Sunil Sethi

Journalist in Delhi

JLF’s decisive decade

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Despite criticism and controversies, ‘JLF At Ten’ is a tour de force to contend with

Business Standard, January 27, 2017


Barring a couple of years in recent times, I have attended nearly every edition of the (JLF) since its inception. What was a modest, unfocussed and slightly impromptu literary gathering was pulled up from its bootstraps and propelled forward by two writers of wide-ranging enthusiasms: Nam-ita Gokhale, engaged in Hindi and bhasha literatures, and William Dalrymple, an enduring link between Indian stories and international audience. This unlikely duo was enjoined by a crucial third: The unflappable, omnipresent Sanjoy Roy — he of the inimitable long white tresses and friendly access — who runs the 100-strong Teamwork Arts, possibly the most influential arts event entrepreneur in the country.

I’ve seen this triumvirate through some sticky moments; for example, five years ago when two eager-beaver writers began to read on stage from Salman Rushdie’s proscribed The Satanic Verses to protest his last-minute cancellation. The agitators were at the gates, and FIRs, lawyers, local police and politicians swarmed the inner courts of Diggi Palace till late at night. Many thought the litfest would shut down next morning. But such was the goodwill of the hosts and the generous embrace of the Pink City that the show has unstoppably gone on since.

Figures don’t always tell the full story but JLF’s 10th anniversary last weekend — in theory a Thursday-to-Monday event but actually swallowing the whole week — had 409 speakers over 200 sessions at six venues; over 400,000 people attended over five days.

Priyanka Malhotra of Full Circle, whose smallish bookshop has now expanded to a gigantic thronging tent, featuring 45,000 titles by every author present, told me: “Despite the best security, we still lose about 10 per cent of sales to pilferage. How do you pat down every conservative woman customer? They object.”

Book thieves may be bad for business but osmotically they’re good for JLF’s reputation. The litfest is free to all provided they register online — this means hordes of students — and last-minute arrivals pay a fee of Rs 200.

Still, it’s a logistical feat to house, feed and transport the speakers and delegates from 16 hotels to Diggi Palace, followed by lavish evening entertainments — Amjad Ali Khan playing in the grandeur of Amer Fort, Vidya Shah singing in Hawa Mahal and a splendid complement of visiting Afghan and Syrian musicians jamming with Rajasthani singers sponsored by the Aga Khan Musical Initiative.

There isn’t a room to spare in the city during the JLF week; and it’s been suggested that the once-crumbling but centrally-located Diggi haveli — a small hostelry that’s metamorphosed into a 100-room hotel — should be replaced by a more commodious venue. But that hasn’t deterred the heaving thousands, making their orderly way through security checks, snacking and shopping at innumerable food stalls and boutiques, hysterical at Sadhguru and Rishi Kapoor’s sessions, and mobbing the likes of Javed Akhtar and Shashi Tharoor. One initiative in crowd management that JLF’s organisers have successfully implemented is employing 400-odd college volunteers from India and overseas. “They’re paid a small honorarium and trained for a week in December,” says Mr Roy. (I met one such group from Melbourne University who said it was the best “working holiday” they’d had.)

Weaving through the hubbub, audiences could pick at spirited debates on demonetisation, throw questions at Booker Prize winners Paul Beatty and Alan Hollinghurst, or plug into any subject under the sun from the arcane (“Smell and Perfume in Ancient India”) to the quotidian (“Of Saffron and the Sangha”). I caught up with illuminating sessions by Neil MacGregor on “Shakespeare’s Restless World”, a tribute to poet-translator A K Ramanujan, journalist Luke Harding on Edward Snowden, “Sur, Sangeet, Sahitya” on the evolution of Indian classical music, and Mr Dalrymple and Anita Anand on the tortured history of the Kohinoor.

Finding the money to fund this giant ferris wheel of a litfest isn’t easy. With major cutbacks in advertising, several sponsors pulled out this year, though Zee — the title sponsor —  sustained its three-year contract. Increasingly, however, JLF’s cash-or-kind tie-ins appeal to partners in travel and hospitality sectors to reinforce Rajasthan’s position as a tourist magnet: This year Cox & Kings paid cash, Taj and Meridien regularly host major parties, and the state government chip in with police support and permissions to show off the city’s forts and palaces.

Increasingly, too, important trade publishers like HarperCollins and Penguin Random House top up marketing budgets in recognition of India as a book-buying nation on the upswing (unlike, say Australia and New Zealand where markets are tanking). “In the end,” says Mr Roy, whose company runs 26 events in 40 cities and 16 countries, “it boils down to branding. JLF is our flagship and we work 18 months in advance. At the back of the festival brochure, we have already announced the principal speakers for 2018”.

Despite criticism and controversies, “JLF At Ten” is a tour de force to contend with.

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