Virtually Yours- Jaipur Literature Festival 2021

Will the virtual version of Jaipur Literature Festival be able to enchant its audiences like its real counterpart? In this post pandemic era, will the readers be able to digest this literary reality?

On my way to the Diggi Palace Hotel, scenes from the last year’s Jaipur Literature Festival flashed across my mind’s eye. People carrying books in their hands, their bags bulging with books. Hundreds of people queueing in front of the kiosks, eager to get their books signed by their favourite author. There were some who had positioned themselves next to their favourite spot for the next session and were patiently waiting for the next session to begin. Elsewhere, many die-hard foodies were sampling the exotic dishes that had been painstakingly prepared by the chefs of Diggi Palace Hotel. Some die-hard fans were deep in conversation with their favourite author over a cup of tea or coffee! The green of the lawns of the sprawling palace were hardly visible amidst the colourful tents that were erected and the audience that occupied those lawns for the author sessions and discussions.

As I entered the gates of Diggi Palace, my reverie was broken by the cry of a peacock. I looked at the empty lawns and the peacocks who were walking across them as if they owned the place. And then the reality that I had refused to accept struck me! Jaipur Literature Festival would be an online affair in 2021. I walked to a corridor where Sanjoy K Roy, the managing director of Team Work Arts, the company which produces the festival was talking to a handful of people. They were waiting for B.D. Kalla, the art and culture minister, who was to officially inaugurate the Jaipur Literature Festival 2021 which is being held from 19 February 2021 to 28 February 2021. When I asked him for his views on the online change forced by COVID, he was quite upbeat about it, ‘Yes, this time people all over the world have registered for the festival. When the festival was held here, hardly any people from Germany could come. But now, we have so many people registering from different countries like Germany, Saudi Arabia and all across the world. The reach of the festival has become global in the true sense of the word.’

I remembered the bygone times, where the tourists and the people living in Jaipur would plan to spend their entire day at the Diggi Palace Hotel. Once they entered the venue, the visitors did nothing else except listen to author sessions or explore the various delights the festival had to offer. Some of them would even get their durries to have impromptu picnics in a corner of one of these lawns. Would the online version be able to captivate the audience in the same way? Would this online audience have as much dedication and staying power as the audience in the physical version of the festival?

‘We do hope it would,’ said Sanjoy K Roy. ‘To engage our virtual audience, we have curated a great line up of authors and speakers who would talk about a variety of topics ranging from books, nationalism, pandemic and more. This time, instead of having multiple sessions at the same time (in the physical versions, there were different sessions conducted by different authors in four different venues at any one given time), we will only have two sessions at the same time, so that the people don’t have to worry about missing out these sessions.’ Going forward, once the physical version of the festival is restored, will they still continue with the online version too or is it just for this time? ‘Definitely,’ said Sanjoy K Roy, ‘the online version will now be an integral part of JLF since it has definitely helped us to expand our reach and increase our audience across the globe.’

But would the viewers spend their entire time listening to the sessions as raptly as they did in the physical version? Sanjoy K Roy shrugged his shoulders, ‘May be not the entire time but from our experience during the pandemic time, I can say that the average viewing time was about 18 minutes per viewer which is more than the average of 7 to 8 minutes on OTT platforms. Moreover, while we could only accommodate a maximum of 15,000 people in the front lawn in the physical version of the festival, in the digital version we have received an average of 32,000 views per session, which is way higher.’

Our conversation was interrupted by the entry B.D. Kalla, minster for Art and Culture, Rajasthan who had come to virtually inaugurate the festival. I watched as Sanjoy K Roy greeted the minister and then took him to light the lamp to signal the commencement of the festival. One could actually see the effect that the pandemic has had on the world as people wondered whether to light the lamp with or without wearing the masks. Ultimately, they decided to film both the versions and take the decision later. Last year, there was a crowd present to witness this inauguration, this year there were only peacocks and a handful of people.

When he was done with the ceremony, I asked Sanjoy K Roy about the controversy surrounding the venue of the festival- Diggi Palace Hotel. Weren’t there articles and rumours about Diggi Palace Hotel no longer being the venue of JLF? And if that was the case, what was the future of JLF in 2022? ‘As of now, I am glad that thanks to the pandemic, the venue has not changed and I hope that will remain the case in the next year.’ What if the venue is changed? Where would the festival be held? ‘It is too early to comment on this but yes one thing is for sure that JLF will not go out of Jaipur.’

During the 13 years of its physical presence in Jaipur, JLF was not just an event that people looked forward to. It had become an important source of tourism and income for hotels, tourist guides, autos, busses and many street vendors who waited for the festival to earn their yearly income. The festival may have survived by donning an online avatar, but what would those people do this year? Sanjoy K Roy smiled sadly, ‘What can I say? It has been the case everywhere. The pandemic has impacted every one including us. Just this morning as I was coming here, I met the guy who used to sell his wares outside the palace during the festival. He told me how difficult it was for him and his family to survive this year since there would be no tourists or festival to sell his wares. We are hoping that we are back to business as usual in 2022 so that people are able to compensate for their losses.’

Ever since the onset of the pandemic, the world has been reeling with the deluge of online conferences, webinars, meetings and all sorts of virtual events. Many employees swear by their power naps and zoning off techniques to cope with the online information overload. It is indeed a challenge to sit glued to one’s chair and listen to the ever-droning colleagues and bosses without switching off.  Students all over the world have been earnestly hoping that they are able to physically attend their schools since online classes no longer hold their interest.  Some studies have suggested that it is difficult for human beings to concentrate on online events for an extended span of time. Moreover, most celebrities, authors and other speakers have their own channels in Instagram, Facebook and YouTube where they keep talking to their followers about their books, achievements and activities frequently.

In such a scenario, will an event like the Jaipur Literature Festival be able to hold the attention of the netizens? In the real world, the authors sessions were punctuated by coffee breaks, question- answer sessions, a visit to the book store, author signings and interactions and many more such activities which cannot be replicated even in the most technologically advanced version of the online festival. The question is even if the festival has been created using the most curated list of authors and advanced technology, will it be able to satisfy the audience’s need for a face-to-face conversation with their favourite author or smelling the pages of a brand-new book in the book shop or getting it autographed by its author? Will this virtual version be able to replicate those moments and experiences? Will the audience learn to love this version as it loved the physical festival? Maybe or maybe not! Only the people and time will tell.

This article by Shailaza Singh was published in Rashtradoot Newspaper’s Arbit Section on 17 February 2021.

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