Diversity and free speech: Jaipur festival serves up a literary feast

slide1The largest free literary festival in the world, held in the Indian city of Jaipur in Rajasthan, will this year be attended by more than 250 speakers ranging from writers, academics, journalists, and translators to politicians, film stars, and movie directors.

The five-day ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival will take place from January 19 to 23 in the stunning setting of Jaipur’s Diggi Palace. This year, the theme is “The Freedom to Dream”.

The festival organisers say that plurality and inclusiveness are at the core of the event’s programming.

“For a decade, the Jaipur Literature Festival has stood for diversity of ideas, languages, nationalities, and subjects. The 2017 edition is no different in featuring multiple voices and viewpoints across genres collectively on one platform,” said Sanjoy K. Roy, the director of Teamwork Arts, who organise the event.

There has been criticism of the fact that two senior functionaries from the right-wing Hindu nationalist organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – Manmohan Vaidya and Dattatreya Hosabale – are in the festival line-up.

Journalist Pragya Tiwari will be analysing the RSS worldview in discussion with Hosabale and Vaidya in a session entitled “Of Saffron and the Sangha”.

Several commentators have spoken out against the presence of the two RSS ideologues and bemoan the fact that the writers Ashok Vajpeyi, Uday Prakash, and K. Satchidanandan, who are all prominent voices against growing intolerance in India, won’t be there.

The festival organisers point out, however, that this is not the first time that the event has had right-wing speakers in its programme.

“The festival continues to uphold and celebrate its core values, which place equity, democratic access, and free speech above all. It strongly believes that for dialogue to be meaningful, we must have representation from all points of view,” Roy said.

Writer, publisher, and co-director of the festival, Namita Gokhale, says this year’s festival is more multi-vocal than ever before, with about thirty languages represented.

“Translation is a key focus and a variety of strands and themes including the constitution, the Magna Carta, Sanskrit, and the movements from the margins to the centre, examine the ideals, the ideologies, the realpolitik, of our world, as well as the freedom of the dreaming imagination.”

Gokhale says the decision to host the RSS speakers was taken out of “an intellectual curiosity”, in sync with the spirit of the festival. “The polarisation of ideas cannot be so rigid that we don’t listen to all sides,” she told the Huffington Post.

Writer, historian, and festival co-director, William Dalrymple, said of the breadth of the festival agenda: “Each year at Jaipur we try to produce a programme more remarkable than the year before, but 2017’s Jaipur list is certainly the most astonishing we have ever fielded.

“We have gathered talent from across the globe – from Jamaica to North Korea and Tasmania to Zimbabwe – to present writers of genius as diverse as the war correspondent Dexter Filkins , the economist Ha Joon Chang, and the Italian aesthete, Sanskritist, and polymath Roberto Calasso.”

“We import some of the world’s most admired playwrights and novelists … as well as arguably the world’s greatest living archaeologist, Barry Cunliffe.”

This year’s speakers include a host of Man Booker winners and nominees, including the current and first and only American to have been awarded the prestigious prize, the hip-hop poet and novelist Paul Beatty.


Beatty was awarded the Man Booker Prize in 2016 for his caustic satire on racial politics, The Sellout.

The panel of judges compared Beatty to Mark Twain and Jonathan Swift, and the chairwoman Amanda Foreman called The Sellout a “novel for our times”.

In conversation with Meru Gokhale, Beatty, who is the editor of Hokum: An Anthology of African-American Humor, will be discussing comedy and controversy, racism and history, and poetry and fiction.

The luminaries on this year’s programme include yogi, mystic, and New York Times best-selling author Sadhguru (pictured below). In conversation with Sanjoy K. Roy about his new book Inner Engineering: A Yogi’s Guide to Joy, he will talk about the path to inner transformation, harmony, and well-being.


Another speaker whose subject promises to be equally fascinating is the writer, biologist, and broadcaster Aarathi Prasad (pictured below left). In a session entitledTraditions of Healing: Travels Through Indian Medicine”, she will talk about the way Indian medicine has evolved.

jlf-authors_0016_aarathi-prasad-400x300Prasad’s travels have taken her to bonesetter clinics in Jaipur and Hyderabad and the waiting rooms of Bollywood’s top plastic surgeons.

She has met traditional healers and a heart surgeon who is revolutionising the treatment of the poor around the globe.

She’ll be talking about an asthma treatment that involves swallowing a live fish, mental health initiatives in Mumbai’s Dharavi mega-slum, and ground-breaking neuroscience in old Delhi.

jlf-authors-new_0002_ruth-padel-400x300The poet Ruth Padel (pictured left), who is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and chaired the judging panel for the 2016 T.S. Eliot Prize – and is the great-great granddaughter of Charles Darwin – will be sure to draw in the crowds.

In a session entitled “Jawai: Land of the Leopard”, Padel; the Chief Minister of Rajasthan, Vasundhara Raje; and artist and businesswoman Jaisal Singh will be in conversation with the editor-in-chief of literary publishing at Penguin Random House in India, Meru Gokhale.

Focusing on the Gowar region of south Rajasthan, they will discuss how to maintain equilibrium in face of encroaching development, and the need for conservation-based tourism.

Writer and conservationist Valmik Thapar will also be speaking at Jaipur this year. Thapar has authored, co-authored, and edited more than 25 books, and made or presented nearly a dozen films for the BBC and other networks about the tiger and Indian flora and fauna in general.


His last book Saving Wild India: A Blueprint for Change seeks to provide workable solutions to protect India’s wildlife.

Thapar is the founder of the Ranthambore Foundation, a non-governmental organisation dedicated to conserving wildlife. He is a member of the Rajasthan Board of Wildlife and has helped the state government formulate the Van Dhan Yojanaa, a holistic forest conservation scheme.

India’s environment will be an ongoing subject of debate during the festival and the book State of India’s Environment, 2017, by Sunita Narain will be released during the event.

Numerous other book launches will take place throughout the festival.

jlf-authors_0003_neil-jordan-400x300Also on the programme this year are the writer and painter Amruta Patil; the actress, screenwriter, children’s author, and child rights activist Nandana Sen; the British playwright and film director David Hare; the Irish film director, screenwriter, novelist, and short story writer Neil Jordan (pictured left); and the writer, former diplomat and Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor.

Jordan and Hare (pictured below) will be in discussion with the novelist Chandrahas Choudhury in a session entitled “The Page is Mightier than the Screen”.


Along with the Booker-winning English novelist, poet, short story writer, and translator Alan Hollinghurst; Australian novelist Richard Flanagan, who was awarded the Man Booker Prize in 2014; and the internationally acclaimed filmmaker Ritesh Batra, they will discuss the future of the novel and whether printed fiction can continue to compete in today’s digital world.

5th-jan_0006_rishi-kapoor-400x300One of India’s most popular film stars, Rishi Kapoor (pictured left), and Tamil author and journalist Vaasanthi will also be in Jaipur this year.


8th-nov_0003_hyeonseo-400x300The writer and human rights activist Hyeonseo Lee (pictured left), who is a North Korean defector now living in South Korea, is one of the speakers this year. She is currently writing her second book with other female North Koreans living in South Korea and is starting an NGO, North Star NK, to help North Korean refugees improve their lives and interact with the international community.

Another of this year’s speakers is the British barrister Helena Kennedy, who chairs the Booker Prize Foundation and the British arm of the International Commission of Jurists, Justice. Kennedy also co-chairs the International Bar Association’s Institute of Human Rights. She has practised at the Bar for forty years, has received 42 honorary doctorates, and is an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Colleges of Pathology, Paediatrics and Child Health, and Psychiatry.

ruchira-gupta-400x300The veteran journalist and author Mark Tully, who lives in New Delhi, will be at the festival, as will the feminist campaigner and writer Ruchira Gupta (pictured left), who founded the Indian anti-sex trafficking organisation, Apne Aap Women Worldwide. Gupta has won an Emmy and the Clinton Global Citizen award and is a recipient of France’s prestigious Chevalier de l’ordre national du Mérite (Knight of the National Order of Merit) insignia.

The author, translator, and journalist Kanak Mani Dixit will, meanwhile, be sharing his insights about censorship in documentary filmmaking, journalism, and literature.

The range of subjects being covered at the Jaipur festival is extraordinarily wide-ranging. The renowned author A.N. Wilson and others will be discussing Brexit (the United Kingdom’s decision to leave Europe) and Wilson will also be introducing a talk entitled “Jack the Ripper: An Establishment Cover Up” by the screenwriter and film director Bruce Robinson.

2nd-jan_0007_luke-400x300In a session entitled “A Very Expensive Poison: The Story of the Murder of Litvinenko”, the journalist and author Luke Harding (pictured left) will talk about the killing of the former Federal Security Service and KGB agent, who fled from court prosecution in Russia and was granted political asylum in the UK and died in November 2006 from acute radiation syndrome caused by polonium-210.

With so many thought-provoking ideas being debated, and such an impressive list of speakers, attendees will have to make some difficult choices about which sessions to attend.

In one example of the ground being covered: on one day there is a session about Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn and one about the Rolling Stones in the same afternoon slot.

There will be sessions about Ginsberg and the Beat Generation, W.B. Yeats, understanding Indian aesthetics, “The Secret History of Capitalism”, “How the East India Company Took Over India”, “Why Aid is not Working”, “Crime and Literature”, and “Migration and Displacement”.

One of the sessions on the first morning is entitled “One Child: The Past and Future of China’s Most Radical Experiment”.

Atheism in the ancient world, India@70, translation and world literature, “Colonialism and the Legacy of the Raj”, “Lost Kingdoms: The Hindu and Buddhist Golden Age in Southeast Asia”, and women and marginalised voices are just some of the other subjects on the packed agenda.

In a session focused on exploring contemporary writing from Rajasthan, four women writers – Manisha Kulshreshtha, Rajani Morwal, Tasneem Khan, and Uma – will talk to Durgaprasad Agarwal about breaking free of the veils of tradition and convention to articulate the uniquely feminine perspective in their work.

neerja_matooIn a session entitled “How Green Was My Valley”, two esteemed women writers from Kashmir –  one a Hindu pandit, Neerja Mattoo (pictured left), and one a Muslim, the poet Naseem Shafaie (pictured below) – will read from their works and speak with journalist, author, radio storyteller, and photographer Neelesh Misra about their shared experience of violence, strife, and discord.


Misra, who runs a content creation company, co-founded and edits the rural newspaper, Gaon Connection, and is also a Bollywood director and scriptwriter, epitomises versatility.

In a separate session, in conversation with the author and journalist Rahul Pandita, Misra will talk about the many contradictory worlds he inhabits and the connections between them.

speakers-2017_0002_nassim-400x300Of Black Swans and Intellectual Fallacies”, in which the Lebanese-American essayist, scholar, statistician, and risk analyst Nassim Nicholas Taleb (pictured left) talks about randomness, robustification, and antifragility and how they impact every aspect of material and philosophical life, is just one more tempting session on offer.

In one session on the final day of the festival, there will be writers from Brazil, Iceland, Wales, Latvia, Mauritius, Luxembourg, Croatia, and Macedonia sharing the same platform.

Also on the last day of the festival, the English poet, spoken-word artist, and playwright Kate Tempest, who won the 2013 Ted Hughes Award for her work Brand New Ancients, will perform Let them Eat Chaos.

2nd-jan_0006_kate-tempest-400x300Kate Tempest

Over the past decade, the Jaipur Literature Festival has hosted 1,300 speakers and welcomed nearly 1.2 million book lovers.

Past speakers have including Hanif Kureishi, the Dalai Lama, Ian McEwan, J. M. Coetzee, Oprah Winfrey, Salman Rushdie, Stephen Fry, and Vikram Seth.

The Pink City, filled with the colours and aromas of India’s desert state, is a wonderful venue for any event, and the literary menu on offer this year is on a par with the feast of surrounding delights.



The Jaipur Literature Festival has been described in Time Out as “the Woodstock, Live 8, and Ibiza of world literature”.

Sanjoy K. Roy said: “The ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival provides a potentially life-changing opportunity for audiences from Rajasthan, across India and the world to learn from and exchange ideas with contemporary literary stalwarts.”

William Dalrymple added: “We deeply delve into areas of world literature we have so far failed to explore, notably the novelists and poets of the Caribbean, Turkey, and Iran, while returning to examine eternal classics such as the work of Homer, Ferdowsi, Yeats, Nabakov, and the Thousand and One Nights.”

Dalrymple cites more of the subjects on the Jaipur agenda: the history of scent, Queen Victoria, Napoleon, tales of the spice trade, the eruption of Krakatoa, and the rise of the Trilobites (a fossil group of now extinct marine arthropods).

“We look at Jamaican rap and mediaeval mystic poetry and the art of screenwriting; we probe the reason for the fall of Rome, the dilemmas facing Edward Snowden, KGB assassination techniques, and the secrets of the Panama Papers.”

The agonies of Syria, the pleasures of Ottoman Istanbul, and the decadent swagger of the Rolling Stones’ 1970 World Tour are also on the agenda, Dalrymple says. “It’s going to be an incredible few days!”


logo-17While the festival is free, attendees can buy a special delegate’s ticket, which gives them access to the exclusive lunch and dinner areas and the delegates’ lounge, entry to two special fringe events at heritage sites in Jaipur, and an invitation to the “Delegates Only” session.

Two years ago, the Jaipur Literature Festival launched a new initiative: Jaipur BookMark, which is held in parallel with the main festival and provides a platform for publishers, literary agents, translation agencies, and writers to meet, talk, and listen to speakers from around the world.

There are also satellite festival events in England, Australia, and the United States.


776x507 px for photo galleryThe Kolkata Literary Festival takes place from January 15 to 18. Changing Times will be bringing you full coverage. (Preview article coming soon.)