It was a slightly different cocktail, says the writer after attending JLF’s maiden edition in London.
The Jaipur Literary Festival (JLF) — the annual winter gathering where the high priests of India’s cultural and literary world engage in public conversation — has put down its footprint in a non-Jaipur venue for the first time.
A single-day London edition of the festival was held on May 18 at the South Bank Centre, the buzzing and picturesque cultural hub of London located on the banks of the Thames.
The short notice in which the London avatar of the JLF was put together — according to festival organiser and writer William Dalrymple they had just six weeks to stitch up the event — may explain some of the organisational oddities but, of audience enthusiasm, there was no shortage.
“Jaipur has two missions when in India: one is to bring world literature to India and the second is to showcase Indian literature to the world,” said Dalrymple. “No one gets up here in London to hear Jonathan Franzen. Half the fun of Jaipur is that you are a big star somewhere else. Here it is the dialogue between the two: Britain and India. So it’s a slightly different cocktail.
For Indians living in London, the day provided the rare opportunity to tune into issues that are part of the public and political debate in India. Packed auditoriums listened in pin-drop silence as writers, academics and critics debated issues ranging from the political uses of myth and memory (a discussion that Girish Karnad led), to the legacy of Faiz Ahmed Faiz (a session of speech and song in which the late revolutionary’s daughter Salima Hashmi participated).
Outside the venues, bright sunshine, Sunday cheer, and a line of eateries selling Indian food offered participants a compelling ambience for much-needed breaks from the packed schedule of debate and discussion.
Permeating the conference spirit and informing venue discussions and corridor chatter alike was the news of the election results and its implications for Indian life and letters.
Girish Karnad set a powerful note, and a political one, in the opening session on Myth and Memory, in which he was on a panel with historian Mary Beard and writer James Mallinson. Karnad explored the idea of myth, and how in India it does not become memory but rather is fashioned into political reality.
Given the short time at their disposal, the organisers can be forgiven for some minuses — session themes that lacked clarity, miscast anchors, overused panelists, and a weak representation of the British-India cultural encounter.
These did not, however, detract from audience engagement. At a session with the rather confounding title of Sunset on Empire, the anchor led the three-person panel of academic and writer Priyamvada Gopal, Conservative politician Kwasi Kwarteng and historian John Keay along a meandering path that was entertaining if only because of the sharp exchanges between Gopal and the other panelists.
In the last session, a debate on “Dynasty and Democracy are not incompatible in South Asia”, the double negative in the title lent the debate a rather absurdist twist, as a final yes-or-no vote on the proposition had everyone tied up in knots.
For many, the conversation between novelist Vikram Seth and Shahida Bari, lecturer at Queen Mary University, was the highlight of the day. Although his interviewer failed to lift the interview off the ground and into unexplored terrain, Seth deftly took over the reins of the conversation, engaging the audience and entertaining them with readings from A Suitable Boy, Golden Gate and his book of children’s poems Beastly Tales from Here and There.
The JLF in London has a promising future in London and, who can say, may yet eclipse the original.