. Last year, Islamic groups sent death threats to stop his appearance in Jaipur and a planned video link was cancelled at the last second when Islamist groups gathered and began to threaten attendees as well as the organisers.
So has the event become too large to handle additional pressures, which have come with growth and the rising presence of celebrities? Dalrymple says this year the festival - which begins January 24 - will continue to "maintain seriousness", while space issues will be addressed by opening new areas within the Diggi Palace property to accommodate the increasing number of attendees.
"I hope they can keep it free and fair as it is," says Narula. "The authors walk around, and the public mingles with them - there's no 'us' and 'them'." This is an over-arching theme for the festival, and the organisers maintain the affair will remain free for all, and a non-profit-taking enterprise. Anyone from the rickshaw driver to the billionaire businessman is welcome to enter and enjoy the festivities.
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get to meet these authors," says Priyanka Malhotra, CEO of Full Circle Publishing India, which operates the main bookstall at the festival. Part of her challenge is figuring which books to keep in stock, to ensure enough copies are available. A simple comment by a writer on stage can trigger a stampede for works by that author.
Malhotra predicts Dalrymple's latest book, Return of a King: The Battle of Afghanistan 1839-42, will be a hit, as will The Art of Happiness, by the Dalai Lama and psychologist Howard Cutler.
For 2013 then, there is the usual amount of excitement and build-up as the festival draws closer. While Dalrymple handles the international influx of authors, Gokhale turns her attention to the South Asian contingent, ensuring that 17 of India's 22 widely spoken languages - from Bangla to Urdu - will be represented through author presentations and panel debates of all sorts.
Gokhale says this showcase of Indian literature works in two ways in Jaipur - not only does it enhance interaction among the Indian community, but also allows an international group of authors to draw on and from each other, while enlightening their audiences.
The organisers say the presentations focusing on Buddhism are set to be the main driver of the festival discourse: authors such as Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat Pray Love, British novelist Sebastian Faulks, and travel writer Pico Iyer, are on the list of speakers, along with Chinese-American debut novelist Yiyun Li.
Then there is Gary Shteyngart, author of The Russian Debutante's Handbook, Man Booker prize winner Howard Jacobson, Somerset Maugham Award winner Philip Hensher, and Vikas Swarup, whose book Q&A was filmed as the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire.
Sculptor Anish Kapoor is set to hold a session on art and aesthetics, and Anoushka Shankar, daughter of the late musician Ravi Shankar, as well as US folk band Rupa and the April Fishes, are on the festival's music programme, to be held at a venue near the Diggi Palace.
The DSC South Asian Prize for Literature, now running in its third year, will also be announced during the gathering: the shortlist includes Amitav Ghosh's brilliant River of Smoke, as well as Pakistani writer Mohammed Hanif's Our Lady of Alice Bhatti.
"Magic" is the word most frequently used by members of the team working to put together the festival, and 2013's enchantments are just waiting to be discovered in this ancient corner of Jaipur.
DSC Jaipur Literature Festival 2013, Jan 24-28, Diggi Palace, Jaipur, India, free (registration required at jaipurliteraturefestival.org