HALLS OF FAME
The Jaipur Literature Festival is an epic and extraordinarily inclusive gathering, attracting vast crowds and the world’s greatest writers
The world’s biggest, boldest book festival in Jaipur
For five colour-suffused, taboo-busting, mind-expanding, exhilarating January days the city of Jaipur becomes the soul-centre of the world’s biggest and most electrifying celebration of the written word. The Jaipur Literature Festival, held annually at the Pink City’s magnificent Diggi Palace, seduces its 400,000-strong audience with what its co-curator Namita Gokhale calls ‘that most infectious form of magic’, the stimulation of thought through word. This is a cultural celebration written huge, a bouillabaisse of thoughts and ideas, a verbal Woodstock, a constellation of thinkers where poets are rock stars and playwrights living legends. From Nobel laureates to local language philosophers, Booker Prize winners to debut novelists, a remarkable collection of authors arrives in Rajasthan for a fiesta of reading, debate, discussion and music. The scale of the thing is extraordinary. A team of 4,000 and an international press corps of hundreds is handled by the charismatic producer Sanjoy Roy, his famously luxuriant head of hair enough to make Rapunzel envious. This year, 380 speakers from 15 Indian and 20 international languages were put up in hotels varying from the sublimely opulent Oberoi Rajvilas just outside the city, to the delightful intimacy of the Samode Haveli and the wham-bam glamour of the Rambagh Palace. What a gig for a writer! The invitation to attend is a Roald Dahl-esque golden ticket.
This jewel-like jumbo-carnival was conceived little more than a decade ago by William Dalrymple, the travel writer and historian of India, known to his colleagues as ‘Bhayya’ meaning brother, or fixer. While the distinguished author and publisher Gokhale fulfils the ‘Home Office’ role by inviting the all-important Indian speakers, Dalrymple at the ‘Foreign Office’ is responsible for those visiting from abroad. Dalrymple’s founding genius lay in choosing not to charge a single rupee for entry. The decision to raise the money instead through sponsors such as Google and Nokia means that people of every nationality, religion, background and, above all, age, travel to Jaipur each January. Unlike the mature audiences of British literary festivals, the huge majority of attendees are under 25, many sleeping rough at the railway station just to be in Jaipur during JLF week to listen to and share ideas on subjects from dinosaurs to theoretical physics, seabirds to PG Wodehouse, butterflies to Hamlet. The book tent, large and delectable enough to accommodate the Harrods food hall, resounds with ringing tills. It is a place where even lesser known writers feel like members of One Direction as they willingly pose with eager students for unprecedented numbers of selfies.
Approaching the Diggi Palace from beneath a half-mile of rainbow bunting, dodging lassi and peanut salesmen and a travelling milkman on his bicycle, liquid-filled pewter churns swinging from hooks on his belt, you reach six huge open-sided pavilions. Each one provides seating, kneeling, standing, crouching room, for several thousand, protected from the blazing Indian sun by blockprinted awnings in saffron and emerald. No seats are reserved, no VIP status granted to dilute the all-inclusive spirit. It is a stylewatcher’s dream, a catwalk of luxurious idiosyncrasy. The elegant art curator Himanshu Verma, who has been reclaiming the gender
fluidity of the sari for the last 14 years, floats by in his gown of checked cardamom silk, red and gold paisley waistcoat and bronze paisley jacket. There are silken turbans, beaded frocks and twirly Carry On moustaches. Foreign visitors abandon ties, chinos and homecounty tea dresses in favour of kurtas, salwar kameez and the silk dupatta that garlands the neck of each author as they complete their session.
Dalrymple is everywhere, a billowing blue-shirted literary guru holding a pottery cup of chai masala, sitting cross-legged on the grass floor at the front, asking a question from the back, crammed in with the jostle on the side aisles. On the stage, huge screens magnify the performers to Swiftian proportions for those in distant rows, amplification providing the sort of hear-a-pin-drop sound system that performers always crave but seldom get. Listen to Tom Stoppard rallying his crowd to remember: ‘We are all performers or creators if we allow ourselves to be’; hear the wondrous, complex novelist Amy Tan speak about childhood; the emotionally perceptive Syrian historian Alia Malek; the Nigerian-born, American-Bangladeshi Abeer Hoque; the prize-winning Keggie Carew on fathers; the magnetic Matt Frei of Channel 4 News; Philip Norman, who knows more about the Beatles than anyone except the Beatles; the inscrutably charismatic Afghanistan politician Hamid Karzai; experts on the prophets of ancient Vedic texts; Instagram poets; Helen Fielding on her Everywoman Bridget Jones; the journalist Peter Bergen’s nerve-jangling description of Bin Laden’s hiding places in the snow-filled pleats of the Afghanistan mountains… And who would have imagined that a multitude of thousands would assemble in central India, attentive and informed (for these audiences are passionate readers!) for a session about Virginia Woolf ’s fiction and gay love? The JLF provides an Indian forum where the often unsayable is allowed to be heard, and where women find a voice of their own.
Occasionally the massed gathering of humanity trembles on the very edge of control, like King’s Cross railway station at Friday evening’s rush hour. A gorgeous Bollywood star appears and her fans from all over India roar their greeting, as a peacock lands unnoticed on the ancient wall, outclassed in dazzle by his human rival. And yet the jam-packed throng is respectful of each other and all remains as harmonious as an English village church on a Sunday morning.
At the end of each day, enormous stages at the great heritage hotels and the palaces are lit up for singing and dancing. One evening, cushioned on raspberry-pink silk sofas in the open air of the Amber Fort, the audience fills the huge empty terraces, incense drifting on the breeze. Briefly, I hold the trance-inducing gaze of the divinely voiced pop-idol Shekhar Ravjiani. ‘I feel like loving you tonight,’ he murmurs with indecent allure, as the language of music unites us all under the shimmering stars of the velvety Indian sky.
The Oberoi Rajvilas, from £290 a room a night (www.oberoihotels.com).
This is a cultural
celebration written huge, a constellation of thinkers where poets are rock stars
The Amber Fort, Jaipur
The Amber Fort. Below left: the Diggi Palace
The Kohinoor Villa at the Oberoi Rajvilas. Below: the Rambagh Palace