Digital Diggi: Jaipur festival transforms into a virtual extravaganza of literature, performance, and debate

The on-site Jaipur Literature Festival had to be cancelled this year because of Covid-19, but the 14th JLF is going ahead online from today (Friday) until February 28, with  a stellar virtual line-up of more than 300 speakers and performers from more than 23 countries.

The vibrant atmosphere of the on-site festival, with its hustle and bustle, cheering crowds, and sometimes raucous debate could never be recreated online, but the organisers have pulled out all the stops to create an immersive online experience that echoes the on-site event, which usually takes place in the grounds of Jaipur’s iconic Diggi Palace Hotel.

Festival attendees will be able to enjoy virtual visits to the Front Lawn, the Durbar Hall, a reading room, and a bazaar.

Sanjoy K. Roy,  who is managing director of Teamwork Arts, who produce JLF, said that the production team video recorded some festival sessions live in Delhi and went to Jaipur to film the opening and closing ceremonies “to give people a sense of place, of where we began, where we are, a sense of identity, a sense of the built heritage and the architecture of Rajasthan, which has been so key to our festival.”

JLF 2021 has “an array of visually exciting sessions on music, dance, theatre, food, sustainability, innovation and much more”, Roy says.

This year’s festival speakers will include the American linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, historian, social critic, and political activist. Noam Chomsky, who is considered to be the founder of modern linguistics.

In a session on February 21 entitled ‘Who rules the world?’ Chomsky will be in conversation with journalist Sreenivasan Jain and will discuss the critical need for active public participation in changing policies and highlight some unsettling truths of our times.

On the same day, the Scottish-American writer and fashion designer Douglas Stuart will be talking about his debut novel Shuggie Bain, which was awarded the 2020 Booker Prize.

Shuggie Bain has been described as blistering and heartbreaking, a book that “lays bare the ruthlessness of poverty, the limits of love, and the hollowness of pride”.

The Booker Prize judges said: We were bowled over by this first novel, which creates an amazingly intimate, compassionate, gripping portrait of addiction, courage and love.

“The book gives a vivid glimpse of a marginalised, impoverished community in a bygone era of British history. It’s a desperately sad, almost-hopeful examination of family and the destructive powers of desire.”

Also in the line-up on February 21 is the best-selling novelist, poet, activist and teacher of writing Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, whose latest novel, The Last Queen, is based on the life of Queen Jindan.

Daughter of the royal kennel keeper, Jindan Kaur was Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s youngest and last queen. She became regent when her son Dalip, barely six years old, unexpectedly inherited the throne and she went on to become a legendary warrior queen.

Jindan distrusted the British and fought hard to keep them from annexing Punjab. Defying tradition, she stepped out of the zenana, cast aside the veil, and conducted state business in public.

Her power and influence were so formidable that the British, fearing an uprising, robbed her of everything she had, including her son. She was imprisoned and exiled.

“In The Last Queen, Chitra has written an unforgettable story about the fearless, much-feared queen whom history seems to have forgotten. Jindan is heroic. Her strength and spirit are a lesson for us,” said film, television, and theatre actress Shabana Azmi.

Author, historian, and JLF co-director William Dalrymple said: “A stunning and moving reimagining of the life of one of the most remarkable women in North Indian history.  In The Last Queen, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is writing at the very top of her game.”

American economist, public policy analyst, and Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz and the Pakistani activist for female education, and also a Nobel Laureate, Malala Yousafzai will also be at JLF 2021.

The irrepressible dancer Gulabo Sapera, who survived attempted female infanticide, will also be speaking at JLF 2021. Born in Ajmer, Rajasthan, as the seventh child of her parents, Sapera was buried alive after her birth, but was rescued and survived. She went on to evolve her own individual style and school of dancing, based on the Kalbaliya form, and received global fame and recognition.

The business magnate and self-appointed expert on pandemics Bill Gates is also in this year’s line-up and on February 26 will be talking, in conversation with Alok Sharma, about how to avoid a climate disaster.

On February 28, the Irish novelist, short story writer, essayist, playwright, journalist, critic, and poet Colm Tóibín will talk to the JLF audience about his writing process and celebrated career in a session about his book The Master. He’ll be in conversation with the literary and culture editor of Open magazine Nandini Nair.

Tóibín will also take part in a session on February 23 entitled ‘The Art of the Novel’. Along with the award-winning authors Annie Zaidi and Colum McCann, and poet, musician, and novelist Jeet Thayil, Tóibín will be in conversation with the London-based writer of Indian origin Moin Mir whose new book, a historical novel set against the backdrop of Sufism and its philosophies, is due to be published in June this year.

The inaugural keynote address will be given by the author and chief executive of the Science Museum Group Sir Ian Blatchford and the head of collections and principal curator at the Science Museum in London Tilly Blyth. The subject is The Art of Innovation, which is the title of a book by Blatchford and Blyth, based on the landmark BBC Radio 4 series of the same name.

William Dalrymple points to an advantage of producing a virtual event. He says there are people taking part in JLF this year whom he has been trying to bring to the festival for years. Some were unable to take the required time out of their busy schedules to travel to India and some were unable to attend for more personal reasons.

“I know that, for many aspects of the festival, lockdown has proved a huge problem, but, for my job, which is pulling in mainly international authors, it’s been an enormous blessing because authors who I previously had to persuade to get a visa, jump on a flight and give up ten days or a week of their valuable time and come to India, I now just have to persuade to come for one hour on a zoom call,” Dalrymple said during a virtual preview of the festival yesterday (Thursday). “The extraordinary line-up that we have this year reflects that.”

Mark Haddon, who is the celebrated author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, has never come to JLF because he is afraid of flying.

Author Philip Pullman was too ill to come to Jaipur, Dalrymple explains, but he could now bring his trilogy of fantasy novels His Dark Materials to JLF virtually.

Award-winning author Jonathan Safran Foer, the editor-in-chief of Bloomberg John Micklethwait, and Emeritus Professor of English Literature in the English Faculty at Oxford University Hermione Lee, whose work includes biographies of Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, and Penelope Fitzgerald, are all speaking at JLF this year. Lee will be talking about her biography of the renowned British playwright Tom Stoppard.

Dalrymple said: “Normally it’s quite difficult getting academics because they’re often in class at this time, but this year, our list from Harvard alone includes some of the greatest superstars of the greatest university in America, including Michael Sandel, Maya Jasanoff, Homi Bhabha, and Michael Puett, who was recently named the most popular and sought after lecturer at Harvard.

“We’ve got major stars from The New Yorker who haven’t been able to make it before like George Packer, Patrick Radden Keefe, and Alex Ross.”

Sandel, who teaches political philosophy, has been described as “the most relevant living philosopher”, a “rock-star moralist” and “the most famous teacher of philosophy in the world”.

Jasanoff is the author of the prize-winning books Edge of Empire; Liberty’s Exiles and The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World.

Bhabha is the Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of the Humanities in the English and comparative literature departments at Harvard University and has a lengthy list of weighty credentials.

Puett is the Walter C. Klein Professor of Chinese History and Anthropology at Harvard University, Radden Keefe is the author of the upcoming book Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty and the international best seller Say Nothing, and Ross, who has been the music critic of The New Yorker since 1996, is the author of The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, Listen to This, and Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music.

JLF’s sweep of history this year is unparalleled,” Dalrymple says.

The line-up includes Camilla Townsend, who is a Distinguished Professor of History at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey in the United States.

A specialist in the Nahuatl (Aztec) language, Townsend is the author of numerous books, the most recent being Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs, which won the 2020 Cundill Prize.

Another speaker from the US is Vincent Brown (pictured left), who is Charles Warren Professor of American History and Professor of African and African-American Studies at Harvard and the author of Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War.

In a session entitled ‘The Connections and Disconnections Between India and China’, the director of the Centre for Global Asia and professor of history at New York University Shanghai Tansen Sen will be conversation with William Dalrymple.

They’ll be breaking through traditional conceptions of understanding India-China connections and proposing new ways to explore historical and contemporary relations.

Dalrymple says that, in a year when travel has been impossible, many people have found solace in travel writing.

“They’ve been able to read about travel if they can’t do it themselves. We have an unparalleled line-up of travel writers, led by the wonderful Robert Macfarlane, who, in my opinion, is the greatest living travel writer; the greatest writer of travel prose.”

The challenges and opportunities of a virtual world

Author and festival co-director and author Namita Gokhale said: “Every year, I’m asked what’s new at the festival and I get mildly irritated because I never know how to respond. But, in this year of disruptions and consequences, everything is new.

“The challenges of a virtual world confront us at every step. They’ve also provided opportunities. We can access writers and speakers from physically distant locations, and audiences can access us across continents in sessions that interrogate and attempt to understand our times.”

This year’s line-up includes a presentation on February 19 by the acclaimed theoretical physicist and best-selling author Carlo Rovelli, who works mainly in the field of quantum gravity, but has also worked on the history and philosophy of science.

Rovelli’s books Seven Brief Lessons on Physics and The Order of Time have been translated into more than forty languages and he was recently listed by Foreign Policy magazine as being among the world’s 100 most influential global thinkers.

At JLF 2021, he will be in discussion with Priyamvada Natarajan, who is a professor of astronomy and physics at Yale University and the author of Mapping the Heavens: The Radical Scientific Ideas That Reveal The Cosmos.

In the session entitled ‘Of nagarjuna, sunyata, and stardust’, Rovelli will draw inspiration from the ancient Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna and take his audience on “an illuminating journey through the unknown, exploring the mysteries of the cosmos, the fabric of space, and the nature of time,” Namita Gokhale explains.

“As we return to Mother Earth, we consider the plight of our farmers and the crisis that continues to confront agricultural policy,” Gokhale said.

In a session on February 26 entitled ‘No country for farmers’, Kota Neelima, Dushyant Dave, and Surjit Bhalla will be in conversation with Sanket Upadhyay.

Neelima is an Indian author, researcher, artist and political commentator, specialising in rural distress and gender. Her work focuses on the condition of women farmers, farmer suicides, and peripheries of democratic societies.

Economist, author, and columnist Surjit Bhalla is the executive director for India at the International Monetary Fund. Dushyant Dave is a senior advocate and former president of the Supreme Court bar association and Sanket Upadhyay is an anchor and executive editor at NDTV.

In their description of the session, the JLF organisers say that, although agriculture is the most important sector of India’s economy, accounting for close to 16% of GDP and providing employment to much of the nation’s workforce, rural-urban distances and divides continue to grow.

“The incomprehension between those who contribute to growing our food and those who consume it widens by the day,” they say. “All political parties claim to represent the farmer but the tiller of the soil is mute and invisible in the process of decision making. Climate change further impacts the uncertainties that farmers face.”

The panel will discuss the paradoxes of policy, the complex issues involved in bringing about reforms, and ways of moving forward.

Gokhale also highlights the importance of a session about the origins of the Chipko forest conservation movement in India.

The movement began in 1973 in Uttarakhand, then a part of Uttar Pradesh (at the foothills of Himalayas), and went on to become a rallying point for environmental movements all over the world.

One of the session panelists will be the scholar, traveller, and activist Shekhar Pathak, who wrote the book The Chipko Movement: A People’s History, which tells the story of how local communities in Kumaon and Garhwal, especially the women, resisted forest felling by loggers.

Manisha Chaudhry, who translated the book into English, will also be on the panel along with historian Ramachandra Guha, who edited the book and wrote the introduction.

On February 28, Jonathan Safran Foer will be in conversation with journalist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jeffrey Gettleman.

Weaving personal stories, facts and metaphors, he will talk about the changes that each of us can make to mitigate the imminent and unfolding environmental crisis.

Safran Foer is the author of three award-winning and internationally best-selling novels and his books have been published in more than thirty languages. His most recent book, We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast, is a powerful narrative about the stark realities of climate change that takes a hard-hitting look at the day-to-day human contribution to the current environmental catastrophe.

Gokhale says that music “runs like a strand” through the programme for JLF 2021.

In a session on February 27, writer Oliver Craske, who is the author of the biography Indian Sun: The Life and Music of Ravi Shankar, and writer and cultural critic Guillermo Rodríguez will talk about Shankar’s genius and his profound impact on the world.

There will also be a session (on February 26) about a biography of Madurai Shanmukhavadivu Subbulakshmi, who was an Indian Carnatic singer from Madurai in Tamil Nadu and was the first musician ever to be awarded India’s highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna. Subbulakshmi died in 2004, aged 88.

There will be a session, too, about the interrelated schools of Indian music. Acclaimed poet, writer, lyricist, and communications specialist Prasoon Joshi and scholar, singer, musician, writer, and social activist Vidya Shah will talk about their understanding and appreciation of musical traditions and their evolution, discussing hybrid and popular genres in the online digital age and the creative interplay between classical and folk music.

The festival will also feature a conversation between the celebrated actress Priyanka Chopra Jonas and writer Shobhaa De in which the women will discuss Chopra Jonas’s autobiography, Unfinished.

Chopra Jonas is a global UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and received the prestigious Danny Kaye Humanitarian award. She is involved in several efforts to protect children’s rights and to promote the education of girls around the world.

Covid will be discussed in a session entitled ‘Till we win: India’s fight against the Covid-19 pandemic’. The co-authors of the book of the same name – Randeep Guleria, Chandrakant Lahariya, and Gagandeep Kang – will be in conversation with award-winning journalist Maya Mirchandani.

In a session entitled ‘The vaccine and the virus – a moving target’, the CEO of the National Institution for Transforming India (NITI) Amitabh Kant, NITI member Vinod Paul, and the head of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, CK Mishra will be in conversation with Sarah Jacob.

On February 19, in conversation with journalist Suhasini Haidar, John Micklethwait will discuss his book, co-authored with Adrian Woolridge, The Wake-Up Call: Why the Pandemic Has Exposed the Weakness of the West and How to Fix It, which offers both critical analysis and solutions. At JLF, Micklethwait will take a sharp look at global power shifts and the necessity for a structural paradigm shift within governments.

Also on February 19, academic and author Chinmay Tumbe and science journalist Laura Spinney, in conversation with surgeon and author Ambarish Satwik, will discuss ‘pandemics past and future’.

Harsh Mander’s powerful new book Locking Down the Poor: The Pandemic and India’s Moral Centre will be launched during JLF, on February 21. In conversation with author and former member of India’s Planning Commission Arun Maira, Mander will discuss the book,the challenges ahead, and the need to build compassionate solidarity.  

In Locking Down the Poor, Mander, who is the director of the Centre for Equity Studies and is one of India’s most courageous social justice and human rights activists, examines India’s response to the Covid pandemic, looking in particular at the consequences for the less fortunate in the country of the lockdown that was imposed last March.

Mander gives a voice to out-of-work daily-wage and informal workers, the homeless, and the destitute. He tells the stories of migrant workers who walked hundreds of kilometres to their villages or were prevented from doing so and were detained.

The Jaipur music stage will this year premiere seven exclusive performances from across the world. The line-up comprises the contemporary Indian classical ensemble The Anirudh Varma Collective; Belonging, which is a Belfast-Kolkata online musical collaboration featuring Jason O’Rourke and Deepmoy Day; the singer-songwriter, producer, and accomplished acoustic guitarist from New Delhi Dhruv Visvanath; the popular Kutle Khan Project; renowned Israeli musician Shye Ben Tzur; and the award-winning singer Jack Warnock.

There will be Morning Music every day during the festival with performances from such eminent musicians as the singer-songwriter from Srinagar Ali Safuddin and the internationally acclaimed performer, composer, cultural entrepreneur, and music educator Shubhendra Rao, and the popular Hindustani classical vocalist Ujwal Nagar.

Since it began, more than five million people have attended JLF and the festival has, up to last year, attracted more than 2,500 writers from across the world.

This year, there will be 226 sessions in 25 Indian and 18 international languages.

William Dalrymple said: “While this year’s Jaipur will be a quieter affair than usual, our commitment to literary excellence continues undimmed as we present one of our most extraordinary lists to date.”

A Brave New World

On April 4, during lockdown, Teamwork Arts began its Brave New World series of more than two hundred online discussions. This, Roy says, was a kind of dress rehearsal for JLF 2021.

The Brave New World sessions were viewed  by more than 4.8 million people, Roy says, and an average of 29,000 to 32,000 people viewed each session.

“Going forward, we know that digital is pretty much here to stay,” Roy said yesterday. “Our effort has really been how do we capture an essence of what we all know is this incredible festival with colour, with gaiety, with music, with great food, with networking; how can we capture this in the zoom box that’s become part of our new lives.”

Roy says that, for the first time, JLF has a really strong programme from the European Union. “We’ve created new relationships with a number of the European Union countries to be able to explore writing from there,” he said.

He added: “We’ve also created the directors’ roundtable series, which is bringing together festival directors from across the world to talk about how all of us have been able to address the challenge of the pandemic, not just about it being financial, but also what does it mean for the future. How do we reinvent ourselves? What does it mean for programming? Can we look to collaborating now going on because no writer anymore is exclusive to A or B festival?”

The eighth edition of, Jaipur BookMark (JBM), the B2B platform that runs parallel to the festival, will be held from February 22 to 25.

The 2021 event features sessions on the challenges for publishers and booksellers in the post-pandemic era, translations and rights, market trends, and distribution models. 


1= 5 euro, x 2 = 10 euro, X 3 =15 euro, etc.