I am currently visiting Jaipur Literature Festival 2017, held over five days from 19-23 January, on the not-so-sprawling yet masterfully manicured and bejeweled grounds of the famous Diggi Palace Hotel in Jaipur. This time, it is called “Zee JLF”, thanks to the title sponsorship of the Zee Media group. Intriguingly, this appears to be a clear point of contention for many participants and speakers, mostly those who disfavour the overt commercialisation of the festival’s iconic public space for engagement and debate.
This somewhat subtle disapproval becomes even more loaded given the aggressive, propagandist, and hawkish form of journalism that Zee News – a sub-group of the title sponsor – is widely accused of practising.
However, my observation of the festival tells me that JLF remains what it is was envisaged to be – an open forum for dialectical interactions and speech without the threat of censorship or subversion. This is what it looks like on the surface. My conclusion leaves out the unknowns of the backstage, especially the selection process for speakers and projected content.
The seemingly awkward juxtaposition of Zee and JLF is, nevertheless, an intriguing phenomenon in itself. I cannot be certain if the Festival Directors had to confront some sort of ideological censorship, imposed selectivity in picking content, or disruptive corporate interests. However, the fact that one of the moderators of a particular session – a renowned columnist – could openly call out Zee for its reductive, nationalistic name-calling while discussing free speech in India, reaffirms the somewhat forgotten belief that a divisive and autocratic popular discourse is always open to be thwarted through a nuanced and democratic public discourse.
I had never been to the festival before, but had heard aplenty – of its infectious influence in promoting collective knowledge-sharing and unapologetic public debates. This year’s edition appears to have roped in a fair mix of fiction and nonfiction writers from all across the world, offering something for everything. Politics, geopolitics, art, conflict, dissent, cinema, adult fiction, teen fiction, poetry, humour – #JLF2017 offers a generous platter of cross-sectional relevance.
From bringing subcutaneous micro-perspectives to the fore to expressing fears and tribulations of a rapidly changing world, the festival does robustly to promote a culture of interpersonal understanding and inclusive intellectualism. This is itself is an immensely powerful and productive space – perhaps unwittingly so – for dissent against the rising tide of forces that vie for divisions, inwardness, systematic omission, autocracy, and violent extremism.
#JLF2017 – which one speaker called the “Kumbh Mela of Arts and Literature” – boasts of a diverse thoroughfare, a peculiar waltz of the orient and occident, great food and wine, and of course, eclectic public discussions with writers, journalists, political commentators, and activists inside vivaciously adorned tents. The crowd is strong, and the spirit of debate stronger.
Both for the leisurely visitor and the serious reader, Jaipur Literature Festival, I guess, remains relevant as ever in unique ways.
From Jaipur, India | All photographs by the author.