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A feast of letters at Jaipur festival

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Noted lyricist Gulzar surrounded by autograph-seekers at the festival.
Noted lyricist Gulzar surrounded by autograph-seekers at the festival.

Vaiju Naravane

JAIPUR: The fog and continuing bad weather in New Delhi played havoc with the programming of the Jaipur Literature Festival which took off in the Pink City on Thursday. Actor-director-playwright Girish Karnad who was supposed to give the keynote address, “Entertaining India”, was held up in the Capital and poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra stepped into his shoes at the last minute, reading out some of his translations of Kabir as well as poetry by the late Arun Kolatkar.

Several other writers scheduled to speak at the morning session were held up in Delhi leading to a great deal of impromptu rescheduling. But despite this setback, the festival which has become the most important gathering of its kind in Asia got off to a resounding start. Author William Dalrymple, who co-directs the festival with Namita Gokhale, said the event this year is hosting 220 authors, up from 17 just four years ago.

“From Sidney to Toronto to the Welsh border I found Indian writers in English at every international festival picking up some of the most prestigious literary prizes. And yet there seemed to be no place for them in India. For me it was natural and important that a major literary festival where these authors could be feted and heard be held in India,” he told The Hindu.

Namita Gokhale, he said, had a vision different from his own. Ms. Gokhale’s accent is more on promoting writers in Indian languages or the Bhashas. This year’s festival offers poets like Gulzar and Ashok Vajpeyi who have participated before as well as discussions on ancient Indian texts and Dalit writing.

Not every session lived up to expectations. The conversation between Roberto Calasso and Devdutt Patnaik titled “Literature and the Gods” was ruined by an inept and unprepared moderator. Had the two thinkers been left to themselves they would doubtless have offered the audience a sparkling and stimulating discussion.

Author Louis De Bernieres also could not make it to the session on the adaptation of novels and plays for the cinema, but his co-panellists Esther Freud (the great grand daughter of the Father of Psychology and the daughter of artist Lucian Freud) and playwright Michael Frayn ably made up for his absence. The discussion was lifted out of the ordinary by an exceptional moderator in the person of actor Rahul Bose, himself no stranger to film adaptations of novels.

“It is important to convey the essence of the novel, preserve its soul. If that is done other changes do not matter that much,” said Esther Freud, underlining that screen writing is a completely different art form.

There was a slight scuffle of diehard fans and autograph hunters outside the overcrowded Durbar Hall at the Diggi Palace where the festival is being held when actress Shabana Azmi took the floor to read from her mother Shaukat’s memoirs about Kaifi Azmi – their time at IPTA, the Communist theatre movement they pioneered in the heady days of the Independence struggle.

An informed, witty, delightful interview conducted by William Dalrymple with Alexander McCall Smith, one of the most prolific and successful writers of our time, had the audience in gales of laughter. McCall Smith described his heroic writing routines -- four thousand words a day -- and talked about how he has revived serial writing for daily newspapers.

The evening ended with a reading from Girish Karnad’s play Tughlaq by the playwright, actor Om Puri and his wife Nandita. This proved to be disappointing since the scenes were read rather than played.

“I’ve got my money’s worth,” a lady who calls herself a “browser” and who has travelled all the way from Kolkota for the festival told this reporter. She was speaking figuratively, of course, for the Jaipur Literature Festival charges not a penny and entrance is absolutely free!


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