• Hiba Ahmad

Jaipur Literature Festival: Lost in Classification

On a sunny winter morning, sometime in late January, if you found yourself surrounded by a humongous bunch of extremely diverse yet besuited people of all ages, gushing inside one of Jaipur’s grandest hotels, talking about literature, theater, music and art all alike, you had most likely ended up in the latest edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival.


After the completion of 10 successful editions, the city of Jaipur became host to the largest literary festival of Asia yet again, witnessing the most eminent and respected individuals of their fields come together, and discuss art and literature with an ever-increasing bunch of enthusiasts. The line-up for this year didn’t limit itself to just noteworthy authors and speakers like Amy Tan (The Joy Luck Club) and Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient) but extended to acclaimed journalists, musicians and scientists as well. Over a period of five days, the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) held some 200 sessions across several venues entailing diverse discussions from literature to music, politics to travel, cinema to even psychology. Shashi Tharoor’s keen eye for politics made him a recurrent panelist throughout the festival and attracted the largest audiences to his sessions.

When Sanjoy Roy, Managing Director of Teamwork Arts, conceptualized and organized the first edition of JLF as an independent literary festival, he envisioned a space where literary art of all distinctive kinds could thrive and create tangible wealth without artists having to compromise with their creative liberty. From 2008 to 2018, even though the diversity and inclusiveness of the festival has been grounded and reiterated several times in the face of controversies, the festival has lost its spirit and essence.

Jaipur Literature Festival has come to be represented as an event, a large part of whose audience attends the festival, not to discuss and experience what it actually entails, but to be a part of the grandeur that has come to be associated with it.

So What Happened?

Being the largest literary festival of Asia has also made JLF a status symbol that everyone wants to flaunt. Among the attendees, there has been a rise in the number of ‘pseudo intellectuals’ who attend it for the aesthetically pleasing venue or the fancy getaway from their mundane lives or to reflect upon themselves as intellectuals actively engaging in discourse about art that isn’t accessible to, or conceivable by all. This is disrespectful to both, the people who are connoisseurs of literature and art and genuinely attend the festival to appreciate its existence as well as to literature itself whose sanctity is maligned in the process.

For 5 days each year, Jaipur also becomes the hub of all things fashion and style where everyone puts there best styling foot forward. JLF gets to witness an amalgamation of styles, each experimenting differently with their looks, from urban chic to classic retro. While that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it adds to the beauty of the festival, it does become problematic when people start attending the festival only to create a fashion statement, or to get aesthetically pleasing pictures at the stunning Diggi Palace as it takes the very essence of a literary festival away from it.

"JLF has created a niche for the elites who attend it because they easily can rather than being a space where everyone who sincerely wishes to go and appreciate literature and art can do so without being subjected to any kinds of judgements."

JLF has also been the center of several controversies since its conception. While it continues to uphold a neutral and accepting views of all ideologies, it has found itself in the midst of many clashes among extremist groups for being too leftist or too rightist at different points of time and faced flak for the same.

Jaipur is one of the major heritage cities of India, and thus a prominent tourist industry, catering to people from all across the world who actively attend the festival to explore the rich culture and heritage of the country. Besides them, the festival overtime has attracted the most well to do social class of people who are economically capable of engaging in a paid expression and discourse of art, that most middle-class people aren’t at liberty to do. As Roy explains “We look at making the arts a paying proposition and, at the same time, building brand India through it. And we try to make it a mainstream event, curating around it experiences in food and drinks, retail and festivities.” JLF has created a niche for the elites who attend it because they easily can rather than being a space where everyone who sincerely wishes to go and appreciate literature and art can do so without being subjected to any kinds of judgements.

Silver Lining?

Despite all this, JLF continues to be one of the grandest literature festivals, and has been getting bigger and better in terms of the revenue it creates each year. Even though it isn’t inclusive in its entirety, it still manages to attract several thousands of people each year who might not be there for literature but for the fun and frolic that the festival entails.

This forces one to ponder over ideas such as the subjectivity and exclusivity of art and also question the onus of the organizers to make everything approachable and all-inclusive despite starting it as revenue creating event. After all, if the millennials and the curators of the festival continue to accept and uphold the remodeled spirit of the festival, with much vigor and zest, who can we really hold accountable?

Views expressed are personal. The writer was an attendee of JLF, 2018.

About the Author

Hiba Ahmad is a student of Literature at Hansraj College, Delhi University, India. She has worked with NGOs such as CRY and is an accomplished debater. She is also a recipient of an award by the Kalam Foundation.

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