Hailed as a grand literary extravaganza the world over, the Jaipur Literature Festival 2023 opened Day 1 at Hotel Clarks Amer with a star-studded line-up of writers, speakers and opinion-makers.
The first morning of the Festival commenced with a soul-stirring performance featuring the brilliant and award-winning Carnatic vocalist Sushma Soma. Soma’s rich and melodious voice transformed the energy at the Front Lawn and was the perfect build-up to the inaugural session of the Festival. Soma said about her recent album, “My album…Home…is about like my reflection on sustainability, environment and nature and through that I realised as I started researching within the form and looking for repertoire …all the songs that I was actually i was looking at, relooking at, they spoke to me differently; they actually started speaking to me from point of environment and sustainability…”
The inaugural session of the 16th edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival began with speeches from acclaimed personalities, including author William Dalrymple, Namita Gokhale and Sanjoy K. Roy. During the ceremony Roy shared how — with over 80% attendees under the age of 25 in 2020—the Festival has found a niche among India’s youth. The Festival has tried to take into account the future of this young demographic by attempting to go carbon neutral, he said. Roy also mentioned their commitment to increasing the reach of the Festival to students from economically challenged sections and noted that events from three venues will be livestreamed this time. Further, through their partnership with Pratham Books, they will be setting up libraries in across 50 schools for the economically-weak. Gokhale spoke at length about the diverse languages that the Festival has come to represent — in this edition, there will be speakers from over 21 Indian languages and 14 international languages, making this an event that represents the diversity of its attendees. Giving a brief of the vast kind of talks, Dalrymple said that this edition will include winners of the most coveted literary awards from around the world, including the Nobel Prize winner Abdulrazak Gurnah, the Man Booker prize winners Geetanjali Shree and Daisy Rockwell, among many others.
Namita Gokhale, writer, Founder & Co-director of the Jaipur Literature Festival, said, “Over the last 16 years, this annual literary pilgrimage, this Mahakumbh of readers and writers, this Katha Sarit-sagar, this sea of stories—has been transformative for so, so many people. Our programming focus, quite naturally, gravitated to translations and to forefronting new and unheard voices…Every January, the world visits Jaipur and Jaipur visits the world. From geopolitics to planetary consciousness, history, religions, spirituality, prose-poetry, argumentative discourse, we bring you multiple perspectives from the greatest Literary show on Earth.”
William Dalrymple, author, historian and Founder & Co-director of the Jaipur Literature Festival, said, “…this year we have every single major book award winner in the world present, the Nobel, the Booker, the International Booker, the JCB…the Women’s Prize and so on…It’s going to be cerebral heaven and an utterly magnificent feast of the mind. The kind of superb university people with fellows of all toes…with great minds from St. Stephens, from Harvard, from Yale—all available for free alongside these Nobel Prize winners, and it is an utterly magnificent feast of the mind sustaining inspiration.”
Sanjoy K. Roy, Managing Director, Teamwork Arts, producer of the Jaipur Literature Festival, said, “Our whole aim and focus from the very beginning has been – can we create a platform where young people come to engage with writers? We believe that this is the generation that will bring about change in the world.” While addressing climate issues, Roy said, “Today, the climate crisis continues to be one of the biggest issues that we are facing. Yesterday with Shombi Sharp, the resident coordinator of the United Nations and Radhika Kaul Batra, we signed an MoU to ensure that all our festivals, conventions and programmes …will go green.”
Addressing the audience, this year’s keynote speaker, winner of the 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature, Abdulrazak Gurnah said, “Writing, above all, is about upholding the ideas and beliefs that we think are important and that we value. When someone says ‘writing as resistance’, these are the kinds of things I think of rather than fighting tyrants or necessarily standing on platforms making powerful speeches to energise people; but more the ordinary, mundane business of not forgetting, of making sure that what is important is always kept alive.”
The Festival hosted a fascinating session featuring Booker prize winner Bernardine Evaristo in conversation with journalist and writer Nandini Nair. While talking about her memoir Manifesto,
Evaristo said, “In a way, I wasn’t an overnight success but I was also an overnight success because literally my life was completely transformed from the evening of the Booker to the morning after the Booker because suddenly everything I wanted for my career, happened.” She then added, “But then I thought I’d like to write about my life in relationship to my creativity and that felt like the perfect thing to do at that stage. Because people can’t compare a memoir with a novel.”
At a session, academic Mukulika Banerjee, president and chief executive of the centre for policy research Yamini Aiyar and academic & writer Ronojoy Sen were seen in conversation with renowned journalist Seema Sirohi. The session explored Sirohi’s opening remarks on how fault lines emerge within democracies across the world, laying the ground for the engaged panel to discuss the crisis at its root through the fundamentals of what democratic practices stand for and the challenges they bring forth. Throwing light on democratic accountability, Banerjee said, “Democracy is really about political democracy; it is about how the relationship between the citizen and the representative is defined, it’s a vertical relationship”. Sen provided insights into the Indian Parliament and the current status of our democracy. Aiyar emphasised the benefits and drawbacks of democracy and reinforced the need for solid institutions rooted in a deeply held democratic culture.
At another session, eminent scholar and translator Bibek Debroy was in conversation with renowned author Pushpesh Pant. During the conversation, Debroy discussed how the Puranas are supposed to represent the five characteristics of Pancha Lakshana. Debroy advised the audience to begin with Bhagavad Purana or the Markandeya Purana as a beginner to gain more insight into the world of slokha’s and Puranas.
Best-selling novelist Durjoy Datta spoke about his journey as a writer from being published at 21 till writing his latest novel When I’m with You. In conversation with author Kiran Manral, Datta discussed the depth and background to his characters and how he comes about writing them and the flaws many of his characters have.
Celebrated author and politician Shashi Tharoor was in conversation with the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Caroline Elkins on Elkins’ new book, Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire. Together, Elkins and Tharoor discussed a variety of themes, including the global history of the empire, its violent undertones, the legal case that was filed against Britain and its manifestations in South Asia. Through the book, Elkins hopes to connect the dots of what
happened across the colonial events of violence in 1857 India and 1954 Kenya, amongst others. During the session, Tharoor said, “Violence was integral to the colonial project… in the second half of the 19th century, they came up with a justification—the civilising mission—which was not used until before this..There was wholescale killing. The Jallianwallah Bagh was the apogee of something, but the numbers—when you massacre 100,000 people in Delhi, killing 2000-3000 in Jallianwallah Bagh must have looked like a small change to those who did it”.
In another session, novelist, filmmaker and Zen Buddhist priest Ruth Ozeki and writer and journalist Bee Rowlatt discussed the former’s novel The Book of Form and Emptiness, which narrates the story of Benny Oh, a boy who begins to hear objects speak after the death of his father. The authors discussed how the story deals with coming to terms with a huge loss, with Ozeki noting that the loss of her own father prompted her to examine the process of grieving. If it was a character in its own right, Ozeki delightfully claimed that the book would be very happy to be at the Jaipur Literature Festival.
Philanthropist and entrepreneur Surina Narula was in conversation with celebrated actress Deepti Naval. Naval’s memoir, A Country Called Childhood, is based on her childhood in Amritsar and talks about the influences that made her different in the film industry. During the session, Naval shared her personal insights, and expressed how the issue of mental health informed her work.
Writer and rapper Sumit Samos was in conversation with celebrated author and politician Shashi Tharoor, and the duo spoke about how BR Ambedkar has been neglected for a very long time in Indian political discourse. Samos discussed the manner in which he is being used and appropriated by parties across the political spectrum and what it means to be an Ambedkarite, citing the need to reconstruct histories from different parts of India and to believe in the autonomy to reclaim histories of the marginalised and build institutions. Tharoor discussed Ambedkar’s impact on women rights, the Constitution and legal mechanisms of India.
The conversation between noted historians David Olusoga and Alex von Tunzelmann with academic Mukulika Banerjee focussed on how history is remembered by the public, and whether or not statues help us remember the past. At a session, the primary discussion was around statues in Britain and India, and how statues reflect the role of “great men”. Observing alternate
ways of recording history, Tunzelmann said, “There are many ways of remembering our history—books, documentaries, and festivals like today — these are interactive ways through which we can remember history…there are so many ways of making monuments that are not statues…they vest all of history in great men, and that is sort of a problem as to how we view history…because history is not just made by these great men.”
As a finale to the first day of the Festival, one of India’s leading pop icons and playback singers, Usha Uthup sang her rendition of the filmfare winning song ‘Darling’ from the movie 7 Khoon Maaf.