x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Words get around

In its fifth year, Jaipur's vibrant literature festival has 25,000 visitors and an army of international writers.

Now in its fifth year, the Jaipur Literature Festival has grown from small and experimental beginnings into an international event with a relaxed exuberance rare at long-running literary bastions such as the Cheltenham Literature Festival, Edinburgh's summer tradition, New York's PEN event or the famed Hay-on-Wye. The festival, described by The Daily Beast editor and author Tina Brown as "the greatest literary show on earth", this year attracted an international army of writers and publishers, with an estimated 25,000 visitors pouring through the gates at Jaipur's faded but spectacular Diggi Palace to listen to panel discussions, readings and interviews spanning film, music, travel, criticism and theatre.

Streaming across wide lawns and into shaded tents, to sit on pink cushions and hear a favourite writer speak, visitors mixed with Bollywood actors and producers, first-time novelists and internationally respected writers. Undergraduates questioned eminent thinkers, autograph-hunters monopolised speakers, and playwrights queued for lunch with high society. It is this quality that gives the Jaipur event its spark.

Writers publishing first novels presented their ideas and creative extracts alongside literary greats. Sanskrit chants floating over the lawns provided background music to a debate on literary criticism. A travel-writing discourse could be followed by a talk on Tibet, a discussion on displaced and immigrant writers, or reflections by novelists on seeing their books turned into Hollywood blockbusters.

It is hard to imagine another event where the Bollywood great, the lyricist, poet and scriptwriter Javed Akhtar, would take on the Pulitzer-winning investigative writer Steve Coll on the subject of Osama bin Laden's whereabouts in front of a packed audience of foreign dignitaries, would-be novelists and schoolchildren. One overriding appeal this year was a strong focus on oral linguistic traditions, and literature published in languages other than English.

William Dalrymple, the travel author and correspondent and the festival's co-director, explains: "Of course the festival does attract the big names, internationally recognised writers, some of whom have won Pulitzers and Bookers. "But in India you can have a writer who publishes in Hindi or Bengali or Marathi and sells a million copies of a book, but they aren't well known or hugely celebrated. So the festival looks extensively at Indian writers who publish in other dialects, because it gives them a platform they don't find elsewhere."

For Sanjoy Roy, the festival's producer, all this chimes in with wider trends. "India itself is the flavour of the season and is attracting more and more attention, as is writing in English from India," he says. The festival line-up and discussion subjects have reflected this theme since the event's inception, with Namita Gokhale, the festival's director, continually championing under-represented Indian authors.

"Every year I seek to foreground some aspects of heritage and culture that need a platform - for example, the oral traditions across India and especially those of Rajasthan always find a place in the programme." A substantial number of this year's sessions were linked under the general heading of the Bhaskar Bhasha Series and were given over to the exploration of regional languages, a focus driven by Gokhale's personal passion for the subject.

She explains: "For a long time I felt that there was a literary movement about to happen that required the English-Indian languages divide to be bridged - and also a cross-fertilisation of ideas among the Bhasha languages, all of which have long literary traditions. "Although writers work in isolation, I feel it is important for them to have a space within which they can communicate in the venerable tradition of the argumentative Indian."

The series produced some of the festival's best-attended and most warmly received forums. Discussions featuring the Urdu and Punjabi poet Gulzar, the Dalit writer P Sivakami and Sister Jesme, a nun, saw visitors clustered around television screens relaying the proceedings to those who couldn't get into the venues and garnered huge audiences of aspiring writers mindful of the caste system that has seen Dalits pushed to the bottom of the social pile.

The platform afforded to hugely successful but internationally unknown writers must have fulfilled some of Gokhale's vision. Mridula Bihari, an eminent Hindi writer, describes her enthusiasm at being invited to speak at the festival: "I have written a lot, a huge number of books and plays, but writing in another language means not everyone may have heard of my work, so I've come to do several readings, based around Rajasthan. It will be a good chance for people to hear different types of writing."

Of course, the festival's international delegates also pulled huge and excited crowds. Dalrymple comments: "We love that they give up their time and energy to come all the way out here to Jaipur to take part - we're not heavily funded like the Hay Festival - for example, this year is the first year we've broken even. "But although we can't fly all the writers in first class, we do look after them when they're here, and I think the fact that there are no VIP areas or 'green rooms' really makes what the festival is about - everyone is mixed in, eating together, crammed into the tents and halls to hear other speakers.

"That we draw in such a huge range of Pulitzer winners, Booker Prize winners, famous playwrights is very special," he adds. Louis de Bernières, the author of Captain Corelli's Mandolin and, most recently, The Partisan's Daughter, had been hounded by autograph-hunters and television crews, but retained a joy at the event displayed by many of the delegates, saying: "The draw of Jaipur? Well it's sunny and warm, and the alternative is February in Britain!"

His humour gives way to a wider discussion, spanning Plato's Symposium as an inspiration, his love of Baroque and Renaissance music and his second career as a musician, the fact that he finds it incredibly difficult to title his work, that he loves cats, and that his latest project - based loosely on the military life of his grandfather, will involve a research trip to Pakistan. He also offers more insight into the process of producing his work: "I try not to do too much research at once, and I do draw on my own past experience in the army and as a teacher. Growing up I read Charles Dickens - I love Dickens; I thought A Tale of Two Cities was the most marvellous book from the first line until the last."

He adds: "I don't understand writers who say the writing process is a tortuous one. I think if you don't enjoy what you're doing, you should be doing something else." De Bernières also highlights Jaipur's championing of new writers, saying: "I'm very much looking forward to reading The Pleasure Seekers," referring to the debut novel by a fellow-Jaipur delegate, Tishani Doshi. Another key feature of the event was a focus on current affairs and events, particularly the conflict in Afghanistan, and the knock-on effects in neighbouring Pakistan.

Topics such as the relationship between freedom and consumerism, Bin Laden after the Bush administration and CIA funding of the Afghan Taliban in the 1980s enjoyed heady debate, and the themes of conflict and fundamentalism were prominent. On the sidelines, the novelist, screenwriter and playwright Hanif Kureishi comments on the creative environment in Pakistan: "I don't think it's bleak at all - I think it's a very exciting time to be writing in Pakistan. There are Pakistani writers like Mohsin Hamid and Mohammed Hanif whom I hugely enjoy reading. There's a lot of good writing coming out of Pakistan."

That the event attracts such eminent figures can be attributed to the enthusiasm and drive of its leading lights. Dalrymple says: "We started five years ago after I was invited to speak at the Jaipur Heritage Festival, which was started by Jaipur's Virasat Foundation [a Rajasthani music and heritage NGO which focuses on economic support and sustaining artistic tradition], and I thought there should be a place for literature at the event, which there really wasn't. It needed a literary festival or event. So we started one."

The labour of love that emerged as the Jaipur Literature Festival attracted 14 Indian writers and one international delegate in its first year. Commenting on its growth and rising appeal since then, Dalrymple says: "No one's really quite sure what's going to happen at Jaipur, but I think that's part of the appeal. It's very democratic and relaxed and the atmosphere is really charged. I get a huge buzz when I see a new writer captivating an unsuspecting audience, or when school kids, socialites, writers and tourists are all crammed together, all over the lawns listening to a literary star."

Gokhale adds: "It has grown at an incredible rate as though it was simply waiting to happen. It has evolved, I think, in a natural and organic process. I think the Jaipur Literature Festival has relocated our literary sensitivity and consciousness back firmly in the rooted appreciation of our own languages and culture. "At the same time it exposes book-lovers in India to the best of international writing. So in a sense the world visits Jaipur and Jaipur visits the world every January."

The event has proved its value both in terms of Jaipur's economy and in sustaining Rajasthani heritage, and the model is something the organisers hope to repeat elsewhere in India. Roy, whose Teamwork Productions company stages the event, comments: "The Virasat Foundation had a dream of combining heritage, tourism and development in to one developmental model. "The festival has shown this is possible and like most festivals it aids the local economy. We hope to begin two more festivals in India - one for literature, and the second a city-based water festival."

Dalrymple adds: "Namita and I barely agreed when the festival started on whom to invite - we were very small and funded entirely by sponsorship. I would want a brilliant young English historian and she would want some obscure Hindi poet, and we could never afford to have both. "Now, though, we are very well-known. I had a bit of a Woodstock moment last year, when I looked over the lawns and saw all these children and actors and writers and visitors crammed together for a lecture.

"And I think that sums up Jaipur really - everyone meshes together, it is a totally democratic, vibrant, diverse event and it's grown to extraordinary proportions from what started as a labour of love, really. We're incredibly passionate about writing, about literature, and this is what the event is about."