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JLF 2020: Celebrating literature as unifier of diverse voices

Jan 24, 2020

The festival’s first day focused on sessions which explored a woman’s right to be free of every societal stereotype including sexual freedom and finding her identity in non-conventional lifestyles.

Jaipur: The Jaipur Literature Festival entered its 13th year on a chilly Jaipur morning on Thursday with all of its characteristic joie de vivre intact. Early risers flocked to grab seats at the Front Lawn of the Diggi Palace Hotel, which itself was dressed in its colourful best and reverberated with heady beats from dhaaks and nagadas with its extravagant way of presentation, and listened to their favourite speakers – icons, writers and performers.

Attendees were welcomed by much fanfare as life-sized puppets paved the way to the Front Lawn. Gandhi’s message was showcased by renowned puppeteer, Dadi Pudumjee as he presented an excerpt from his celebrated production, ‘Images of Truth’.

The Mumbai-based classical vocalist, Nirali Kartik took the stage by storm with Raga Gurjari Todi. She sang two bandish - Meri Akhiyaan Lage and Bhor Bhayee, followed by Mero Allah Meherbaan in Raga Bhairav - one of the masterpieces of the legendary Pt. Jasraj.

Music led the way to the inaugural session of the iconic Festival’s 13th edition which was graced by Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, keynote Speakers Marcus du Sautoy and Shubha Mudgal along with Festival Directors and Producers.

Speaking about the Festival, Ashok Gehlot said, “I was the Chief Minister when the Festival began and so I've seen it from its first year. Namita Gokhale, Sanjoy K. Roy and William Dalrymple have done an exceptional job at curating the Jaipur Literature Festival which has put Jaipur on the world map”

In his welcome speech, Sanjoy K. Roy, Festival Producer and Managing Director of Teamwork Arts, emphasised on the power of literature which can fight any odd, as can the arts. All of us have a responsibility to do so, he said and added, “We all must speak with one voice - a voice filled with empathy and love for each other. Even as tribalism grows across the world, and countries build walls around them, we have to remember that finally, we are all human beings joined together on this earth by the common cause of humanity. The arts, literature, music, theatre and dance can help create an understanding and remove the fear of the ‘other’ that we all face.”

Welcoming the audience, William Dalrymple, Festival Co-director, Jaipur Literature Festival Said, “Why has the literary festival taken off in this country in this extraordinary way? I have a pet theory that it goes back to the tradition of spoken literature for the celebration of literature orally through the spoken word has such deep roots in this country. From the time of the Vedas, before the invention of writing, poetry and religious texts were passed on from ‘Guru to Chela’, people learnt orally. But there is something which continues in the Indian tradition, particularly here in Rajasthan - like the verbally-conveyed epics of Pabuji and all other such which are born out of the soil of Rajasthan and also in the courts of India. So, the idea that a literary festival is a foreign import is something that can’t be maintained. We’ve tapped into something very deep here. Literature is alive and is loved in India.”

Co-Festival Director Namita Gokhale also spoke - "We live in puzzling times. Polarities of the political distract us from urgent issues of the climate emergency. At a time when people live in echo palaces and ego castles, we examine and interrogate our changing world by listening to every shade of opinion. My co-director William Dalrymple and I have together curated a program that covers a very wide range of things at the festival"

Giving out the keynote address, eminent author Marcus Du Sautoy said, “Adding my welcome to the 13th edition of the JLF, I like what Srinivasa Ramanujan used to say about numbers: that every number has its own particular character in the story of mathematics. For me it is thirteen; thirteen is a prime number, an indivisible number and the JLF is certainly a festival in its prime.”

While delivering her part of key note address, much loved Hindustani singer Shubha Mudgal said, "Hierarchies should have no place in the arts. As long as art exists in all its richness and diversity, we can dream of a better tomorrow.”

The session after the inaugural took us to the world of theatre in New York City of the 1940s, a story of showgirls, playboys, actresses and dancers. Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest novel, City of Girls, has a set of wanton and promiscuous young women who behave with incredible sexual recklessness and reap its consequences. The Guardian thinks of the book to be an “eloquently persuasive treatise on the judgment and punishment of women, and a heartfelt call to reclaim female sexual agency”.

While in conversation with her long-time friend and editor, the British publisher, Alexandra Pringle, Gilbert talked about her life as an author; from Eat, Pray, Love to City of Girls, her experiences as a seeker and a storyteller, her chaotic experiences with the ‘strange’ institution of marriage and her intimate connection with shame. The conversation began with a discussion on Gilbert’s experiences as a married woman, with a reference to her second novel, Committed. “I don’t like it…just don’t like it!’’ said Gilbert, as she talked about being committed to married life. The audience chortled as the session went on in the lavish NEXA Front Lawns of the Diggi Palace.

The Festival’s first day focused on sessions which explored a woman’s right to be free of every societal stereotype including sexual freedom and finding her identity in non-conventional lifestyles. When Franco-Moroccan novelist, Leila Slimani, author of the powerfully unconventional Adèle, was in conversation with the art-writer and curator, Avni Doshi, she stated tellingly that some women want to be just objects! “All my books are fairy-tales!’’ said Slimani as she talked about the French title of her book: Dans le jardin de l'ogre (A Doll in an Ogre’s Garden). “Adèle wants to be an object, a doll.” A doll who wants men to tell her what to do. Slimani said that this book was written out of the fascination that she has towards the phenomenon of addiction. Adèle is addicted to sex and her husband, who is a doctor, thinks of her as a patient with a scope of being cured. He holds onto this hope since he loves her so much; he knows there is a mystery behind her, but he chooses not to face it.

One of India’s highest selling English fiction authors, Ashwin Sanghi, launched his book The Vault of Vishnu through Sonali Bendre Behl at the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival 2020. Keeping in line with his exciting amalgamation of myth and history, Ashwin unveiled the book as the sixth addition in his Bharat series.

To Brexit or to not? This crucial question which can alter the trajectory of Europe’s history has currently gripped Britain’s economy in a chokehold. Unlike all the high politics that usually surrounds the discourse on Brexit, Fintan O’ Toole, an award-winning Irish journalist chose a departure from the usual Brexit narrative in the session, and did not shy away from throwing in a few humorous punches. In a frank conversation with well-known journalist Suhasini Haider he chose to focus on a cultural as well as historical analysis of Brexit, and the very real vulnerabilities that the decision to go along with it posits. Suhasini began the discussion with a set of unsettling questions. “What drove the UK to tear itself apart?” “Will the world ever be the same post-Brexit?” “What on earth do prawn-flavoured chips have to do with the price of eggs?” As she asked these, as the audience laughed in agreement. Fintan O’ Toole helped break down the narrative that has consciously served as a political justification in favour of the move. He believes that most people do not understand the ways in which it can play out. He quipped that “Brexit is like the revolt of an imaginary oppression and the only thing you can get out of it, is imaginary freedom.”

In a session titled “Food for Thought: Gastronomy and Literature” at Jaipur BookMark, the B2B section of the Festival, renowned food & and travel writer Madhur Jaffrey said,” There's no such thing as curry - no Indian will know what you're talking about if you use that word." The word kills the individuality of every unique dish and flavour from different parts of India, according to her. She said she resisted the word for 30 years, but publishers wanted books about curry, so she eventually had to give in.

In another session at Jaipur BookMark, public librarian Aspen Walker referred to her work with the Boulder Colorado library to outline some ideas for what a library should do. The Boulder Colorado library functions not only as a collection of books but also as a space for exhibitions, cultural activities and social interactions. She quoted library science expert S.R. Ranganathan to say that “libraries are a growing organism”. According to her, the cells of this organism are the people who visit it. Thus, the library must always attempt to reach out to people and involve them in its activities. Modern libraries indeed do face multifaceted challenges. University of Chicago Press Director Alan Thomas described the library at the University of Chicago as a very important physical space where people do not just come to read. They come for coffee dates, seminars and to gaze at artwork. Despite the library being an important part of the cultural life at the university, Thomas said that it is increasingly “endangered by private forces” in the publishing industry.

In the Centenary year of Sethiaji's birth anniversary, the fifth edition of the prestigious “Mahakavi Kanhaiya Lal Sethia Award for Poetry” was awarded to Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, a well-known name to readers of contemporary literature. The award was presented by the Hon’ble Deputy Chief Minister Shri Sachin Pilot.

Asma Khan, the first-ever British chef to have featured on Netflix’s Emmy-nominated Chef’s Table, shared her journey with food in a session “Darjeeling Express: Of Food and Friendship”. Her experience with food, which began as an attempt to overcome her feelings of homesickness, finally culminated in a restaurant in London employing a bunch of home-cooks with none of them having any prior experience in the culinary arts. She shared why food, for her, was an important ingredient of collective memory and a powerful tool to bring down barriers. She also spoke of the challenges women face in the food industry and the common perceptions around women Chefs. “It was not about me, never about me. It was about every woman who was never ever recognized. It was through my cooking and its stories that they found voice and their skill got recognition.”

A series of soulful poetry readings were presented to the audience, relishing the magic of metres. Poets from all walks of life narrated their lines with enthusiasm and zeal, like, Annie Finch, the famed American poet, spoke about the therapeutic qualities of poetry. "For me, poetry is a physical pleasure. It is a physical necessity," she confessed. She also threw light upon the new generation of poets and their transition from traditional structures of poetry. "Poets today have abandoned the complexity of structure, and embraced the complexity of meaning," she added. Hindi poet Ashok Vajpeyi explained that "Poetry must both delight and instruct." Through readings of some of his beautiful poems, he showed how poetry tries to express "maximum in minimum words." He took the opportunity to recite lines of his poem 'Prarthana' (Pray).

Nandita Das was in a conversation with Kaveree Bamzai in a session dedicated to the one of the subcontinent’s most fiery and controversial writers, Saadat Hasan Manto. Manto & I is a book of images and words that traces the journey of making Nandita Das' film, Manto, She candidly shared not just her creative but also her emotional, socio-political and spiritual experiences of the six years spent with the film.

In the session “The New Silk Roads: The Present and Future of the World” presented by Aga Khan Foundation, author Peter Frankopan spoke of the famed trading ancient trading routes and their impact on global business today. Talking about the varied perspectives on the ancient Silk Roads and how they impact geo-political relationships, he commented “From a European mentality, people love the Silk Roads because for them, they instantly think about British spies or people working for the state, or arriving in Bukhara in the 1840s and being beheaded in the town-square. From a Chinese perspective, the Silk Roads talks about not just about the modern world but it talks about the old world of Tang and Sung dynasty, when China was much more connected to its Western neighbours. The Iranians think they invented the Silk Roads. It takes the society from Africa to Europe to Central Asia to South Asia. It speaks of a world interconnected a long time ago before the Modern Age.”

In a keynote address on Independent Publishing at the DC Books JBM Haweli, Michael Dwyer said, "As independent publishers, develop niches but do not become slaves to them."

The first day of sessions at the colourfully bedecked Diggi Palace ended with the announcement of the winner of the Romain Rolland Book Prize, awarded each year for the best translation of a French title into any Indian language, including English. Emmanuel Lenain, the Ambassador of France to India said, ‘Three years into the existence of the Romain Rolland Book Prize, we have seen some talented translators and publishers awarded for their works. This year, we received 7 titles including fiction and a comic series. I am glad to announce that out of the four short-listed works, the Franco-Indian jury selected this year: the first three albums of the Astérix series: Asterix and the Golden Sickle, Asterix and the Goths and Asterix the Gladiator, translated into Hindi by Dipa Chaudhuri and Puneet Gupta and published by Om Books. I understand that the translation of Asterix was not easy, the names of the characters being products of word play with references to French terms. The translators have indeed done an exceptional work of contextualising some of these names while staying true to its original meaning. It is amazing to see such a part of French heritage, a glimpse into the history of the country from where the language originates, now being available to Hindi readers.’

As the day time sessions came to a close, the Jaipur Music Stage at Clarks Amer kicked-off in style with scintillating performances by Grammy winner Ricky Kej and folk musicians The Rajasthan Josh Qawwali Experience and a buzzing Night Bazaar.

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