Jaipur Literature Festival: Prisoner of a palace

Published: January 29, 2012

This year, Indian born British author Salman Rushdie was one of the attractions of the festival. PHOTO: REUTERS

An outsider who has never been part of the Jaipur Literature Festival wonders what goes on for four days in the Diggi Palace, a 16th century palace owned by one of the descendants of some nondescript feudal lords.

The day starts with four different sessions on varied issues running parallel in four different venues, aptly named Mughal Durbar, Mughal Tent and so on. Before lunch, three such sessions are held and writers interact with moderator and audience.

The same continues after the elaborate rich Rajasthani lunch and it ends at 6.30 pm. Then, the music session starts and soon after, the bar and dining areas are opened. Till 10.00 pm,  people enjoy the cocktail of music, drinks and dinner. The ambiance is infectious and the hip and happening crowd has a great time. The celebration continues for four days without any change…

Sometimes, the choice of venue demonstrates the value of an event. It symbolises the larger unintended meaning hidden in a festival. Jaipur is not known in popular Indian imagination as a place where great literature or works of art were born. People identify the place because of its history – the history of kings and kingdoms, of feudal behaviour and conduct.

Holding the Jaipur Literature Festival in the Pink City (as Jaipur is also known) alludes to all kinds of intent.

Is it related to the promotion of literature or tourism, or is it an extension of mall culture that is consuming the whole country gradually? Is it any different from the annual Dubai Shopping Festival or the Trade Fair that Delhi witnesses in the second week of November every year?

Today, the Jaipur Literature Festival is a well known event not because it has produced or patronised any new talent; but because of the controversy it has generated. People know that Jaipur is not only a pink and palatial city but a city of literature as well.

To prop up the TRP of the event, some big names were invited. This year, Indian born British author Salman Rushdie was one of the attractions of the festival. He was forced to be absent from the gathering but even his absence managed to give fillip to the literary jamboree.

If you look at the history of the festival in the last six years, you will notice that only best-selling authors who have gained fame or notoriety are invited. If the aim of such a venture is to enlighten people and inculcate value for literature, why have the organisers never thought to invite Noam Chomsky, Arundhati Roy or many other well known thinkers and dissenters of the prevailing cultural and political values of the world? These authors may not be glamorous names but are definitely individuals who question the status quo, and break the boundaries of conformism.

This brings me to my point: branding is important. In a world driven by market forces, no venture can remain aloof from such a ubiquitous force. The main sponsor of what is touted as one of the best literature festivals is an infrastructure developer called DSC Limited. By lending its name and money to the festival, the real estate developer has managed to expand its brand value. In return, the organisers  get much needed funds to sustain the show.

Modern kings and rulers are the corporate and business houses and people associated with literature look for their attention to survive. Jaipur gives a perfect historical background and inspiration to continue a tradition which has been a norm in the past when princes and principalities used to nurture artists and art.

As in the past, poets and artists who were blind conformists of present values survived under the patronage – those who never questioned the existing system.

Similarly, only those sticklers of conformism, whose rebellion suits the taste of the sponsors, made the list. Only those topics that do not challenge the existing value system come under discussion.

Of course, there was discussion on Kashmir or the Naxal problem. But they were like playing safe, with a helmet on. Freedom of expression was controlled and conducted. The moment some writers tried going out of the written script, they were asked to leave. This is what happened when writers like Amitabh Kumar and Hari Kunzru tried reading a few lines from the banned book “The Satanic Verses”.

The whole atmosphere is designed to serve only the cause of those who write in English. Hindi and Hindustani also come to be served by some popular names from the world of cinema like Gulzar, Javed Akhtar and Prasoon Joshi. Their romantic couplets enthrall the audience in the same way as any popular Bollywood songs titillate the senses.

One must admit that it’s a well packaged festival where people come in droves to be seen and to stroll around and listen to odd talks happening at several venues at the same time. There are also those who come for shopping- not for books but for designer clothes from the numerous shops put up at that time by popular designers.

The festival is not inclusive but exclusive. It does not give space to folk literature, and literature written in regional languages. In India where there are 18 officially recognised languages, the Jaipur literature festival ignored the voices of those who don’t read and write English, who are not part of popular linguistic narrative. Despite the demise of feudalism and principalities, literature has not come out of the palaces.

Diggi Palace creates a wedge between the two worlds and worldviews – one which is promoted by the corporate houses and other which is not part of the nouveaux riches circle.

At the end of four days, one wonders what has been gained in terms of intellectual advancement and in understanding of the present world. The festival is one more trap to corporatise our sensibilities and thoughts.


Sanjay Kumar

The author is a New Delhi based journalist covering South Asian and international politics.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • http://NewYork Falcon

    Interesting take on the festival. You are quite right that they come across elitist by not inviting the regional languages. However, I also wonder what would be the logistics of it since less people will understand it…may be they can use the interpreter?

    Lastly, I would like to add that esteemed freedom of speech is respectable but it should operate within the realm of respect for others. Truth unites and ego divides. Recommend

  • narayana murthy

    Interesting! Recommend

  • Godhpur

    @Author: Dude, it’s not the right way. You can’t talk about negativity all the time….Even though it’s a Pakistani blog, talking Arundhati Roy all the time doesn’t do justice to anything.Recommend

  • http://lonepkliberal.wordpress.com Loneliberal PK

    I absolutely adore the Jaipur literature festival, and it’s disheartening when any famous writer, Rushdie or otherwise, is frightened out of attending it due to ideological differences.

    One may not have to like or even agree with Rushdie’s work, but one does need to develop the tolerance and civility to listen to the mere words he has to offer. He has never actually harmed a Muslim, nor has he ever endorsed harming Muslims.

    I can’t say the same for many fanatical outfits in these countries who not only enjoy a sterling reputation, but also have tremendous freedom of speech and movement.Recommend

  • Rahul

    just to negative…you even say that you have never attended this festival…

    practice before you preach…like ways…attend before you comment.Recommend

  • http://NewYork Falcon

    @Loneliberal PK:
    I understand the drift of your argument but fundamentally, the definition of harming others extends beyond the damage inflicted through action, it also applies to verbal expressions (at least this is how Islam defines hurting others…words and actions both matter otherwise swearing at someone should not be a matter of ethical concern..right?)Recommend

  • Katarina

    Everyone can choose if they want to get hurt feelings if someone is saying/writing words. And hurted feelings do not give you the right to harm someone. To citate Viktor Frankl:
    “We who lived in the concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: The last of his freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”Recommend

  • http://lonepkliberal.wordpress.com Loneliberal PK


    Swearing at someone is an ad hominem attack. And using spiteful words against a certain community counts as hate speech. However, criticizing or satirizing an ideology counts as neither, but is merely free expression.

    For instance, if you make a joke about Justin Bieber’s work, while I happen to be a big fan of his (heck no, but let’s just assume that), it would be unreasonable of me to take that criticism as a personal attack on me. Because just by criticizing Bieber’s music, you’re not necessarily intending to also insult every single person who follows his work.

    I know it’s not possible to ask people to not be offended when someone speaks out against their cherished ideologies. But it is appropriate to ask them to be tolerant of opposing views, and not resort to violent or threatening behaviour.Recommend

  • spacedoutwriting

    Frankly the JLF was boring to me as I love readings but meeting writers does nothing for me.

    But here is my two paisa worth of response to this post.

    The JLF is definitely a corporate sponsored orgy of conversations, gathering of writers, wanna-be writers, celebrity hunters and everyone-with-a-bizarre-dress-sense who can make it is there.

    That said, this sweeping blog does it some injustice. It was my first time there and I was tempted to see it in the same light. But a few thought provoking sessions (where moderators did not grab the mike) away from the limelight of Oprah and Salman proved there is enough meat for those who look for it.

    Writers writing in other languages were there but yes, in the main its a English Lit fest. I had the pleasure of reconnecting with NS Madhavan, who writes in Malayalam and who discussed his ideas on writing in the mother tongue and the perils of translation.

    Finally, this post gives a bare mention to “a discussion on Kashmir” or the “Naxal Problem”. The session on Kashmir was by Iftekhar Gilani, Anjum Niaz and another Kashmiri activist (?) on their experiences of being tortured in Indian army custody (Before my Indian compatriots start losing it, I am Indian and one whose dad served 35 years in the army and you can shove your misplaced patriotism where it belongs). The writer also forgets to mentions a session on Democracy and Dissent which had Aruna Roy, Ayesha Jalal and Dayamani Barla (a tribal rights activist from Chattisgarh) and Sunil Khilnani.

    So yes, it was corporate sponsored. Heck, I went to JNU and I know the copybook position on corporate sponsorship. But the way i see it – this Rio Tinto/Tata Steel/et al sponsored affare exposed more people to IDEAS than a session in after dinner talk in Jhelum mess.

    So my friend, more reflection and less sweeping critique – may not win you readers but you may sound more reasonable. Recommend

  • Mir Agha

    I am routinely disappointed at the narrow vision of the english media in India. It is essentially state-controlled liberalism. In comparison, the “liberals” in Pakistan are a lot more open-minded. Not surprising that Noam Chomsky and Arundhati Roy haven’t been invited as they challenge the self-serving assumptions of mainstream India. Also not surprised to see a blinkered conversation on Kashmir or Naxals.Recommend

  • abhi

    So this festival is happening for years and now Sanjay finds it elitist and corporate sponsored? reason they invited Sulman Rushdie this time. You can easliy identify under cover congressi by their writing.Recommend

  • hamzad

    Organized literature is as vile and loathesome as organised religion…..
    a fie on these english-tedium (sic) circus…Fany not that we get impressed if any stuff is in english or “faarin” language…we have a mush vibrant, rich, and powerful literary tradion than the west can ever even aspire to…Come back home and become learned in your own language
    yourself..not as reported by the “faariner” telling us about ourselves as if we were a bacteria colony in a petridish for our exotic value or utilityRecommend

  • Vikram

    Problem is who decides if Rushdie has hurt some one or not.. Many Pakistanis think Kadri
    who killed Salman Tasser is a hero and many others think he is a murderer and all these people read the same Koran and follow the same religion.of Islam. Many Muslims say Shia are not Muslims many other disagree with that. I don’t think people should be killed for their opinions or believes Recommend

  • Ratna Raman

    The thing is that the JLF is a lot of fun…. and you get to met people who are thinking and talking..however limited that might be..in terms of the enormous distance we have to traverse, to set things right in our sprawling democracy??
    Even though the JLF points us in the direction of being more and more unilingual and doesnt invite the right people (how do we know this anyway.?..In any case most people who turn up get a good platform to speak on…so why must we want to legislate on who should be invited?)

    I would still say that despite having terrible sponsors, only limiting itself to an english comprehending audience, defining law as having four corners, putting invited authors in a tizzy and displaying outrageous behaviour, unacceptable even by the lax hospitality codes we subject visitors to…. That the organisers invited Rushdie and then disowned him and then kowtowed to the orders barked by the state administration and insulted other visitors over to staging a symbolic protest and pleaded ignorance about the fact that the rules say nothing against reading from a banned book, this is astounding…and this i think was an all-time low… but i would insist that it is still an event infinitely preferable to the visiting of malls and waterparks and adventure parks and upper crust luncheons and dinners that the one percent frequently gravitates towards?
    People who write and read and also speak however minimally are the people one runs into..and we don’t need to feel compelled to sound self-righteous if they get themselves designer clothing and curios and pay a lot of money for middling food?
    Yes, we must find other ways of promoting our regional languages and literatures written in them…, but attacking the The Jaipur Festival isnt going to achieve this purpose. Neither can we begin to insist that the Jaipur literary Festival should now incorporate all this or perish.
    At academic institutions such as the university, talks by eminent authors who are invited for the express purpose of exchange and interaction are marked by very thin attendance. There is also an inbuilt insularity within individual departments , so very little interdisciplinary readings or exchanges ever take place.
    Such exchanges, for whatever it is worth, do happen at the JLF.
    So as a sort of seeding ground, where people can get interested in the business of reading and thinking, i think it does very well..
    Thank goodness the real estate developer has decided to throw his weight behind the business of literature.. Maybe there is hope for his soul? I think we should become belligerent and strident if he were funding arms deals?Or obstructing mid day meals?Recommend

  • from India

    as long as quality is not compromised it really doesn’t matter who is sponsoring the fest ..be it a real estate developer or a farmer !! if you are so much concerned then why don’t you sponsor all by yourself ?Recommend

  • Ali Tanoli

    if some one make nude picture of hindus god he have to leave the country but if some one
    has hurts the feeling of billion peoples on earth he can roam free why is that a freedom of speech which only applys for muslims and if Ahmedinejad say Holocaust of jews in Europe war 2 was myth not fiction he is hurting jews feelings and if jon make a joke of Sikh temple
    of amrithser by saying Mitt Romney summer vacation resort its not hurting some peoples feeling and if we say naked statue temples of maharashter is pornograpy its gonna be ok right. freedom of speech doesnot means freedom of hurts.Recommend

  • Shafi Ahmed(Deccan)

    freedom of speech n expression cant b absolute,even indian constitution says that…RushDIE is a culprit who has used abuses at our beloved prophet Muhammad(sallalahu Alaihi waSallam)…he has no r8 to insult any1….muslims cant tolerate such things coz our Imaan is based on love n belief in our prophet’s prophecy…..shame on RushDIE n all haters of islam n muslims… SHAFI AHMED(HYDERABAD DECCAN) Recommend

  • Cynical

    The author Sanjay Kumar is pathologically negative.
    As @Spacedoutwriting has pointed out, the author has been economical with truth while branding it as ‘elitist’.Recommend

  • abid

    @Ali Tanoli:
    You are 100% right dear. Recommend

  • Amit

    The author is just pissed off that he was not invited. This is an outlandish and silly piece of drivel. Recommend