Jaipur festival: India’s Pink City prepares a bounteous literary feast

The largest free literary festival in the world, held in the Indian city of Jaipur in Rajasthan, will this year be attended by more than 350 speakers. The list is as diverse as ever and spans an array of nationalities.

The five-day ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival will take place from January 24 to 28 in the stunning setting of the Pink City’s Diggi Palace.

The writers include the winners of such awards as the Nobel Prize in Literature, the Man Booker, the Pulitzer, and the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature.

The programme is kaleidoscopic, with themes that include science and technology, espionage, politics, the environment and climate change, gender issues, and management entrepreneurship.

There will also be discussions about mythology, crime, history, cinema, art, activism, and the psychological aftermath of migration.

Festival co-director William Dalrymple said the 2019 event would have the strongest Jaipur line-up ever, “an unrivalled literary First Eleven of remarkable poets and acclaimed novelists, historians and biographers, thinkers and dreamers, travellers and critics, actors and screenwriters, genii and major league prize winners”.

Over 12 years, the Jaipur festival has hosted nearly two thousand speakers and more than a million attendees.

Festival co-director Namita Gokhale says the event “continues to be one of the most important and transformative forums anywhere to showcase books, writers, and ideas”.

There would this year be a special emphasis on science, genetics, astronomy, astrophysics, speculative fiction, and artificial intelligence, “and what the future might hold for our planet”, she added.

“We also explore music, poetry and the arts, and delve into fiction, short stories, adaptations, and translations. We examine different facets of myth, memory, and religion.

“We interrogate rural distress, think aloud about migration and identity, and reflect on the ongoing struggles for gender equity, from the landmark judgement on section 377¹ to the tumultuous watershed of the #MeToo movement.

“It has been a year of many upheavals and changes in the struggle for gender equity, and our programming will reflect these issues and concerns.”

This year’s speakers include the controversial author, columnist, and academic Germaine Greer. She will be in conversation with British author Bee Rowlatt. Rowlatt wrote In Search of Mary about Mary Wollstonecraft, who authored the landmark feminist text A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.

Greer’s first book, The Female Eunuch, was published in 1969 and remains one of the most influential texts of the feminist movement.

The author describes herself as a liberation feminist. In her book All About Women, published in 2015, she wrote: “I’m not an equality feminist. I think that’s a profoundly conservative aim, and it wouldn’t change anything. It would just mean that women were implicated.”

Greer has come in for some heavy criticism, particularly with regard to her views about rape and transgender people. Her comments about female genital mutilation are particularly controversial. She has said that opposition to it is an “attack on cultural identity” and says there are double standards in the West, where there are other forms of bodily mutilation.

Greer is also an active environmentalist. She bought 60 hectares of land in Australia’s Numinbah Valley and set up the Cave Creek Rainforest Rehabilitation Scheme.

Ruby Wax

Another of this year’s speakers is American actress, mental health campaigner, lecturer, and author Ruby Wax. Others include the British-Zimbabwean writer and emeritus professor of medical law at the University of Edinburgh, Alexander McCall Smith, and the acclaimed Nigerian poet, novelist, essayist, and playwright Ben Okri, whose novel The Famished Road won the Man Booker Prize.

The English novelist, playwright, and former politician Jeffery Archer will talk about his chequered life and introduce his recently released novel Heads You Win.

The veteran film chronicler, teacher, and social activist Jerry Pinto will be in conversation with Ruby Wax in a session entitled “How to be human”.

The renowned Indian author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, whose numerous novels include The Mistress of Spices, The Palace of IllusionsSister of My Heart, and her latest book Before We Visit the Goddess, will be speaking at the festival again this year. Divakaruni has a new book being published this month, The Forest of Enchantments, which is a retelling of one of the world’s greatest epics, the Ramayana.

In the festival’s inaugural session, “Imagining Our Worlds”, the structural biologist and Nobel laureate Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, who is president of the Royal Society in London and the author of Gene Machine: The Race to Decipher the Secrets of the Ribosome, will speak about the role of science in today’s world.

In the session entitled “Gene Machine and the Culture of Science”, Ramakrishnan will talk about his work unlocking the mysteries of the gene-reading molecule.

The transformation of books into screenplays is always a prominent theme at Jaipur and, this year, the Scottish writer Irvine Welsh, who is the author of 12 novels including Trainspotting and Porno, which were adapted into iconic films directed by Danny Boyle, will be in conversation with Chandrahas Choudhury, the author of the novels Clouds and Arzee the Dwarf. Welsh published a new book last year, Dead Men’s Trousers.

In the session “Before and After Pi”, the Man Booker Prize winner Yann Martel, who wrote the international bestseller Life of Pi, will be talking to novelist Jerry Pinto.

In a session entitled “Adaptations”, Martel and Welsh will be in conversation with journalist Anindita Ghose along with author Vikram Chandra, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, and the memoirist, essayist, and bestselling novelist André Aciman.

Aciman is the author of the award-winning memoir Out of Egypt, which details his childhood growing up Jewish in post-colonial Egypt.

In 2017, his novel Call Me by Your Name was adapted into a movie that was named one of the top ten films of the year by the American Film Institute.

Aciman is also the author of False Papers, Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere and three other novels, Eight White NightsHarvard Square, and Enigma Variations.

American journalist and academic Steve Coll, who is currently the dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, will be at Jaipur this year.

Coll, who has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 2005, writes about politics, national security, and the media. He is the author of eight non-fiction books, has won two Pulitzer prizes, and is a former foreign correspondent and senior editor at the Washington Post.

In a session on January 26, Coll will be discussing his new book Directorate S: The CIA and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan with author and journalist Jon Lee Anderson; journalist, academic, and national security analyst for CNN Peter Bergen; and the distinguished academic and former Indian foreign secretary and national security adviser Shivshankar Menon.

Menon has served as India’s ambassador or high commissioner to Israel, Sri Lanka, China and Pakistan and in India’s missions to the International Atomic Energy Agency. In 2010, the magazine Foreign Policy named him as one of the world’s “Top 100 Global Thinkers”. His book Choices: Inside the Making of Indian Foreign Policy was published in 2016.

Other journalists who will be at Jaipur this year include the acclaimed author Andrea di Robilant, who has written several works of non-fiction and currently teaches journalism and creative writing in Rome, Singapore-based author and journalist James Crabtree, and the journalist and educationist Shubhangi Swarup.

The saga of Britain leaving the European Union will be the topic in the session “Brexit and the British”. Writer and editor Nikesh Shukla; journalist, author, and diarist Rachel Johnson; and museum director, writer and diarist Sir Roy Strong will tackle the subject.

Powerful women

This year’s festival line-up includes a host of powerful women whose talent has defined their own personal journeys and transformed and inspired the lives of many other people.

Namita Gokhale says the 2019 festival “pays tribute to the unflinching power of the woman – a force that has remained constant not just in today’s empowered and digitally charged world, but one that has played out over eras, generations, and geographies with a dogged determination to survive against unbelievable odds”.

The festival themes aren’t manifestly feminist, Gokhale says, but they question and discuss “the countless, often subtle, and mostly diverse avenues through which male supremacy has insidiously and, more often overtly, led the way in our day-to-day lives: professional, cultural and personal”.

It is time, Gokhale says, to amplify the voices less heard and tell the stories less told.  “That is what the festival set out to do at its inception and continues to do with fervour 12 years later.”

In a session entitled “What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape”, which is the title of her latest book, the journalist and author Sohaila Abdulali will share her heart-rending story of being gang-raped as a teenager more than thirty years ago.

In the session “Healed: Life Learnings from Manisha Koirala”, the actor shares the highs and lows of her life, career, and relationships and her relentless battle to overcome ovarian cancer.

It will be a candid session about the physical and emotional turbulence of Koirala’s life post-diagnosis, the power of prayer and positive thinking, and the lengthy and intricate process of healing.

Usha Uthup, who sings in a dizzying 15 Indian and eight foreign languages, will be in conversation with Sanjoy Roy in a session entiled “I Believe in Music”, in which she will talk about what music means to her and her all-encompassing belief in its power.

Yale professor and the acclaimed author of Mapping the Heavens: The Radical Scientific Ideas That Reveal the Cosmos Priyamvada Natarajan, who is reputed for her work in mapping dark matter, dark energy, and black holes, will enlighten her audience about the greatest cosmological discoveries of the past century.

Natarajan has an extraordinary gift for making scientific theory accessible to the general public and is committed to developing strategies to enhance numerical and scientific literacy.

The distinguished academic Malashri Lal, who specialises in literature, women and gender studies, will be participating in several festival sessions, including one about the enigma of Radha, the consort of Krishna.

Lal and Namita Gokhale co-edited the anthology Finding Radha: The Quest for Love.

Lal’s other books include In Search of Sita: Revisiting Mythology, and Tagore and the Feminine: A Journey in Translations.

Environmental issues

Climate change is just one of the environmental issues that will be tackled during this year’s festival. It will be a main focus of one session featuring the Australian professor, ecologist, author, and naturalist Darryl Jones, who wrote The Birds at My Table.

In another session, Jones will discuss human interaction with the other species with whom we share our planet.

In a session entitled “My Husband and Other Animals” Jones will be in conversation with Indian herpetologist and wildlife conservationist Rom Whitaker and his wife Janaki Lenin.

Rom Whitaker. Photo by Janaki Lenin.

Whitaker is the founder of the Madras Snake Park, The Andaman and Nicobar Environment Trust, and the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust.

He was selected as an associate laureate in the 2008 Rolex Awards for Enterprise for his efforts to create a network of rainforest research stations throughout India and, in 2005, he won a Whitley Award for outstanding leadership in nature conservation.

Whitaker used this award to set up the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station in Karnataka for the study of king cobras and their habitat.

On the first day of the festival Maja Lunde, whose first novel, The History of Bees, was the best-selling book in any genre in Germany in 2017, will be in conversation with author, environmentalist, and filmmaker Pradip Krishen in a session entitled “Imagine a World without Bees”.

Krishen writes about trees and restores degraded landscapes with native plants. He created the Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park in Jodhpur in western Rajasthan and, more recently, Swarnjayanti Park in the Kishanbagh area of Jaipur. He is the author of Trees of Delhi and Jungle Trees of Central India: A Field Guide for Tree Spotters.

The Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park.

The award-winning poet and conservationist, Ruth Padel will be at Jaipur again. Padel is the author of a book about tiger conservation, a novel featuring king cobras, and, most recently, the poetry collection Emerald, which is an elegy to her mother, who was Darwin’s great granddaughter.

In his book Taming the Sun: Innovations to Harness Solar Energy and Power the Planet, Varun Sivaram warns that the world is not yet equipped to harness erratic sunshine to meet most of its energy needs.

In the session entitled “Towards Sun and Clean Air”,  Sivaram and the banker, chartered accountant, and business executive Naina Lal Kidwai will be in discussion about the way forward with the founder of the Institute for Social and Environmental Transition-International (ISET- International), Marcus Moench.

Kidwai is the author of Survive Or Sink: An Action Agenda for Sanitation, Water, Pollution and Green Finance.

The ever-erudite writer, former diplomat, and Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor is a festival regular. This year he will be in conversation with journalist Mihir Swarup Sharma in a session entitled “#Tharoorisms” in which Tharoor will talk about his personal and political beliefs and his vast body of work.

Shashi Tharoor

Other speakers include the bestselling author Ashwin Sanghi, the irrepressible Shobhaa De, who comments extensively on India’s socio-cultural-political contours and is the author of twenty books and countless columns, the celebrated author, playwright and poet Anita Nair, and the much-fêted debutante novelist Kanishk Tharoor, who is the author of Swimmer Among the Stars.

India’s Union Minister of State for Culture and Tourism K.J. Alphons will be at Jaipur this year, as will the Egyptian writer and cultural commentator Ahdaf Soueif, who is the author of The Map of Love and founder and chairman of the Palestine Festival of Literature, and the legendary social and political activist Aruna Roy.

The renowned poet, writer, and director Gulzar and his filmmaker daughter Meghna Gulzar will be in conversation with editor, author, and film buff Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri.

The journalist, author, radio storyteller, scriptwriter, and lyricist Neelesh Misra will also be at Jaipur this year. Misra has twice won the Ramnath Goenka Award for Excellence in Journalism and founded India’s biggest rural media platform, Gaon Connection, and the Content Project, which is home to some of India’s best emerging writers. He will be taking part in two sessions, “The Storywallah: Writing Across Borders” and “The Gaon Connection: Addressing Rural Distress”.

The Harvard professor of history and Pulitzer finalist Sven Beckert will be in conversation with historian and biographer Patrick French, who is currently writing the authorised biography of novelist Doris Lessing. Beckert will be talking about his book, Empire of Cotton: A Global History.

Reni Eddo-Lodge

British-Nigerian historian, broadcaster, and filmmaker David Olusoga will be taking part in several sessions and will be talking to the award-winning journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge and others on the subject “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race”, which is the title of Eddo-Lodge’s first book.

Eddo-Lodge will also be participating in a discussion in which the Cambridge professor of classics and vocal feminist Mary Beard will talk about her book Women & Power: A Manifesto, in which she traces the origins of misogyny back to its ancient roots, examining the ways that history has mistreated strong women since time immemorial.

The poet, gay rights activist, and candid commentator Akhil Katyal will be taking part in a session entitled “Reclaiming the Mother Tongue” and will feature in “Poetry Hour”, a daily series of poetry readings.

In ‘The Future is Now’, Scientia Professor of Artificial Intelligence at the University of New South Wales Toby Walsh, who authored 2062: The World that AI Made, and former journalist Meredith Broussard, who is the author of Artificial Unintelligence: How Computers Misunderstand the World, will be discussing our future under the steady but ambivalent influence of artificial intelligence and the possible choices we need to make to remain in control of our lives.

Festival art

Artist Marc Quinn will feature in a session entitled “After Bloodhead” in which he will explore what it is to be human in the world today.

There will be a live public art demonstration by Abhishek Singh, who will capture the festival on canvas over the five days, and one by Jaipur-based artist Sandip Gomay who uses live human models as his canvas and inanimate objects or subjects in a way that collapses depth and make his models appear two dimensional when photographed.

Jaipur BookMark

The Jaipur BookMark, which runs parallel to the main festival, is this year in its sixth edition. It provides a platform for publishers, literary agents, translation agencies, and writers to meet, talk, and listen to speakers from around the world. This year it runs from January 23 to 26.

For emerging writers looking to find publishers, there is a new initiative, iWrite #MyStories. Writers can submit unpublished manuscripts (short stories, poems, and works of fiction or non-fiction) and literary stalwarts will critique and fine-tune them.

Entries that makes it to the top-ten shortlist will be shared with international publishers, literary agents, translators, and other industry experts in face-to-face pitching sessions for potential book deals.

Musical performances

Each day of the festival starts with music, and there will be performances on the first four evenings of the festival on the music stage at the Clarks Amer hotel.

The artistes performing this year include the soulful Sufi Singers from Jalandhar in the Punjab, the Nooran Sisters; the leading Carnatic and world music vocalist Mahesh Vinayakram in collaboration with Dub FX (Benjamin Stanford); the ever-popular and effervescent Punjabi folk singer Jasbir Jassi in a first-time collaboration with Kutle Khan from Rajasthan; folk-rock legends Indian Ocean; the violin maestro Dr. L Subramaniam; the Shillong-based blues band Soulmate; and the techno masters Midival Punditz.

On the first night, the Iranian-Canadian duo Niyaz will present their unique blend of world music, which is inspired by mystic Sufi sounds and Iranian folk.

In a grand finale, DubFx, Soulmate, and Mahesh Vinayakram will bring the curtain down with an exciting collaboration – Carnatic sounds, blues, and beatboxing all on one stage.

Sanjoy Roy says the Jaipur Music Stage celebrates music in all its forms.

“From Carnatic to the Blues, and Punjabi to Sufi electro, we’ve got it all. This year, Jaipur will see unbelievable collaborations between diverse artistes, as well as workshops and a music bazaar, in against a vibrant carnival-like backdrop.”

Heritage Evenings

Each year the festival celebrates Jaipur’s heritage in a series of evening events. This year the events will take place at the Jawahar Kala Kendra and the Amber Fort.

The Amber Fort

On January 25, at the Jawahar Kala Kendra, there will be a vibrant showcase of “Clothing as Identity”, in which the diversity and unity of the rich cultural traditions of the Gujarati district of Kutch will be narrated to the accompaniment of folk music.

On January 26, at the Amber Fort, there will be a performance of Theyyam, a ritualistic art form from Kerala, and music from the Sitar Ensemble and from 3G (Three Generations of Percussion), featuring Vidwan Vikku Vinayakram and V. Selvaganesh.

Namita Gokhale says the Jaipur Literature Festival has, over the past decade, “helped articulate and foster a unique literary and creative culture across the world”.

The programme, she says remains determinedly diverse and multilingual, with more than sixteen Indian languages, 12 international languages, and almost thirty nationalities represented.

Sanjoy Roy says the festival brings the world to India and takes India to the world “in a veritable celebration of the written word in one of the loveliest heritage cities in the world”.


1)    Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was introduced in 1864 during the British rule of India and was used to criminalise sexual activities described as being “against the order of nature”. On September 6, 2018, the Supreme Court of India ruled that the application of Section 377 to consensual homosexual sex between adults was unconstitutional, irrational, indefensible, and manifestly arbitrary. Section 377 remains in force in the case of sex with minors, non-consensual sexual acts, and bestiality.