From ‘Jaipur Literature Festival’ to ‘It can happen anywhere conference’

Once upon a time, in the land of kings, came an yearly festival that was adored and revered by all. It was about books, stories, authors, food, heritage and much more. But then the great storm of time blew in the land and all that remained were the authors, books and blank white walls.

‘Abhi to mandir bana hai aur murat ki stapna hui hai. Pran pratishta abhi baaki hai’. (The temple has been built, the idol has been installed. But the life spirit is yet to come). These were the words spoken by Padmashree Pushpesh Pant, the well known historian and a self- confessed foodie. The venue was the sixteenth edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival at the Clarks Amer Hotel in Jaipur.
Last year, was the first time that JLF had been forced out of its original home in Diggi Palace Hotel and that too in the heat of March where people sweated profusely while tredding on the hot sands.
This year, the God of seasons has smiled and the balmy winter sun has embraced people with open arms in the grounds of Hotel Clarks Amer. But has it remained the festival that it once was?

There was something that happened to you as you entered Diggi Palace for the Literature Festival. The old world charm of the building and its surroundings transported you to an era of Shakespeare or Dickens or even Enid Blyton or the old Jaipur where you could expect some royal person to welcome you or perhaps even imagine the tales of the lore. The walls of that place served as a perfect backdrop to the stories that were being narrated because the Palace itself housed a treasure trove of stories, an integral part of the heritage of Rajasthan. If you were more adventurous, you could probably smell a mystery or intrigue brewing amidst those green grounds or those ornately decorated rooms.. An interview with an author became an intimate affair peppered with stories as you sat listening to their anecdotes in one of the smaller anterooms or a tucked away corner.

If you were lucky enough, sometimes, as you shuffled through the jostling crowds you could bump into a Javed Akhtar or Gulzar or a Manisha Koirala or any such small or big celebrity. With some of the others, you could hope to say a hi at lunch or dinner. That was the literature festival we had grown to like and love, where anyone regardless of their caste, creed or income could enter freely to listen to the written word. A festival where a common man could meet a celebrity sans the forever present bouncers and body guards and relive, retell and perhaps treasure that one experience of meeting their idol for the rest of their lives.

I won’t be surprised if the person visiting the literature festival today would probably scoff at this narrative and even end up joking that perhaps I am undergoing a past life regression. Today’s literature fest has donned a new avatar. It has shedded the skin, bones, the blood of the pichla janam and has now become a full blown sheher ka mela albeit with a heart of steel. There is music, there are performances, there is drama but all wrapped in plastic casings. You can see them but you cannot touch them, let alone experience them. Or may be the entire festival is a buffet table set with ungarnished but seemingly good food.

Despite an entrance fee of 200 INR, the literati crowd has vanished and has now been replaced by selfie clicking fans. They aren’t interested in books or authors. Instead, they are just looking for a good selfie time. While walking around the literature festival venue, I initially almost felt guilty for disrupting these selfie masterpieces which were almost at every nook and corner but then after encountering a dozen or more with a hastily muttered sorry, I stopped apologizing for walking through their selfies and just walked away ignoring their glares.

On the first day of JLF, a strange incident happened. After lunch, I decided to visit the washroom for obvious reasons. However I found there were almost ten people waiting for their turn in that bathroom. I went to a floor above and discovered more ladies waiting their turn in this bathroom too. Someone advised me to try the next floor but when I went there, the floor was seemingly almost under construction or renovation ( could not ask anyone since there was no one around). Ultimately I reconciled to my fate and went back to the original washroom on the ground floor to wait for my turn. I had never faced this predicament in Diggi Palace for they always had a bevy of mobile bathrooms for those natural urges. Not that I am comparing or complaining. We should all learn to control our natural urges!

The crowds that thronged Gulzar’s or Sudha Murthy’s sessions were huge. Though it seemed as if her songs were adlibbed, people were still dancing to Usha Uthup’s songs. Many queued to get their books signed by their idols and perhaps that was where the fun was. In some sessions, people were busy scrolling their phones while the speakers droned on. Or perhaps that’s the new way of subconscious listening to enable better understanding.

I remember a dialogue from the movie ‘Band Baja Barat’. In a scene where Anushka Sharma and Ranveer Singh are trying to find a caterer for their wedding, their friend advises them ‘ Shaadi mein sabse zyada logon ko kya pasand hai? Khana! Woh saari sajawat bhool jayenge par khaana yaad karenge’ (people will forget everything about the wedding but they will remember the food that was served). Though this literature festival isn’t a wedding function per say, it is no less than one either. In the earlier days, one could expect to be introduced to new delicacies of the Rajasthani cuisine which made the literature festival an attraction for the lovers of food too. Today’s reality is quite different. There were those customary versions of sev matar or paneer or bajre ki rab which are perhaps as common place as a chola bhatura but it was no longer a food fest of the yesteryears. It was food, and food is for pure simple consumption, not for experiencing eclectic flavors. Veena, a home maker from Jaipur who visited the festival on Sunday said, ‘The food is so ordinary. Namak bhi kam hai (the salt is also less) We could have had better food in a restaurant. To think, we paid about 13,000 rupees for an entire day’s package. We did not even get to meet any celebrities during lunch. This is really a different festival. We weren’t expecting it !’

But then, people from Delhi or Punjab or apna Jaipur did not visit the literature festival to eat food or experience that wee bit of Rajasthan. They had come to listen to authors like the Nobel laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah or Shashi Tharoor or Deepti Naval or the plethora of other authors who had descended on the city. Most of them including Sudha Murthy, Shobha De professed their love for JLF in no uncertain words. They even said that this venue has more space and is much better than the old home of JLF. Perhaps they were right after all. The books were in the bookshop, the authors were on the dais, it was business as usual, what more could one ask for?

The culture was dusty and forgotten

On my way to the different venues of the literature festivals, I saw this little board which said ‘I love culture’. It was lying in a corner, dusty and forgotten.

This article by Shailaza Singh appeared in Rashtradoot Newspaper’s Arbit Section on January 24, 2023


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