Sunday, May 6, 2012

How the magic was nearly lost at the Jaipur Literature Festival

The Jaipur Literature Festival this year exhibited true Indian ethos – it had the melodrama of a masala Bollywood movie, the chaos of a Big Fat Indian Wedding and the cliffhangers and dramatic tension of the Mahabharata. And that wasn’t the literature being discussed, but the event itself.
Last year the controversy was over the public spat between Hartosh Singh Bal, political editor of the magazine Open and British author William Dalrymple, co-founder of the event, with Bal accusing Dalrymple of deliberately tying the event to the British literary establishment.

This year it was Salman Rushdie’s proposed visit which cast a shadow over the event from the start, with many speakers expressing their outrage during their sessions at the attempts by certain Muslim groups to prevent Rushdie’s trip and the same issue dominating questions from members of the audience in such sessions, which had no connection to him or his works.
This culminated in the front lawns of Diggi Palace being crammed with people and police on the final day and a media scrum anticipating a video link with the author of The Satanic Verses. Even at 3.45pm that day, the time when he was due to appear, the audience were told a decision had not yet been reached as to whether he would appear, leaving everyone, myself included, on tenterhooks.

Most of the time people had to stand outside the Durbar Hall to listen to the speakers.
Shortly before 4pm, the owner of the Palace, Ram Pratap Singh, announced that people were inside the property intent on committing violence if the video link went ahead. Organiser Sanjoy Roy promptly burst into tears and we were told that people were “marching on Diggi Palace” conjuring up scenes of Birnam Wood marching on Dunsinane.  All the emotions, drama and tension of Indian fiction were on show.

There were similar scenes of chaos too when Oprah Winfrey arrived on the third day of the event. Queues stretched for miles down the road outside the venue and crowds trying to enter surged against a police barricade, but the authorities had closed all the entrance points because the venue was overcrowded inside.
The festival was far less relaxing this year with crowds everywhere.
These knife-edge dramas were bad enough but poor crowd control throughout the five days meant the festival almost lost its special vibe this year.

Even on the four days when Oprah Winfrey was not there, it was overcrowded, you could not get into see many speakers and there were tiring long queues for toilets and the coffee stands. 

The festival was, seemingly for the first time, packed with school children and gangs of college students and a variety of other people, many of whom could not speak English, when the sessions were held in English. 

Coca-Cola umbrellas added to the "commercial" atmosphere. 

Even the central area in front of the Durbar Hall was packed.

Overcrowding was a common complaint among the educated Delhi and Mumbai intellectual types who frequent the likes of the India Habitat Centre in Delhi and Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai and who descend on Jaipur every January.

A typical scene inside Mughal Tent. You were very lucky to get a  seat. Many people sat outside and listened through the tent.
One university lecturer from Delhi turned to me in the queue for the toilets and said: “I asked the guy on the seat next to me whether the seat was vacated and he couldn’t understand that simple question. If he couldn’t understand that, how can he understand what is being discussed? There are people here who have come just because they have seen it on the news with all the publicity it has generated and they haven’t read anything and don’t have a clue what is going on. This festival is meant for a more mature crowd.” Since the tickets are free and there are no entry requirements, indeed anyone can attend - something the organisers have till date been proud of. 

As I stood outside the Ben Okri session, straining my ears to hear, a man who looked like a software geek asked me: “What topic is it?” “Ben Okri,” I replied. “But what topic is that?” he asked. “Ben Okri,” I responded. “But what does that mean?” He said. “He is the Booker Prize winner,” I said. “Oh I better take his picture,” he said and got out his digital camera.
It was impossible to get anywhere near the Ben Okri speech.
Scenes outside the Durbar Hall.

People pushed and shoved outside the Durbar Hall.

So, having Oprah Winfrey on the programme was, in my view, not the best idea. The venue is very small and cannot handle the crowds she attracts. I first went to the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2010 and the beauty of it then was the informal intimate atmosphere, the fact the authors were accessible and freely mingled in the central yard with the public and indeed the free steaming chai served in earthen cups from huge bronze pots by men dressed in brightly-coloured Rajasthani turbans. I remember chatting to William Dalrymple and Mark Tully while waiting for a cup. This year conversely the authors were in a segregated area and not accessible. The one time that Gulzar ventured into the public area, he was mobbed. Besides, the tea cost Rs10 and every time the vendor turned up with it he too was mobbed. 
Even the Rajasthani tea vendor was mobbed whenever he appeared.

People pushed and shoved just to get a cup of tea. The vendor was visibly stressed out by the crowds.

There was an array of shops run by fairly aggressive sales people, Coca Cola and Café Coffee Day stalls dotted around too. It was becoming commercial.

The Coca-Cola stand

Cafe Coffee Day stalls were everywhere

The  shopping parade

The festival was flooded with police as well for its five day duration. This was to prevent a terrorist attack following the threats against Rushdie and the organisers. These police spent most of the time in groups, taking up the limited chairs around, drinking chai. Occasionally they even sat in on the literature speeches and fell asleep.

Police are caught on my camera snoozing during a speech

Police were everywhere reading newspapers and drinking chai 

But not all the magic was lost. There were still plenty of opportunities to bump into friends you were not expecting to see from Delhi and Mumbai, to strike up new friendships with other literature lovers, to chat to anyone you like without appearing odd and even to lobby literary agents and publishers in the festival cafes with your book ideas. Apart from that, all the speakers, such as playwright Tom Stoppard, author and speaker Deepak Chopra, author Mohammed Hanif and Outlook editor-in-chief Vinod Mehta, were, unsurprisingly intensely engaging and stimulating.

However, now great thought needs to be given to the future direction of this prized festival, which is listed in the Debrett’s social calendar. Should it return to being an informal gathering of intellectual arty types at Diggi Palace or should it move to a larger venue and attract the masses but at the cost of losing that special magical vibe? 


Sangeeta Wadhwani said...

Hey Naomi,
Totally true and I am glad you have given full attention to how important it is for a festival of this nature to engage genuinely interested people, people who have a referential and tangible connection with the content of the festival, who can engage in debate and not feel they have to suffer sitting between chairs and in the aisles of a hall, to be enriched. The crowd management strategy needs to get wise as otherwise you are right, the tamasha takes over the content, and one feels disconnected with the programme, staying on one's seat not knowing if another session has one! It was absurd and stressful. Sangeeta Wadhwani

Shri said...

In India People have habit to like places which are crowed :), even that doesn't make any sense for them. It create all madness and real appreciators get the hit.

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