10 March 2023
An Orchestration of Magic
It seems like a rebirth; a cultural redemption of sorts. The arts — cloistered for so long within homes, web codes, and the unfailingly annoying refrain of ‘Am I audible?’ via the inelegance of Zoom calls — are finally free to roam again. Nowhere is this freedom more palpable, or appropriate, than at the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) — held in its eponymous city, in the North Indian state of Rajasthan. It’s this gathering, perhaps more than any other, that doesn’t play well with confinement.
For much of its 15-edition existence, arguably the most influential, and crucial, literary festival in the world, JLF has tended always to dabble in the large. This is a festival that deserves to voyage, to soar. It requires the frisson of human beings crashing into literature. It requires the alchemy of writers coming into conversation. And the 2023 Edition of JLF, its 16th, proves to be all of these and more. A celebration, yes, but more so a confirmation that literature can stir, can heal; that it needs to be spoken, heard, and deliberated in the flesh, alive to the whims and curiosities of the writing and reading tribe.
I’m here with a gathering of poems, gleaned from my latest collection All These Streets We’ve Known By Heart. ‘The Poetry Hour is a consistent JLF favourite,’ festival co-founder William Dalrymple — historian, and most recently, podcast hero — assures me.
On opening night, we gathered within the sumptuous luxuries of Rambagh Palace for dinner. This was an orchestration of magic, the sort rarely witnessed at any other literary festival. Trees bedecked with books and hanging words graced garden paths. Spacious seating islands made to resemble a writer’s dream studio welcomed authors with gramophones, shelves stacked with book spines, and couches. The spirits kept step with the advancing night, as we shared stories and drawn-out hugs in Jaipur’s crisp winter, enhanced by the pleasures of cuisines prepared to perfection, live music, congregations beneath flame-posts, and the ineffable warmth of literary camaraderie.
The following day, a raucous, celebratory opening ceremony commences, featuring local Rajasthani drums, singing, and the customary inaugural speeches. Literature Nobel Prize winner Abdulrazak Gurnah takes to the stage for the keynote address. He speaks for barely seven minutes but it’s what he says that lingers long in the consciousness. ‘I think of writing as a form of resistance,’ he avers. ‘Resistance to the forgetfulness which obscures us from remembering what we know to go unnoticed. A resistance to neglect, which forces us to not let things important to us be forgotten. This is a responsibility that all writers have.’
I stroll. I savour. There is an extraordinary cast of characters on display, bringing with it lingua just as varied. Held this year for the second time at the Clarks Amer hotel, the festival appears to be embracing the capaciousness of its new home in its sprawling grounds. Five charmingly appointed locations play host to sessions in 21 Indian and 14 international languages. Close to 400 writers are here in Jaipur; at times, it feels as though I’m running into each and every one of them.
‘Winners of all the major literary awards this year are present,’ Sanjoy K Roy — festival producer and director — points out. Aside from Gurnah, these include the various Booker Prize winners Geetanjali Shree, Daisy Rockwell, and Shehan Karunatilaka, as well as recipients of the Pulitzer, the Sahitya Akademi, Baillie Gifford, the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, and others. With all this glitter on display, often the best thing to do is simply drop in for some chai.
At the designated al fresco Author’s Lounge, what can best be described as a refined bustle is afoot. All manner of poets, fictionists, essayists, and commentators are catching up with each other, at times, years having passed. Literary and TV agents scurry about, tending to their clients and securing interviews. In a spacious corner of the lawns, a couple hands out what is soon to become the authors’ favourite — cups of hot masala chai potently simmered and spiced. Communal wooden benches serve as addresses for profound discourse and casual episodes.
At JLF, intimacy flecks the air in serendipitous ways. I’m joined for breakfast by Marlon James early one morning; soon enough, partition historian and novelist Aanchal Malhotra, makes it a trio. And there we discuss the life poetic and what’s good for breakfast. On another day, cinematic doyenne Mira Nair calls out to say she loved my poetry. We break bread, reflecting on art practices and the salvation of the spoken word.
Beyond the bonhomie and the unapologetic luxury, JLF remains a festival of thought, intellect, and dialogue. Feminist voices, climate fears, mythology, politics, and the place of language in the world, are high on the agenda.
Booker Prize winner Bernardine Evaristo, in conversation with journalist Nandini Nair, speaks with candour about the sisterhood and activism coursing through her memoir Manifesto, within the artistic flourish of the Charbagh. Of the Booker win, she says, ‘Suddenly, everything I wanted for my career, happened.’ In one of his multiple sessions, suave Indian diplomat and festival hot ticket Shashi Tharoor dissects with appreciable lucidity the crisis of democracy that has unfolded in India and abroad, mentioning the role of public protest in issues of climate change, human rights, and governance. In ‘The Dawn of Everything’, anthropologist David Wengrow speaks with archaeologist Rebecca Sykes about primitive ancestries, human instinct, and the need for radical change.
Shashi Tharoor and Tripurdaman Singh
Hindi Cinema provides JLF 2023 with two of its most jam-packed sessions. Legendary lyricist-actress couple Javed Akhtar and Shabana Azmi converse about Daaera and Dhanak: Companion Volumes of Nazms by their fathers Jan Nisar Akhtar and Kaifi Azmi. The session culminated in the two reading beautifully from the individual books. One of India’s best-loved filmmakers and poets, Gulzar, discusses A Poem A Day — a volume of Indian poetry chosen and translated by him. ‘Shayari is as alive as you are,’ he says. ‘And the way you breathe, the poem breathes.’ A festival standout is feted editor and biographer Sathya Saran engaging the living legend and flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia in a moving conversation on the provenance of genius. She notes, ‘I want to resist forgetting. The forgetting that happens of our great people. And I want to tell their stories.’
Javed Akhtar and Shabana Azmi in conversation with Rakhshanda Jalil
Away from the large, I’m drawn towards the seemingly confidential. Celebrated poet, archivist, and art historian Ranjit Hoskote gives listeners a tantalising glimpse into his imminent collection, Icelight, meditating on the sense of departure, immersions into the natural world, and historical foraging that inform his work. Daisy Rockwell delivers a speech where she dwells upon the intricacies and oddities of the translator’s life. Shehan Karunatilaka brings some of the gallows humour that litters his books, to his sessions as well, reflecting poignantly on a Sri Lanka often without hope.
Abdulrazak Gurnah speaks with his longtime Bloomsbury publisher Alexandra Pringle with the sort of tenderness reserved for one’s closest friends, delving most memorably into his early years in Zanzibar. Novelist Amit Chaudhuri, in conversation with the writer Janice Pariat on his new book Sojourn, discusses his love of brevity and why he believes concealment to be an integral part of his craft. Speaking about his upcoming book The Road to the Country, Nigerian novelist Chigozie Obioma offers, ‘My dad or mum would tell me stories. All of a sudden, stories meant something different; it was like a major transformative epiphany.’ The writers Deepti Kapoor and 2015 Man Booker prize winner Marlon James instigate an enjoyable deep-dive into Kapoor’s noir thriller Age of Vice, one of the most hyped books from India in recent memory.
With up to five sessions running parallel at any given time, JLF 2023 consequently becomes a matter of choice. And in this flux, lies the festival’s beauty. Large migrations of attendees move from one half of the venue to another, like clockwork. Food trucks and stalls of Rajasthani folklore occupy one section of the grounds. Secret nooks lead to secret spots for coffee and brownies. Dalrymple and Roy, along with the Festival’s other founder and co-director — writer Namita Gokhale — are seemingly everywhere — welcoming writers, shouting out hellos, and steering sessions with gusto.
Festival days are bookended by music. But the nights belong to the author parties. In borrowing from Rajasthan’s flair for the magnificent and royal, stunning palaces turned heritage hotels and others of a similar ilk play hosts. One night, we’re at the Amrapali Museum — a temple for heirloom jewellery, transformed into an intimate refuge of merriment. Another night, we’re whisked away to the splendours of the City Palace for the HarperCollins party, where flickering lamps, live musicians, and the majesty of a durbar hall speckled with massive chandeliers and a seemingly endless supply of nourishment and libation, keep the party going well into the night. The vertiginous Amer Fort looks out at the city from its perch on a hill, while framed in gorgeous hues and bathed in the insistent melodies of dance and jazz, on the memorable final night.
Five days have flown by, breathlessly. A word hovers in the air everywhere you turn. That word is ‘magic.’ The ‘greatest literary show on earth’ carries an uninterrupted reserve of it. Literature, as it turns out, still has a coveted place in the world. And for a few enchanted winter days and nights that place, definitively, is Jaipur.
Siddharth Dasgupta is a poet and author based in Pune, India.