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AMRIT DHILLON | 24 JANUARY, 2017

Success Has Killed the Jaipur Literary Festival


JAIPUR: The golden days of the Jaipur Literary Festival are over. The best is behind us, alas. Only nostalgia is left.

I am glad to be one of the lucky people who experienced the early days when it was the cultural highlight of the year and an event that was enchanting on every level: the pleasure of hearing writers speak, the Jaipur winter sunshine, beautiful Diggi Palace, masala tea in kulhars (free in those days, not Rs 30 a shot like this year), the easy mingling of visitors and writers (I once sat at a table having my meal on the Front Law while Vikram Seth sat cross legged by my feet because he couldn’t find a seat), and the sense of being a student again, drifting in and out of tents for some wonderful stimulation or entertainment, to be followed by a discussion with friends about what you had just heard, over mugs of hot, spiced cider at the café set out under the trees and scarlet bougainvillea that used to be run by a local couple, Ritu and Surya Singh.

Success has killed the festival. Think Lajpat Nagar market on Diwali eve. Or a Mathura wedding hall, filled with noise, a vast concourse of visitors, deafening ads blaring from gigantic screens, stalls selling trinkets, dirty toilets, queues for everything, and a profusion of food stalls.

At the weekend, going from one venue to another, you did not walk from A to B - you were carried along by a sea of humanity with your feet barely touching on the ground. If you happened to be going against the crowd, you could feel scarily out of control. An NRI from Germany who was wearing a sari tripped on it in the crowd and fell. She was so frightened it might happen again that she walked into one of the tents selling over-priced clothes and bought a kurta to change into immediately.

Then, as she made her way through the throng to a session by former Guardian journalist Luke Harding on his book ‘A Very Expensive Poison’ on the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian secret service officer who was poisoned with radioactive polonium in London in 2006, she was scratched on her arms. ‘I told Harding that it was the first time I had had to suffer scratches for book,’ she said. Harding sweetly included a mention of the stigmata in his inscription of her copy of the book.

In my three days there, I used to look at the crowds and think ‘here is a stampede waiting to happen’. I went after a gap of a few years and was dismayed. The use of space has totally changed. After their appearance, the writers disappear into their lairs – the special lounges where the canaille cannot reach them. (Mind you, given the daunting crowds, I wouldn’t want to be out there either frankly but that’s not the point).

Gone are the small spaces where, as you listened to speakers, you could engage with them. It was hard to concentrate on the sessions because of the gigantism of the setting, the distance of the writer and the intrusive noises of the paraphernalia going on at the fringes. Earlier, the Festival was compact, intimate, and charming. Now, the Festival is titanic. To mention only one tent, the Charbagh Tent was the size of a football field, with a huge stage at one end, towering tents over it, the stage flanked by big screens, and seating for the multitudes.

The sheer scale of the setting dwarfs the speaker in such a way that they cannot even hear chuckles, groans, or laughter, leaving them stranded on the Mount Olympus of the stage, unable to gauge reactions, sense the mood, or decide if they need to shift gears, move on to another topic, or alter their tone and pace. These monumental settings also militate against speakers who have a quieter, low key persona. Only very upbeat writers who can speak with great energy and panache and ‘perform’ come across effectively in this setting.

I missed the space and the configuration of the early years. The only place left that offers the same intimate setting is the Durbar Hall. All else is huge, remote and impersonal. When a space becomes huge, the way people comport themselves within it changes. In a small space, visitors won’t use a seat purely to park themselves, take selfies or wolf down a snack. When the space is vast and impersonal, however, they feel they can do that, and they did.

Apart from the sessions, every inch of the Diggi Palace grounds has been dedicated to money-making. The empty swimming pool has been filled with tents selling merchandise. All the open space that used to be available for people to sit, chat, or rest has been given over to commerce: trinkets, clothes, bric-a-brac, jewellery, scarves. If you wish to sit, you have to sit in a café and spend money. You cannot just sit. I have not verified if this is true but one café owner told me that he was not only paying rent to the Festival for the space but had also been told to hand over five per cent of his profits, which seems cheap.

In between sessions, while one group of writers left the stage and the next ones arrived, a Festival organizer stood on stage and exhorted us to get our wallets out. ‘There are lots of stalls behind you filled with lovely merchandise. Go and grab some,’ she shouted into microphone. Also in between the sessions were the sponsor companies’ ads on the big screens, at top volume. This was serious noise pollution and extremely irksome. I must mention one ad in particular because it was so ghastly – the Indigo airline ad which, in its attempt to strike a note of grandeur, sounded like a Wagner overture on steroids, worthy of a Nuremburg rally.

As to the people, it’s silly to be snobbish but there were hordes of people at the Jaipur Literary Festival who had little or no interest in literature but were keen to be part of the jamboree, eat, take selfies, mill around, watch people, and jabber. If you failed to get a seat and happened to be standing either at the back or at the sides of a tent, you heard these groups chattering all the time, interfering with your ability to listen to what was being said on that far-off stage. They were busy socializing; it could have been anywhere else, it just happened to be at Diggi Palace.

Why does success always ruin things? I can offer no solutions but I do wish that William Dalrymple, Namita Gokhale and Sanjoy Roy had been able to work out a way of letting as many people as possible enjoy the treats offered by their fabulous Festival without commercializing it so much and without killing its charm.

But I also have to say that, after all this whinging, here and there, when you had excellent speakers with a good moderator and with the right kind of chemistry between them and if you were able to block out the Roman scale and all the ambient noise and distractions, it could still be a thrilling experience.

One such moment was biographer A. N. Wilson talking about his book on Queen Victoria, ‘Victoria: A Life’ with Shrabani Basu who wrote ‘Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of Victoria’s Closest Confidant’. What a wonderful hour these two gave the audience. Passionate about their subject, well-spoken, humorous, you could see the affectionate and respectful rapport between Wilson and Basu as they proceeded to have a rollicking good time talking about Victoria and, in the process, gave the audience a magical one hour.

Then it was back to the scrum.

(Amrit Dhillon is a freelance journalist in New Delhi)

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