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Behind the Scenes at the Jaipur Literature Festival- Namita Gokhale

19th May 2021

the Jaipur Literature Festival

Namita Gokhale

The Jaipur Literature Festival has been called ‘The Greatest Literary Show On Earth.’  It is a riot of colour, a feast for the senses, with an overload of intellectual and literary stimulus. As a co-founder and co-director of the festival I look backstage at how much the festival has transformed over the years, and how I, in turn, have changed and grown with it.  The festival is produced by Teamwork Arts, and the core group of the producer Sanjoy Roy, the closely knit programming team, my co-director William Dalrymple and I remain in constant communication. There are so many others, the digital leads, the marketing teams, all those who sustain the complex web of activities that make the festival accessible to audiences, physically and virtually. All are intensely focused on the litfest and its editions and form a community, even in these digital days when work is often conducted out of lonely verticals. 

The Water Palace – Jaipur

My days are defined by the doorbell ringing and a steady stream of newly published books arriving, usually four or five a day, from different publishers. These keep me attuned to the rich creativity that the pandemic unleashed, and to the visions and anxieties of our times. There are also manuscripts, and PDFs that I am privileged to share, all the stories from around the world piling up on my desk and my table and my laptop. I feel sometimes that I live in a dusty bookshelf, surrounded as I am by hardcovers and paperbacks, ideas and provocations, stories and narratives, to consider for our spread of virtual editions. These are discussed and dissected with Sanjoy and William, Kritika and Anubhav and Neha. We continue to stay connected through lockdowns and lonely times, exploring speakers and discussants, themes and session titles, cues and bionotes.

Sifting through such a varied series of perspectives is a daily education. It takes over my day, and my week, to explore and absorb this stream of often unexpected thoughts and perspectives, and consider how we can present them to audiences. I may leaf through an engrossing historical romance, then turn to a clear headed warning about the dystopian future that awaits our planet, before I struggle with AI and the algorithms of justice, as I explore the bewildering cascade of ideas and obsessions.

City Palace – Jaipur

It’s no wonder that my vision began going blurry earlier this year. The constant screen time and white light had taken its toll. I turned to audio books, and although it’s slower to listen in, it’s a deeply rewarding experience. The spoken word, the visual image, all these are returning to textual narrative, and reflecting on how we perceive our world. As the author of twenty books of both fiction and non-fiction, it leads me to examine my own writing practice and how I tell my stories.

We used to spend our days in laughter and gossip and camaraderie, punctuated by arguments and contrarian views. We used to travel around the world, to our JLF editions – spread as far and wide as London, Belfast, Houston, Boulder Colorado , Toronto , Adelaide and Doha – before we went on to the mammoth mother festival in Jaipur every January, before we collapsed in a heap in February. Then we would get up and begin all over again.

A bit of us belonged to all these places. The day there was a shooting in a Boulder supermarket, all of us felt a deep collective grief. From ceaseless globetrotters we have become static arm chair travellers, yet a bit of us continues to inhabit all these cities and continents where JLF had taken us.

The world has moved in the course of one year from the culture of community to the culture of caution and contagion. Isolation, anxiety and digital fatigue are familiar symptoms.  Yet we are never truly alone, not when we have books, and writers and readers, and each other.

the Jaipur Literature FestivalMy recent novel, Jaipur Journals, takes us behind the scenes to the Jaipur festival as it used to be – packed with people, with ideas, with hopes and dreams . We inhabit a very different space now, but our lives still pulsate with shared energy. We still talk, read, laugh, gossip, even as we adapt to new ways of communication, new modes of sharing. The virtual Jaipur literature festival, some of it recorded at Diggi Palace in Jaipur, had 14 million views across 140 sessions with 324 speakers. We are not alone.

Programming and curating the sessions and seeing them come to life is a constant voyage of discovery. I feel often like an early amphibian, learning to tread on land with what were until recently my water-acclimatised fins. The world she is a-changing, and our festival with it. This is a time of discoveries, of mistakes, of acquiring new skills. Though we meet infrequently, we festival-wallahs are learning so much, about ourselves, about our capacity for change.

Namita Gokhale

Co-Founder and Director, Jaipur Literature Festival

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