Jaipur: All roads led to the Pink City last weekend for the sixth edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF). With nearly 300 participating authors from around the country and the world, 150 poets, musicians and performers, and more than a lakh and a half visitors, JLF 2013 was the biggest literary blockbuster of all.
For five sun-drenched days, Jaipur's 18th century Diggi Palace reverberated with more than 200 talking shops - debates, dialogues, readings, conversations and music - on subjects that ranged from the life of the mathematical prodigy Ramanujan to the art of the ghazal with Javed Akhtar, dissecting the economies of breakout nations to the making of James Bond and the Maha Kumbh Mela. There was something for everyone.
The Bengali writer and activist Mahasweta Devi was the opening speaker and The Dalai Lama cast a special aura on this year's JLF, capturing the audience's imagination in the way that TV host-turned-pop icon Oprah Winfrey did last year. And like last year, when Salman Rushdie's aborted appearance became a subject of front-page controversy, heated argument erupted this year over sociologist Ashis Nandy's comments on corruption among caste groups that led to local politicians filing police cases against him and the festival's producer.
Expanded this year to six separate venues within the precincts of the Diggi Palace, even the organisers are taken aback by JLF's galloping growth. According to Sanjoy Roy, JLF's chief producer, "It's been a 100 per cent year on year growth. In year one, we had an audience of 7,000 people, in year two it went to 14,000, in 2012 there were 1,22,000 footfalls over five days. This year, in the first two days itself, there was a 30 per cent increase on last year's attendance."
JLF is an open house in the true sense of the word, with no entrance fee and open to anyone willing to join the entrance queues, which become serpentine over the weekend.
Film historian and filmmaker Nasreen Munni Kabir recalled that in 2009 she had the sense of a little village with lots of books and lots of writers. "And now it seems like a super big city, populated by millions. I think that's fantastic! In a city like London, with many cultural events, organisers vie for audiences and are thrilled if 400-500 people come. To see over a 1,50,000 people coming for a book fair is extraordinary. What I also see is extraordinary organisation. The management and movement of people are very well orchestrated. It's a very democratic lit fest."
JLF has also become a trailblazer, inspiring a string of lit fests in virtually every Indian metro and across borders in Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. It inspired Ameena Saiyid, who heads Oxford University Press Pakistan, to start the Karachi Literature Festival four years ago. She calls JLF "the mother of all lit fests," adding that coming to JLF "is every publisher's dream and every writer's dream".
At the JLF's Full Circle bookshop, the mother-daughter team of Poonam & Priyanka Malhotra diligently put together a book list by every participating author in alphabetical order. "In the past two years, we had 10,000 titles but this year we had about 25,000 to 30,000 titles," said Priyanka Malhotra.
Some authors, like the British poet Simon Armitage, are surprised to find rare editions of their work at the JLF bookshop; others, such as Australian historian John Zubrzycki are touched by the attention they get: "Nowhere else do writers get treated like royalty like they do here and for me it is a great honour."
JLF has a growing Bollywood representation every year. This year's contingent included Javed Akhtar and Shabana Azmi, director Vidhu Vinod Chopra and songwriter Prasoon Joshi. "Film industry is very much part of literature, it's an extension of literature. If you see the initial work of cinema, it was all literature that got converted into celluloid. There shouldn't be any surprise that people from the film industry want to be here," said Mr Joshi.
It's also no surprise that the explosive growth and massive media attention has attracted unexpected corporate sponsors. Tata Steel was JLF's second biggest sponsor this year, celebrating it as a "carnival of values" and "values stronger than steel".
Asked how an industrial commodity like steel links up with a literary and cultural fiesta, Partha Sengupta, Vice President of Tata Steel, explained, "When we came in as sponsors last year, we saw large numbers of young people. Steel is often associated with being boring, so we thought we could make it interesting, make it more colourful, make it approachable. We have found our space under the sun because we found likeminded people here."
JLF is primarily about writers and writing but as much about people who help create books, who connect writers to readers. It's now an earmarked date in the calendar for publishers, promoters and literary agents. Chiki Sarkar, Editor-in-chief of Penguin India, the country's largest trade publisher sees "Jaipur increasingly as an opportunity." It's where she meets writers and publishers from round the world, promotes relatively unknown authors, and has a full diary of engagements.
Others, like Urvashi Butalia, who runs the small feminist publishing house, Zubaan Books, or David Godwin, the British literary agent who represents Arundhati Roy, Vikram Seth and William Dalrymple, all come to meet new writers in person and nurture professional relationships.
It's the writers that are centre stage - JLF's main showpiece - whether young first timers like Anjan Sundaram ,whose journalistic account of strife-torn Congo titled Stringer, is among the most widely-applauded non-fiction debuts of the year, or famous explorers of the global soul like Pico Iyer who are excited by India's avid readership. "There is a love of books and a love of language in India that I don't find in England or California or the other places I know," confessed Mr Iyer.
He was not the only diaspora writer on a rediscovery of India. After three acclaimed books set in America, Abraham Verghese, professor of medicine and author of bestselling titles like My Own Country and Cutting for Stone, is here to research his new novel set in Kerala. "Every time I come to India, I have the strong sense that the pulse that is beating inside me is very much an Indian pulse. It seems to resonate with the rhythms and the foods, as this is really where the gene pool begins," Mr Verghese said.
JLF is now the most prestigious forum for writers to launch their latest books in the subcontinent. British Pakistani novelist Nadeem Aslam who has a large fan following in India chose the occasion to release his new novel The Blind Man's Garden. Besides its reputation for launching new books, and talent spotting, it is also the place for restoring the fortunes of neglected writers.
This year, the annual $50,000 DSC prize for fiction set in South Asia went to Indian poet and novelist Jeet Thayil for his work Narcopolis. Set in the opium dens of Mumbai, the book was initially rejected by several publishers and disparaged by critics. "I worked on the book for five years and when it appeared I remember reading those reviews and thinking that it's over. I should give up this business and maybe work in a bank."
JLF's diverse programme places a strong emphasis on exploring writers and writing in Indian languages, a cause fervently championed by author and JLF co-director Namita Gokhale. According to her, writers from 17 Indian languages were represented at this year's fest. "I'm very proud that JLF is so global and so international but more proud that it is local and rooted. This intrigues the rest of the world, this easy companionship between so many different literatures."
Music and performance are a key component of JLF, whether melodious morning chants by the Buddhist nun Ani Choying Drolma from Nepal or fusion bands led in the evening by pop singer Susheela and a host of traditional and folk singers.
The JLF's unique identity and captivating setting is best encapsulated by Alexandra Pringle, editor-in-chief, Bloomsbury, the publisher of Harry Potter novels and an influential force in international publishing. "Most festivals start very small and build over the years and reach their zenith," said Pringle, adding that "JLF just shot up like a great firework and that's for a lot of different reasons. It's in a very beautiful place which is always a help. If the festival works, people want to be geographically there. They want to be excited."