The buzz around lit fests

The crowd waiting impatiently to get into the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Mumbai was so large that passersby might well have wondered whether a Bollywood star had made an appearance. The organisers walked briskly in and out of the melee, trying to sort things out and wondering aloud that so many people could come on a working day. The overflow of people with passes who could not get in was eventually directed to a nearby theatre where they watched on a video link.

The star was the great Australian feminist writer Germaine Greer, who was in conversation with Vikram Seth at the inaugural event of the Tata Lit Fest in Mumbai. Once on stage, Greer, now in her seventies, showed she had lost none of her ability to provoke and to shock. Greer worried that the right to abortion had encouraged casual, often unprotected sex among teenagers in the West. “Feminists must realise that some of their victories were Pyrrhic,” she said. “Abortion is killing. Don’t pretend it isn’t.” Plenty of women disagreed with her that afternoon, but it was hard not to be enthralled by her showing as little regard for the conventions of the 21st century as the entrenched sexism she had taken on in 1970.

Lit fests in India, in large part thanks to the immense popularity of the Jaipur Literature Festival, have multiplied. As it happens, there is one in New Delhi this weekend — the Hindustan Times Crime Writers Festival. Chances are you will encounter lit fests in the city you live in and on your travels — as I have done completely by coincidence in Bengaluru, Mumbai (which has two) and Chandigarh, where the Kasauli festival nearby dominated page 3 sections  for a couple of days. By one astounding estimate, there are about 90 litfests in India in a year.  They have become as pervasive a part of the cultural fabric in India as college festivals were decades ago; young people dominate the audience. The lawns of the unprepossessing Royal Orchid Hotel in Bengaluru were packed with them when the lit fest was hosted there in December.

That evening, Ramachandra Guha’s fierce talk on the threats to freedom of expression, in which he castigated in equal measure the Congress, the Left and the Bharatiya Janata Party for being pusillanimous in its defence, had scores of youngsters seated on the grass because there was not enough seating for everyone. Looking back at 2015, I feel as if my favourite journeys were to literature festivals.

I was lucky enough to be invited to moderate sessions at three, including the Mountain Echoes litfest in postcard-perfect Bhutan, which I became so enamoured of I would return there to wash dishes.

More than a decade ago, the mother ship of all litfests, JLF, inventively managed by Namita Gokhale and William Dalrymple and Sanjoy Roy of Teamwork Arts, set the tone by hosting conversations between writers, journalists and academics rather than focusing the spotlight on one author and asking her to read from a latest book.

The formats tap into this country’s world-beating standards for debate and dissent and sparkling dining table discussions. And, unlike our expectations of Parliament and state-owned banks, nothing more is asked of a litfest than to entertain and educate, so only good could come of this. Being free means that students can attend in bus-loads, which remains one of the moving aspects of JLF.

I attended JLF for the first time last year to moderate a couple of sessions. Before I had even planned my trip, I was given two diametrically opposed views of the event. One was that it was too crowded and the thousands of attendees drifted in and out of talks like people with attention deficit disorder. The other view was that it was one of the most wonderful things in the world of books since the invention of the Gutenberg press. Which camp would I fall into?

I went, I saw and I was conquered. On a Saturday morning, I began the day listening to an Indian classical concert on the grounds of Diggi Palace before going on to listen to a Sri Lankan academic read passages from Therigatha — poems by Buddhist nuns from 2000 years ago — in the wonderful sing-song cadences of the Sinhalese.

Also on stage was the Columbia University Sanskrit scholar Sheldon Pollock and Girish Karnad. The moderator was the irreverent and engaging Arshia Sattar. To listen to Pollock speaking about Sanskrit passages he had read before breakfast that morning in the manner that the rest of us would refer to a newspaper story, to hear his fierce and uncompromising defence of Abu Fazl’s florid eulogies to Akbar in Akbarnama was to be transported to another world where the word really was God. At 10 am on Saturday, every seat in the 2,000-seater enclosure was taken — the audience a mix of schoolchildren and the elderly, foreign tourists and Indians. There were no empty seats at the front. Part of the charm of JLF is there is no VIP seating. Vasundhara Raje, as leader of the opposition, joined those standing while listening to a session a few years ago.

If all the concurrent sessions of talks and discussions were not enough, the evenings included music by Pakistani singers, transplanted somehow (while the Shiv Sena was napping) from Coke Studio Pakistan to the vast grounds of the Clark’s Amer. Saieen Zahoor, a mini orchestra all his own, was such a revelation that I have subsequently whiled away far too many hours watching Pakistan Coke Studio on YouTube when I should be reading or writing, which must qualify as a special kind of philistinism after attending a literary festival

With the active engagement of the Rajasthan government, the success of JLF has led to the founding of sacred music festivals near Ajmer last month, a photography festival in Jaipur next month and a world music festival in Udaipur in mid-February featuring singers from Portugal, Spain and the Ivory Coast. JLF itself has spawned satellite festivals on London’s Southbank last year and the gorgeous university town of Boulder that sits at the foot of the Rockies in Colorado. I attended the one in Boulder as a moderator and guest of the festival. I found it housed in a spectacularly modern public library with a café that was built over a creek, the entrance festooned with colourful umbrellas and Gond tribal art from India. Most of the audience lived locally, but people had flown in from places like Dallas and further afield. One day I listened to Jung Chang on the Empress Cixi. She made a magnificent case that Cixi was the first moderniser of China, not Mao Zedong.

Simon Sebag Montefiore spoke of that great romance between Catherine the Great and Potemkin and William Dalrymple followed with a terrific account of the Anglo-Afghan war. This was a sprawling history lesson in a day, told with the verve of a thriller. Sebag Montefiore revealed that George W Bush and Laura Bush had read each other the letters between the Queen and her lover.

This year’s Jaipur festival, which begins on January 21, features writers as disparate as the novelist Margaret Atwood, Thomas Piketty, author of the famed tome on inequality, the travel writer Colin Thubron, the magisterial black American writer Margo Jefferson and Shobhaa De. Two supremely accomplished Indian non-fiction writers, Samanth Subramanian and Raghu Karnad, are on panels as well. It will be fantastically crowded alright — last year’s festival on the weekend saw 30,000 visitors daily.

On the last day, N R Narayana Murthy spoke before 6,000 people so jammed in on the front lawn that the stage shook as they pressed against it. Having disarmingly apologised for wearing a suit to a litfest, Murthy had the crowd captivated when he told them of being taken off a train in Bulgaria as a young back-packer and detained for 72 hours without food by the Communist state’s police. His ‘crime’ was being in conversation with a fellow passenger who was candid about the difficulties  of living in a Communist country. Confronted with the state’s arbitrary use of power, he gave up his socialist leanings overnight in a Bulgarian jail.

Jaipur is a rock concert where even septuagenarians in suits tell good stories.

Jaipur Literature Festival will be held from January 21 to January 25 at Diggi Palace, Jaipur;  for details, log on to jaipurliteraturefestival.org

More cultural fests in Rajasthan

Udaipur World Music Festival: The musical event will include singers and musicians from about 12 countries.

When: February 13-14

Where: Fateh Sagar Paal and Railway Training Institute Ground, Udaipur

Travel Photo Jaipur: Jaipur’s landmarks, such as Hawa Mahal, Albert Hall Museum and Jawahar Kala Kendra, form the backdrop to 14 exhibitions from around the world.

When: February 5-14

Where: Across Jaipur

World Sacred Spirit Festival: Nagaur and Jodhpur open their doors to a musical journey by artists from India, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Spain, Morocco, Greece, Egypt and the US.

When: February 22-24 and February 26-28

Where: Ahhichatragarh Fort, Nagaur, and Mehrangarh Fort, Jodhpur

Details: worldsacredspiritfestival.org

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