“Every successful economy needs a tangible celebration,” Rajeev Sethi, a leading promoter of India’s arts and artists, told me a few years ago when I was writing an article on the then-booming art market for London’s Royal Academy magazine. He was referring to the huge success being enjoyed by artists old and young, famous and not-yet-famous, in those days of rocketing art prices.
His remark could equally well refer to two major world-recognised cultural events, both run by enthusiasts. They both have an enormous sense of energy, celebrate India’s success, and are open to all.
One is the five-day Jaipur Literary Festival (left) that I wrote about a few days ago. It closed on Monday night, having attracted an amazing total of 32,000 to 35,000 people, including hundreds of schoolchildren, to the informal but stylish old ambiance of Jaipur’s Diggi Palace hotel. That was a huge increase from around 12,000 last year, and there wasn’t enough space, or seating.
The organisers are now planning for even more next year, seating 6,000 people at any one time – this time it was about 2,700. “We want to keep the informal atmosphere but make sure we can accommodate the numbers,” says Sanjoy Roy, whose Teamwork Productions manages the festival.
The other is the India Art Summit that was held in Delhi last August and drew 40,000 visitors to Delhi’s (appalling) Pragati Maiden exhibition grounds. It opened up access for people, young and old, many of whom would be reluctant to walk into the forbidding arena of many art galleries.
There’s a difference of course between these events. The art market boom was mainly driven not by a love of paintings but by a merger of India’s celebratory culture with growing materialism. Art added value, in terms of wealth as well as image, for newly rich Indians abroad and at home. “People want icons that you can show off – you can’t put stocks and shares on your walls,” Sethi sadly told me. “Art is recognised now as a commodity, a product for investment, rather than something in daily life”.
But that boom did, before it collapsed, arouse many people’s interest in India’s art and artists, an interest that has grown since prices fell sharply over the past 18 months. That was evident at the Art Summit (right) and no doubt will be again when the event is held next in a year’s time.
Just as artists like Subodh Gupta and Jitish Kallat (left) were around the Art Summit, so were poets and authors such as Gulzar (reading on the opening day below left) , Javed Akhtar and Chetan Bhagat at Jaipur along with important Dalit (scheduled caste) writers specially organised by Namita Gokhale, one of the co-directors, and foreign writers (with a disproportionate number of entertaining Scotsmen – pic below) corralled by William Dalrymple, a Scot and the other co-director.
The Jaipur festival’s success means that, while it has become a major event for literary folk and book lovers, it is also now a target in India’s prestige-conscious society for those who regard themselves as leaders of the social elite, especially from Delhi. A few attempts have been made by social society brokers to carve out a role so that they can share in the glory, but they have generally been rebutted and have mostly mingled with the crowds – despite some attempts to secure prominent front row seats for themselves and their friends, and to stage exclusive social events. This is noteworthy in a country where prestige and patronage count for so much and do so much damage.
Once successful, events like the art summit and Jaipur festival also inevitably attract the attention of bureaucrats and politicians eager to benefit in terms of both prestige and other rewards. They also need to be kept at bay because the uniqueness of both events is that they have been conceived and are run by committed enthusiasts – Gokhale and Dalrymple with Roy at Jaipur, while the Arts Summit emerged from an idea by Neha Kirpal, a young marketing and conference organiser and is backed by Sunil Gautam who runs Hanmer MS&L Communications.
The Jaipur festival’s sessions also highlighted the vast social divide between the horrors of life for the Dalits at the bottom of India’s social strata and the lives and liaisons of royalty and dynasty in Bhutan, India and Britain.
Her Majesty Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, queen mother in the remote Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, who has written “A Portrait of Bhutan”, talked (right) about her life growing up in a remote mountain village milking cows, working in the vegetable garden and learning to weave. Her husband, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, introduced both the notion of Gross National Happiness (GNH) and democracy before giving way to his son at the end of 2008.
Two Indian authors discussed the difference between writing history and a historical novel in terms of their books on two Indian men who fascinated Queen Victoria. Navtej Sarna, an author and Indian diplomat (currently ambassador to Israel), talked about his novel, “The Exile”, on the life of Maharaja Duleep Singh who became prominent in Victoria’s court when the queen was in her 30s.
Shrabani Basu, a journalist, read from her “Victoria and Abdul”, a biography of Abdul Karim, a servant who became Victoria’s influential and often disruptive adviser on India. Basu said Karim was “a good looking, extravagantly dressed servant ….hated by the Queen’s household both for his race and class”. Basu had multiple sources to draw on for her biography but Sarna had less and, in his historical novel, had to create conversations.
Princess Diana’s perhaps most reputable biographer, Tina Brown, former editor of Vanity Fair and The Tatler, who now runs “The Daily Beast” website from the US, discussed her “The Diana Chronicles”. Diana was “always looking for love….but no man could have assuaged her…She would freak them out by stalking them”.
Then Nayantara Sehgal, an author and Jawaharlal Nehru’s niece, hit on a more local controversy when she said that Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born leader of India’s Congress Party and the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, was blocking the publication of love letters between Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten, wife of independent India’s first viceroy. Sehgal was in conversation with Catherine Clemont, French author of “Edwina and Nehru – a novel”. Whether the Nehru and Mountbatten “really went to bed is pure conjecture” said Sehgal. “No-one really knows about it except them”.
On an even lighter note, four Scottish writers – Andrew O’Hagan, Niall Ferguson, Alexander McCall Smith and William Dalrymple (above) – raised most laughs in a session called “Under the Kilt” with remarks that denigrated their home country (which had controversially donated £10,000 to the festival), as well as Britain and Ireland.
It started with Ferguson, who defended a recent article that dubbed Scotland as “the Belarus of Western Europe” because of its alcoholism, self-pity, and low life. He contrasted that with Scotland’s contribution abroad. “Once you’d left school you’d go and run England and then run the world,” said Ferguson who drew on his best seller “The Ascent of Money” to assert that the Scots were heavily responsible for the world’s financial crash.
What all this had to do with a literature festival in India no one was quite sure, but it was good entertainment – even the British High Commissioner and Irish Ambassador, both of whom were there, kept laughing.