ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival 2019 begins with drumroll, applause, thunder and Tharoor

Politician, international diplomat, and writer, Shashi Tharoor has emerged as a social media phenomenon, which is precisely the reason this session was coined, “#Tharoorisms”. In a conversation with Mihir Sharma, Opinion Editor for Business Standard, Tharoor shared some ebullient observations on life and language, while also engaging in unabashed discussions on legislation, loyalty, and legality. Tharoor admitted that he “could take people’s interest in unusual words and make a certain larger point,” recalling how he used the word “floccinaucinihilipilification” in a tweet last year to promote his new book. “This English language thing is a kind of a joke that ran out of control,” he quipped.

Apart from Tharoor highlight speakers included Meghna Gulzar and Gulzar, Narendra Kohli, Germaine Greer, Priyamvada Natarajan, AJ Finn, Usha Uthup, Colson Whitehead, Shashi Tharoor, Andrew Sean Greer among others

The ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival entered its 12th year on a chilly Jaipur morning today with all of its characteristic joie de vivre intact. Early risers flocked to grab seats at the NEXA Front Lawn of the Diggi Palace Hotel, which itself was dressed in its colourful best and reverberated with heady beats from dhaaks typical to Bengal and Assam, and listened to their favourite speakers – icons, writers and performers. Attendees were welcomed by the haunting and rich voice of singer Shruthi Vishwanath. The Pune-based musician, composer and educator, who is trained in the Carnatic and Hindustani traditions, was accompanied by musicians Yuji Nakagawa on the sarangi and Shruteendra Katagade on the tabla. Vishwanath had the attention of the audience with her very first note. She opened the Festival’s Morning Music with a musical rendition of the words of 17th-century spiritual poet Tukaram whose lyrics reinforced the profound depth found in the ‘word’.

Music led the way to the inaugural session of the iconic Festival’s twelfth edition which began with Sanjoy K. Roy, Festival Producer and Managing Director of Teamwork Arts, emphasising on the need to respect writers at such divisive times and expressing his gratitude to the Diggi family for a venue that in all its vibrancy, reiterates the Festival’s spirit of multiplicity. The Festival endeavours, he said, “to celebrate, talk, debate, discuss and most importantly perhaps, create a space for dissent in our extremely divisive world”. The effort is “to ensure that all of these people we are made to fear as ‘the other’, we are able to understand them, experience them, read them and celebrate them.”

Co-Festival Director Namita Gokhale also spoke strongly about creating inclusive spaces, noticing how “we are witnessing a unique literary moment in India,” where voices from 22 languages are finding home and publishers are mainstreaming translations like never before. While the Festival continues to remain rooted in India, it has also expanded globally with editions being organised in London, Adelaide, Houston, Boulder and New York. She mentioned the growth and reach of Jaipur BookMark, a book conclave running parallel to the Festival from January 23rd to the 26th, noting how it “creates collaborations and give us synergies between and across South Asia”.

Punit Misra, CEO of the Domestic Broadcast Business of ZEE Entertainment Enterprises Limited, shared that ZEE was honoured to be associated with the Festival because it is a “reaffirmation of our faith in the written word.” B.D. Kalla, Rajasthan Minister of Art, Literature and Culture, expressed the government’s gratitude, adding how culture is a social and historical phenomenon, and how our collective crusade against superstition and social classification gains strength through such festivals.

Award-winning British poet and prose writer Ruth Padel, who has been closely associated with the Festival for several years, addressed the inaugural. Padel read out a charming poem about the pink city, a piece that seamlessly interwove space with relationships. Her second poem, she described as “a little hymn to blue green algae, a contemplation on the genetics of the cell and how it first got here”.

This led seamlessly to the Keynote Address by Nobel Laureate in Chemistry awarded to him for his research on ribosomal structure, Sir Venki Ramakrishnan. In “a talk across the divide between humanities and sciences”, he quipped, “the same people who proclaim their ignorance about science and math would consider me an uncivilised bore.”

Ramakrishnan stressed the need to acknowledge the role of science in creating a knowledge-rich and resource-rich society and addressing pertinent questions like climate change and digital security: “Science, with its insistence on evidence-based facts, offers a counter to some of the threats today.”

Besides cricket, perhaps nothing else grabs the attention of Indians as much as religion and politics. The ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival captured exactly that, when Rajasthan Deputy Chief Minister Sachin Pilot graced its stage. In an engaging conversation with Sreenivasan Jain, Managing Editor of NDTV, the politician candidly shared his views on the Indian National Congress’s victory in the recent Rajasthan state elections, the present nature of politics and freedom of expression in India, Hindu-Muslim unity, national development, divisive politics, and propaganda-based functioning of the political space. Their discourse explored the relationship between family ties and insider ranks in political parties. Pilot’s affiliation to the Congress party prompted questions on the recent development of Priyanka Gandhi being brought into the official fold of the party. Jain quizzed Pilot on his views on the Sabarimala issue, asking him to draw out the difference between his party’s opinion with that of the current government’s, which has so stirred national sentiments. Consistent with his earlier stand, Pilot maintained that though the party stands for equal treatment of men and women in religious worship, their opinion on the Sabarimala matter amounts to contextual adjustments and not misogyny.

At a fiery session with Bee Rowlatt, irrepressible octogenarian Germaine Greer, whose latest book On Rape expresses her own stirring and provocative perspectives, was at her best and spoke with passion describing the Nirbhaya case as a crime much beyond the physical violation of rape but a horrific evisceration resulting in murder. It has been 39 years since the release of Greer’s seminal feminist work The Female Eunuch. Written on the fiftieth anniversary of women’s suffrage in Britain, Greer mentioned the many frustrations which had remained for her even then in spite of that rather late milestone, which had propelled her to write this book: such as no policies for women, a disgraceful bargain between British feminists and the War effort, and the fact that the vote was initially only available to women over 30 who had property.

She also referred to the work of the black radical Eldridge Cleaver, and his book, Soul on Ice, in which he mentions the spiritual castration of black men - a concept she found an interesting analogy for women: “A girl is born with energy, creativity and a voice. How does she become silenced?” she asked.

Dr. Priyamvada Natarajan, Professor of Astronomy and Physics at Yale University, delivered a mesmerising session the on her book, Mapping The Heavens: The Radical Scientific Ideas That Reveal The Cosmos. Simplifying the advancements made in the field of cosmology, from pre-Copernican geocentricism to the twenty-first century, she ensured the audience was left enriched and in awe. Dr. Natarajan also took the audience on a vivid intergalactic journey, utilizing beautiful visual imagery of stars and galaxies.

Post lunch at Charbagh, the audience was in for an absolute literary treat as publisher and author AJ Finn took the audience with him on the thrilling journey of writing his bestseller, The Woman in the Window. The conversation, moderated by journalist and writer Amrita Tripathi, covered many personal as well as professional aspects, such as Finn’s own battle with mental health issues and his affection for psychological thrillers. Taking his cue from Tripathi’s prompts, Finn broached the topic of protagonist Anna Fox’s character development. He observed that Anna’s trait of generosity was an attempt to convey his belief that mental health issues can in fact endow people with empathy and resilience. He commented on the general apathy towards mental health patients, and the apathy towards women that plagues society. Anna, in his words, was an acknowledgement of this.

Meanwhile, Usha Uthup took the stage with Sanjoy K. Roy and reminisced with her characteristic effervescence on her vast and long musical career and the many experiences and people she has encountered along the way breaking often into song to the audience’s delight.

Next at the Charbagh at this time was the Pulitzer-awardee author of the disturbing cult book Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead who held attendees spellbound as he spoke of the visceral strain of white supremacy-led violence which had founded America and read passages from his book as the skies above the tent darkened with rainclouds and a storm raged through the afternoon.

Beyond the realm of art, the world of literature is ultimately a business. The second day of Jaipur BookMark, which runs parallel to the Festival, had some of the world’s leading publishers discuss the present and future of the business of books at a session called This Business of Books presented by the Seagull School. Session moderator Manasi Subramaniam, Senior Commissioning Editor at Penguin Random House India, opened the discussion by asking the panel of seasoned publishing experts how they viewed the business to which they had devoted themselves. Writer and Publisher Urvashi Butalia, who opened India’s first feminist publishing house Zubaan, said that publishing was “the love of my life”. Naveen Kishore, Founder of Seagull Books, regarded publishing as his “life’s work, so I treat it with passion and commitment”.

Apart from, or perhaps because of the romanticization of books, and the passion-led nature of the publishing industry, innovative approaches are often required to make it work as a business. Publisher and founder of the Jan Michalski Foundation, Vera Michalski-Hoffmann, believed “the book trade is in a more optimistic place than where it was a couple of years ago”. The panel agreed that reports of the demise of the book have been greatly exaggerated.

Switching things up from the usual idea of ‘Lost in translation’, ‘Found in Translation’ at Jaipur BookMark discussed the role of translators in bringing unheard stories to the fore. “Translators now have a seat at the table,” said Ros Schwartz in her rousing keynote address, which put the spotlight on how perception of the art has changed in recent years. British writer, editor and translator Daniel Hahn echoed her sentiments, adding that the work of a translator has grown to encompass mentoring young professionals, copyright -lobbying and advocating for equal pay for professionals. Words Without Borders’ Kalpana Raina attributed the rising appreciation for translations to a pushback against populism. Translator N. Kalyan Raman stressed the need for the same in a multi-lingual and multi-cultural country like India. French writer Jean-Claude Perrier, French translator Annie Montaut, and Norwegian Literature Abroad Director Margit Walsø cited some of the initiatives that have worked in Europe, including crediting translators on the cover, awarding scholarships, and providing minimum pay and travel subsidies.

Industry heavyweights Ranjita Biswas and Priya Sarukkai Chabria agreed that they – like many others – were still ready to eschew profits and money in favour of this labour of love. “Publishers, small and big, need to come together,” said Speaking Tiger Books’ Ravi Singh, raising a call to action for his contemporaries everywhere.

The winner of the Oxford Bookstore Book Cover Prize was also announced at the Jaipur BookMark. Well known, Graphic Designer Bonita Vaz Shimray was felicitated the prestigious award trophy and cash prize by renowned poet, Gulzaar Saaheb amidst a beautiful gathering of designer, publishers and book lovers. The announcement was followed by a reception hosted by Oxford Bookstores honouring the winner.

In addition to the winning book cover, the jury panel also acknowledged two more designers with special jury awards appreciating their remarkable contribution in designing the respective book covers. Designers Shiraaz Hussain for Paazi Nazmein published by Radhakrishna Prakashan (Rajkamal Prakashan Samuh) and Misha Oberoi for Saakshi – The Witness published by Niyogi Books were applauded for their works.

As always, nothing deterred the fervour of the crowds – neither inclement weather, nor the cold winds or the slush on the grounds. They attended sessions with focus, asking questions, taking photographs and most importantly, making memories. Over the next four days, many more debates to allow a seamless flow of ideas will embody the spirit of this incomparable grand dame of a festival.

The action moved from Diggi Palace to Clark’s Amer as the evening came down for some electrifying music at the Jaipur Music Stage to fire up the skies further – with headlining performances by Usha Uthup, and Jasbir Jassi in collaboration with folk artiste Kutle Khan.

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