The Jaipur Literature Festival boasts the privilege of being the largest free literary festival in the world. Founded in 2006, the festival began as an initiative to preserve Indian literature and celebrate both Indian and international literary works.
This year's festival lasted from January 21-25 and saw a record attendance of 245,000. According to The Hindu, “the latest edition saw a 100 percent increase in the number of international visitors from 50 countries and a 40 percent increase in the number of students. This year, the festival welcomed more than 300 authors, up from 240 in 2014, and 140 musicians who participated across 10 venues.” In its eighth year, the festival presented a wealth of diverse content and discussions that included a debate on freedom of expression, discussion on contemporary Pakistani art, and the evolution of jazz. There was also a highly anticipated talk moderated by Eat, Pray, Love's Elizabeth Gilbert on the importance of the "selfie" and its relation to the history of memoir, but this was sadly canceled at the last minute.
Despite the size and scope of the festival this year, it was without the controversy seen in recent times. Salman Rushdie cancelled his 2012 appearance after local police circulated unsubstantiated rumors that the author's life was in danger ahead of a planned reading of The Satanic Verses. There were fears that this year's invitation of Indian MP Shashi Tharoor of Thiruvananthapuram would create similar controversy. Police had recently questioned Tharoor regarding the murder of his wife Sunanda Pushkar. Tharoor recently ignited passions after praising India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the 2015 Kolkata Literary Festival, held a week prior to the Jaipur Festival.
The “Basic Instinct” panel was moderated by New York Times book reviews editor Parul Sehgal and featured panelists Hanif Kureishi, Deepti Kapoor, Sarah Waters, and Nicholson Baker. The talk traced a history of sexual discovery in literature. Hanif Kureishi remembered his youth in the 50s and 60s where a search for pornography would take him to his father’s bookshelves, and Sarah Walters recalled a young adult past where finding representative lesbian and gay sexual encounters in literature were few and far between. The conversation, which has garnered attention from outlets such as The Guardian, has been recoginzed for its engagement with the ways sexuality is artistically portrayed in Western and non-Western ideologies. Hanif Kureishi highlighted that in the US there exists a situation where it is almost taboo to not write about sex. Deepti Kapoor illustrated the struggles she had to overcome as an Indian writer seeking to write candidly about sex and drug use in a culture of censorship.
The Legacy of Mao Tse-tung and Gaddafi
Looking further afield, the festival hosted a discussion on “Cultural Revolutions” with a focus on Chairman Mao Tse-tung’s rule in China. The talk showcased moving testimonials from artists Anchee Min, Ma Jian, and Jung Chang. Chang shared rich personal insights about how the dictatorship shaped the everyday existence of writers who lived in a climate where their rulers insisted that “the more books you read, the more stupid you become.” Another evocative discussion came from Libyan-American writer Hisham Matar, who recounted fleeing the regime of Muammar Gaddafi and reckoning with the impact that his father's dissent had on him as a son and as a writer.
To Be or Not to Be
“Hamlet’s Dilemma” sought to expand preconceptions of the literary. The talk featured filmmaker Vishal Bharadwaj, who told the eager crowd that he could spend a lifetime reinventing and adapting the William Shakespeare’s plays. Bharadwaj’s third film, Haider, is an adaptation of Hamlet, contextualizing the historic play in a Bollywood setting and highlighting the plight of Kashmiri Muslims. Many audience members inquired as to why Bharadwaj “ignored” the plight of Kashmiri Pandits to which the filmmaker responded: “The story of Kashmiri Pandits is not a less[er] tragedy at all. But cinema gives you a choice and it was my choice to make a movie on this subject. Basically, my film's time period and the topic didn't allow me to focus on that tragedy.”
The largest audience, however, was drawn for former Indian President APJ Abdul Kalam and his inspiring talk, “The Visionary” on Saturday evening. Dr. Kalam was welcomed with a rock star’s reception as he sat down in front of the audience. He began the session with evocative words, asking the ecstatic crowd to repeat after him: “Where there is righteousness in the heart, there is beauty in the character. Where there is beauty in the character, there is harmony in the home. Where there is harmony in the home, there is order in the nation. When there is order in the nation, there is peace in the world.”
Dr. Kalam explained his hopes for a future India where physical, electronic, and knowledge connectivity would be prominent in the ever-developing country. The moderator, Bibek Debroy, Professor at the Centre for Policy Research, asked Dr. Kalam how he maintained such a “high quality of optimism and inspiration” when looking at India’s future. Dr. Kalam responded with advice that a former teacher once gave him: “Any work you do, there will always be some problems. But problems should not be your captain; you should become the captain of the problem and defeat the problem.” Dr. Kalam proceeded to give his audience suggestions for a more holistic and stimulating education system, offering up his personal email address so that people could follow up with him if they so wished.
Also on the domestic agenda was Mihir Sharma, an economist and writer who spoke about how the Modi government should progress and the problems intrinsically bound up in India’s economy. The inclusion of Mr. Sharma’s and Dr. Kalam’s conversations is a testament to the diversity of the festival, offering content that exceeds the traditionally “literary” and engages with how politics, literary tastes, traditions, and charms are invariably tied up with both local and global political conversations.