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Like migratory birds, more than 70 eminent authors and thinkers from across the globe just gathered in London this past May 20-21 for what has become an annual fixture, the Jaipur Literature Festival. The venue was different this year, because its traditional base at the Southbank centre had been taken over by the Karachi Literary Festival in what looked like a case of one-upmanship. So this year's gathering took place at the British Library, which was certainly an appropriate alternative venue.
ZEE JLF at the British Library was one of the first major events in the United Kingdom as part of the UK-India Year of Culture in 2017 designed to showcase the cultural diversity of India in the U.K. The diverse programme took its inspiration from the 70th anniversary of Indian Independence and highlighted the cultural exchange between the two nations.
The British Library was transformed inside and out with festive bunting and displays of colourful fabrics of India as it played host at a weekend of discussions on topics from migration to Bollywood, Queen Victoria and Abdul to the Kohinoor, and the East India Company.
Director of Teamwork Arts Sanjoy K. Roy noted the important role writers have always played in society, citing 2001: Space Odyssey, and George Orwell’s dystopian vision of Big Brother, 1984: ‘Authors help us to divine the future, they are very much part of our world.’ festival co-director Namita Gokhale welcomed ‘friends of literature’ and described the festival as a place of ‘genuine, spontaneous, democratic human interaction’. She also thanked the the rich British Library for giving access to its valuable treasure trove from the Beatles’ Rishikesh archives, to rare Indian artefacts. Her co-director, author William Dalrymple quipped that literature festivals had ‘replaced fashion shows and polo matches as a default weekend filler.’ He said he was ‘very excited to bring the festival to the British Library,’ since it was ‘the nearest thing I’ve ever had for an office’.
Mr. Y.K. Sinha, the High Commissioner of India in London, said he was ‘very happy’ to be on his first visit to the British Library, since his army officer father had done research on a scholarship here, about an Indian freedom fighter in 1857, who was still winning battles aged 80: ‘a fitting story for 70 years of Indian independence.’ He observed that Indian culture has always transcended borders, and the festival keeps that tradition alive, both in and outside India.
Karan Johar, one of Bollywood’s most famous directors, was refreshingly frank, self-deprecating and entertaining when he spoke to Rachel Dwyer about his memoir, An Unsuitable Boy. He recalled how in his early career people assumed his film was made by his father, the acclaimed producer, Yash Johar. Karan Johar said one bit of advice he remembers from his father on how to make successful films - " make ladies cry." He also described facing criticism for dealing with themes like adultery but said that Indian film audiences had matured. He emphasised the need for Indian cinema to remain creative and take risks despite the economic pressures of the modern film industry: "We celebrate every emotion with a song, we heighten emotion, we are melodramatic, but the soul that we represent is rare, and it’s rare worldwide. The moment that we are apologetic about it, it’s going to bite us. We need to go back to larger than life cinema. We need to go back to the era where filmmakers took big risks. We have got to bring abandon back."
In a fitting celebration of 70 years of India-UK relations, Philip Norman, biographer of The Beatles, and Indian journalist Ajoy Bose, researcher of The Beatles’ years in India, got together for a riveting session, to discuss the magic and mystery of the band’s experience in India. Bose pointed out the irony that the younger generation of Indians embrace The Beatles as symbols of modern western culture, while rejecting their own traditional values, whereas The Beatles repudiated their own culture to embrace the ancient values of India.
Shrabani Basu’s Victoria and Abdul: The True Story Of The Queen’s Closest Confidant is based on the previously unknown correspondence between Queen Victoria and her manservant Abdul. In conversation with Oscar-winning director Stephen Frears she explored the relationship that changed British foreign policy in India and scandalised contemporary society, captured in the astonishing archive of letters and papers that writer and journalist Basu found in the British Library collection, and Abdul’s personal archive and diary discovered with one part of his family in Karachi. Victoria was a passionate letter-writer and Abdul’s input, advice and sometime bias can be seen in her correspondence from this time, as well as the dislike of Abdul by her staff and advisers in theirs. Basu spoke about racism which was prevalent in court though Victoria, herself, loved India and wanted to know ordinary people.
One of the attractions of JLF is that while discussions on Indian politics, Moghul history and the legacy of the British emigre have become standard fare - off-beat books and topics also come under scrutiny. One example was an intriguing discussion on The Genetics of Skin. At this session evolutionary biologist and skin cancer expert Sharad Paul told the audience that taking up tango could help in the battle against dementia. The doctor and author of The Genetics of Health and Skin: A Biography, said that dance may be a useful way of keeping the illness at bay.
Prominent writers and thinkers Arundhathi Subramaniam, Mihir S. Sharma, Namita Gokhale, Prajwal Parajuly and Meghnad Desai discussed their individual perceptions of what Ideas of India means to them.
Festival co-director, writer and publisher Namita Gokhale in conversation with panellists; Tahmima Anam, Sarvat Hasin, Amit Chaudhuri and Kunal Basu shared their insights on the art of the novel in "The Reading Room: Shaping the Novel." Panellists including Indian MPs Swapan Dasgupta and Shashi Tharoor discussed the enduring mystery of India’s fascination with P.G. Wodehouse one of the most popular English language writers in India alongside many more events which made up a packed programme of literary debate and social dialogue.
ZEE JLF@The British Library is the first of five cultural strands which form part of the India – UK Year of Culture in 2017. The year-long programme also includes India@Edinburgh in August, The Independence Gala@Southbank Centre in October, a season of Dance & Theatre and the UK Premiere of the Bharat Symphony by Dr L. Subramaniam and the London Symphony Orchestra in November.
2017 marked the fourth London edition of the festival, which is rooted in the Pink City of Jaipur, India. For Indophiles unable to attend the annual event in Jaipur, the London event is an eagerly awaited literary feast which draws bigger crowds each year. Some of the sessions were so packed that many were turned away because there wasn't enough space. As the popularity of JLF grows the challenge will be to accommodate the huge crowds that turn up each summer eager to hear from leading writers and thinkers.
For 2018 dates and details, follow the festival's website.