Ideas of India: The Jaipur Literature Festival at the British Library 2017

When events are successful in one place, it often makes sense to send them travelling so that people in other cities and countries can enjoy them, too. The fourth UK edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival, taking place in the Pink City every January and started by writers Namita Gokhale and William Dalrymple in 2008, was held for the first time at the British Library, from 20-21 May 2017. I was looking forward to exploring a culture and its literature which I knew very little about before the festival, although India has been on my bucket list for quite some time. The diverse two-day programme with authors from across the globe was made up of 30 tempting sessions for literature lovers and also offered some beautiful Indian live music, including a lively set by amazing Mumbai-based band Kabir Café on Saturday night. I did my very best to attend as many of the events as possible and came home with some great stories and lots of fascinating reading material in my very beautifully designed festival bag.

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The very first event on Saturday morning was a live music session with singer Vidya Shah and poet Arundhati Subramaniam introducing us to some mystical devotional Bhakti poetry in the Piazza tent set up for the festival in the courtyard of the British Library. I stayed on for ‘The Beatles in India’ with Beatles biographer Philip Norman, who had some very entertaining and surprising stories on the band’s time at the ashram of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh.

Academic Rachel Dwyer’s interview of Bollywood director Karan Johar was predictably popular. Having not been much of a fan of this genre of film before, it definitely made me curious to find out more about its history and place in Indian culture in future. One of my favourite panel discussions on Saturday was ‘Migrant Words’ with writers Amit Chaudhuri, Lila Azaam Zanganeh, Meera Syal and Prajwal Parajuly very ably and humorously chaired by Anita Anand. The panellists shared their thoughts on and issues with identity and home, which all of us not living in the countries we were born in can certainly identify with. One of the most surprising and enlightening events for me was ‘The Genetics of Skin’, which I hadn’t originally had on my to-attend-list. Dr. Sharad Paul talked eloquently about the history of the human skin and skin colour and how it affects our health in a myriad of ways.

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The ‘India Votes’ as well as ‘The Rise and Fall of Mughal Art’ sessions were a great reminder why I love festivals so much as places of informal learning, as I picked up a lot of information about Indian politics and art. While most of the other attendees I spoke to had a connection with India and therefore an obvious reason for being there, there were also other members of the audience who had been brought along by friends or were planning a trip to India in the near future. As far as I’m concerned, festivals which promote a particular culture or country are a great place to do research for your travels as – unlike in most regular guide books – they provide you with up to date information on current events (e.g. recommendations for The Sacred Pushkar Festival and The Ragasthan Festival) and access to lots of knowledgeable people to quiz about your chosen destination.

The second and last festival day was equally busy. The ‘Footloose’ travel session, which was one of my favourites purely because it was such a pleasure to hear some of the top travel writers read from their own work, in this case William Dalrymple, Anthony Sattin, Hugh Thomson, Samanth Subramanian and Monisha Rajesh. A little later, British writer Giles Milton told us the fascinating story of ‘Nathaniel’s Nutmeg’, which highlighted the many issues and quite gruesome conduct during colonial times. Food for thought indeed.

‘Shaping the Novel’ with writers Kunal Basu, Sarvat Hasin, Amit Chaudhuri and Tahmima Anam discussing the art of novel writing with festival director Namita Gokhale and ‘Ideas of India’, a panel discussion with some of the festival authors, were a real treat at the end of this wonderful festival, which was illuminating in so many ways. Most importantly, it has put India on the map for me and I’m not just talking about its vibrant, diverse culture, but the many individual voices I listened to over the weekend, the identities this vast country is shaped by and their hopes for a common humanity, which we can all learn from.

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On a more practical note, all weekend the three festival venues inside the British Library, the large knowledge centre theatre, the Piazza tent and the BL foyer (these events were free to attend, which was good to see given that all events at the original festival are free, too) were brimming with lively energy. I have rarely seen such a smiley – even if naturally extremely busy – festival team. Every single event I’ve been to was very well attended, which suggests that the organisers might look into expanding the venues in the years to come. It would also be lovely to see additional, possibly more interactive events, in order to draw in a younger crowd, too, as well as some Indian food and drink to also get to know the various flavours of Indian cooking.

Quite exhausted from the two-day literature marathon, but very happy to have learned so much about the many different Indias, I am now even more keen to make it to Rajasthan for the original Jaipur Literature Festival, which is the largest free festival of its kind. Those of you based in the USA or heading there later in the year might like to know that the festival will also be travelling to Boulder, Colorado (another place on my ever-growing bucket list) in September 2017. You just can’t escape extraordinary literature!

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Disclaimer: Life is a Festival was provided with a press pass for the festival.

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