Jaipur Literary Festival comes to London

LONDON, England – India’s literati turned up in force at the weekend for the London edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), which has been dubbed “the greatest literary show on Earth.” Al

LONDON, England – India’s literati turned up in force at the weekend for the London edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), which has been dubbed “the greatest literary show on Earth.” All tickets were sold out for the JLF at Southbank which provides a platform for stimulating and often fiery debates and discussions reflecting diverse perspectives and identities. The event, now in its third year in London, has become a firm favorite for those interested in South Asian literature and culture.

In “The Third Gender,” prominent writers and activists broke new ground by describing their painful physical and emotional journeys to gain acceptance and respect. One of the speakers was A. Revathi whose autobiography, “The Truth About Me: A Hijra Life Story,” is the first of its kind in English from a member of the Hijra (transgender) community. Jerry Pinto took the stage to speak about his translation of the iconic Marathi book “Baluta” by the Dalit writer, Daya Pawar, and of the rights of marginalized sections including LGBT rights.

At another session, “Women Writing War,” writers and historians, Shrabani Basu and Yasmin Khan, discussed their perspectives on the First and Second World Wars, including the little-known contributions of former colonies. Alex von Tunzelmann shared her analyses and observation of the Cold War. In conversation with author, blogger, and columnist Sidin Vadukut, they explored how, traditionally a subject of male scrutiny, war narratives and military history are increasingly being examined by women writers.

The Festival took a closer look at ethnicity and cultural identity in a globalized world with a focus on Britain where British Asians form a large part of the diverse population. The festival director, Namita Gokhale, said she had been especially looking forward to the session, “British Asians: The Changing Face,” which had Sathnam Sangera and Yasmin Khan in conversation with Patrick French. She thought the session would be of interest to people in India and the UK and was especially significant in the context of the recent mayoral election in London which saw the installation, for the first time in the country, of a Muslim, Sadiq Khan, as mayor. Discussion points ranged over resisting stereotypes, integration, adaptation, alienation, and the changing attitudes and affiliations of the second and third generations of South Asian Britons.

In “Tears of the Rajas,” authors Ferdinand Mount and Nick Robins, in conversation with William Dalrymple, took a hard-headed look at the East India Company. In Dalrymple’s view, India was conquered not by the British government but by the East India Company which he described as the most violent and corrupt corporation.

Ferdinand Mount, who has family connections to the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, spoke of his shock at discovering that his ancestors who served in India may not have been as pious as they had appeared and were possibly complicit in atrocities committed there.

In the course of the discussion, it emerged that there had been huge protests in Britain in the past against some of East India Company’s questionable activities in India. Ironically, these protests were echoed at the South Bank event where civil rights campaigners distributed leaflets accusing the mining group, Vedanta, one of the JLF sponsors, of human rights abuses, causing pollution, financial mismanagement, and a raft of other misdemeanors. Vedanta denies these charges.

Questions were asked from the floor about the whitewashing of history in the UK and the dark side of the British Empire in India being glossed over such as the slave and opium trades.

The prominent Indian journalist, Barkha Dutt, chaired a lively discussion on “Reporting India” from the perspective of western journalists. She asked John Elliott, Dean Nelson, and Andrew Whitehead, all of whom have long experience of covering India, how they responded to criticism from Indians who can be prickly about foreigners often presenting what they regard as simplistic or stereotypical images of their country.

John Elliott, who has been based in India for more than twenty years, commented wryly, “After initially thinking you understand India after a short time there, the nuances pile in, and you get confused again.”

Andrew Whitehead said he found reporting on Kashmir difficult and bruising during his time as a BBC correspondent in Delhi. Many Indians had been incensed when he referred to “gunmen” in Kashmir, because this was regarded as giving them legitimacy. He said the difficulty was that all sides wanted their version of events to be presented.

Dean Nelson recognized that nobody likes outsiders criticizing them but said that, on the whole, he saw India, with Bollywood cinema, art, and culture, as a positive story. This contrasted with reporting on the Middle East and Africa which tended to be about unrelenting misery. He admitted that initially he found covering Indian elections with their complexities daunting.

Barkha Dutt asked the speakers about an impression that there is a bias in the English media in India against the Modi government.

John Elliott thought the English media reflected the inability of the Indian elite to accept the changes that had been inevitable when the BJP and Modi came to power.

Barkha Dutt commented that in response to this perceived bias, politicians had learned to bypass the media and did not seem to have suffered as a result.

The session “Ideas of India” examined the bewildering diversity and plurality of India which has come under intense scrutiny in recent times. Prominent writers and thinkers explained their individual perceptions of “their” particular idea of India and what it meant to them. Among them were Swapan Dasgupta, Rakhshanda Jalil, Salman Khurshid, Pragya Tiwari, and Mukulika Banerjee.

JLF at Southbank, much like the main festival, aims to reflect multiple viewpoints on the basis that open dialogue is critical to finding understanding and a common ground. The London edition retains the unique spirit of the annual Jaipur Literature Festival, which has firmly established its place in the global literary calendar as the world’s largest free literature festival. The credit goes to the Festival Directors, Namita Gokhale and William Dalrymple, and Teamwork Arts for bringing together writers and thinkers, poets and balladeers, to the UK to showcase South Asia’s unique multilingual heritage.

With so much intolerance in the world today, it is reassuring that there is an appetite for the eclectic mix of voices, debates, and ideas which characterize the JLF. Judging from the turnout in London, there is clearly a growing interest in the annual event not just in India but across the world.

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Jaipur Literary Festival comes to London

LONDON, UK – This weekend, admirers of South Asia’s vibrant literature, music and culture will be taken on a magical tour without needing to travel to the region.

LONDON, UK – This weekend, admirers of South Asia’s vibrant literature, music and culture will be taken on a magical tour without needing to travel to the region. The Jaipur Literary Festival (May 16 and 17) is being staged for the second year at the renowned Southbank Centre in London. It will bring a glimpse of what has been dubbed ‘the greatest literary show on earth.’ World famous writers and artists will engage with audiences at workshops, talks, readings and musical performances.

Co-directed by authors William Dalrymple and Namita Gokhale, the Jaipur Literary Festival is produced by Teamwork Arts, a pioneering entertainment company. There will be sessions reviewing the Modi government’s year in power in India, the influence of Shakespeare spanning Bollywood to Kathakali dance, South Asian humor and cricket; festival-goers can expect ‘a smorgasbord of ideas and conversations over the weekend’.

The JLF is being launched by the Chief Minister of Rajasthan, Vasundhara Raje. The grand-daughter of Mahatma Gandhi, Tara Gandhi Bhattacharjee, will be joined at a session titled, Gandhi: The Man and the Mahatma, by writer and economist Lord Meghnad Desai, historian Faisal Devji, journalist and writer Sam Miller and author and columnist Salil Tripathi. They will analyze the vulnerability and genius of the man who became the Mahatma and played a pivotal role in the formation of modern India.

Other highlights include Farrukh Dhondy in conversation with Sir V.S. Naipaul on A House For Mr. Biswas, marking 50 years of his groundbreaking masterpiece, discussions on the nuances of crime fiction and the resurgence of crime writing and detective fiction around the world. One anticipated crowd-puller will be an exploration of the world of cricket, famously described as ‘an Indian game invented accidentally by the English’ at a session called A Corner of a Distant Playing Field.

The festival is spread across four venues within the Southbank Centre with a total of 30 talks, readings, workshops and performances featuring over 50 authors and spectacular musical acts. The festival will end with a debate where noted writers, Suhel Seth, Swapan Dasgupta, Lily Wangchuk, Sadaf Saaz, Mukulika Banerjee, Michael Hutt, Salil Tripathi and Zareer Masani will wrestle with the topic Has the Westminster Model of Democracy Taken Root in South Asia? They will examine whether or not the colonial model has been able to evolve into an effective indigenous format for responsible governments and if it fits the imperatives of Asian democracy.

The Jaipur Literature Festival is considered to be the world’s largest free literary platform. Launched in 2008, it has grown largely through word of mouth with each visitor, author and member of the press spreading the word and acting as a goodwill ambassador through India and key countries across the world. The festival regularly attracts audiences from the USA, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Singapore and the UAE. This year’s extravaganza in London promises to be a riot of color, energy, ideas, music, controversy, discussion and debate.

Single day passes for Saturday, May 16, and Sunday, May 17, as well as weekend passes are available online and also on festival days at the Southbank Centre starting 10 am.

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Linda Hohnholz

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