With close to half a million footfall, the Jaipur Literature Festival continues to remain the largest free literature event of its kind in the world. But, behind this famed philanthropism lies a somewhat unresolved reality of corporate sponsorship that has, over the past few years, pulled the organisers to a confessional.
William Dalrymple, noted writer and Festival Director of #JLF (besides Namita Gokhale), is hardly abstract about his views on providing corporate backing to the festival. He says that in an ideal situation, he would like it if Greenpeace, Amnesty International, World Wildlife Fund (WWF), or Rainbow Warriors sponsored #JLF. However, “it ain’t gonna happen” – despite what most people seek in terms of festival funding, “it is going to be a corporate”. He, very categorically, adds that most big guns like Google, Ford, and British Airways “all fell away” due to demonetisation, and if not for Zee, “there is absolutely no question” that #JLF would have closed down.
Dalrymple’s position might carry a fair strategic logic, but I cannot seem to reconcile with it, for it is too utilitarian in a restrictive way. Evidently, the standalone objective is to ensure that the festival continues to exist in its present form and quality, most essentially as a free event. That is an absolutely impressive intent. But in unapologetically, and somewhat patronisingly, sidelining popular concerns about the ethics (or the lack thereof) of title sponsors, and projecting some sort of an absolutist argument of “corporate money or nothing”, Dalrymple creates an invisible fencing around the democratic and dialectical space of #JLF. He isolates and subverts a sizeable section of the ethically-conscious public, that too without a noticeable space for negotiation.
In Dalrymple’s response lies a rude reality of the moneyed world we live in. However, in it, also lies a grossly dystopian vision of our world (or the future of it), marked by a sense of systemic imprisonment. In answering “Why pick Vedanta and Zee as title sponsors?” with “Well, it’s them or nothing”, Dalrymple projects a world where economic superstructures have irreversibly taken over individual and/or collective aspirations.
There is only so much that we can say to the above argument – it’s almost as if our yearnings for a more just, ethical, and inclusive world are held hostage by the current mode of production. An alternative arrangement, sought and synthesised through popular consultation, is seemingly not an option anymore. Simply speaking, Dalrymple’s “this-or-that” position exudes the deeply uncomfortable belief that what Vedanta and Zee have done in the name of resource extraction and journalism – which is essentially promote direct and indirect forms of violence – must be intentionally forgotten in order to keep the festival alive.
In such a situation of omission, one wonders if the iconic festival is gradually transforming into a hollow and non-substantive space, marked by mechanical stage talks, glossy programme schedules, uniformed usherers, glitzy food stalls, expensive concert tickets, and a riot of top-tier branding. While all of that is okay, what concerns me is the gradual ebbing away of #JLF’s organic and definitive discourse that carries it’s own transcendental message of substantive intellectualism.
But, we can’t do anything about it now. Can we?
Nevertheless, a privately sponsored free event is a very specific kind of public affair, the criticism to which must be meted out with caution. Usually, corporate sponsorship renders the common people into consumers with a positive incentive – we pay a ‘reasonable’ (read: subsidised) price to attend an event that holds a distinct meaning or agency, for example a film festival. But, in the case of #JLF, visitors aren’t exactly the typical consumers.
You can enter the grounds of Diggi Palace without paying a dime, loitter around, listen to global public figures, not buy anything from the stalls, and get the hell out. There is no baggage of financial investment, which operates (at least in the subconscious) when you pay to attend. Despite the corporate deals struck behind the dais by the organisers, to the lay visitor, the affair remains fundamentally noncommercial and noncommittal.
Is it then fair to hold Dalrymple to account for his bluntness in stating a reality that is apparently beyond his control? That too for an end that is benign as ever – to ensure free access to all?
I guess, for now, it is convenient for us – who are obviously thrilled at the prospects of listening to the likes of Javed Akhtar, Shashi Tharoor, Ha-Joon Chang, Taslima Nasreen, Paul Beatty, and Shivshankar Menon for free – to say that the end justifies the means.
From Jaipur, India | All photographs by the author.