Posted by: John Elliott | January 30, 2011

Incredible India’s Literary Woodstock

The Jaipur Literature Festival that ended last Tuesday is a splendid example of India at its best. Over 50,000 people crowded into the grounds of the elegant old city’s Diggi Palace for five festive days of brainy entertainment, occasional intellectual and political controversy, many conversations, and vibrant music, but with minimal security and hassle. Nobel laureates, Booker and Pulitzer Prize winners and over 200 other speakers mingled with local people, schoolchildren and visitors from elsewhere in India and abroad for an event that has pulled literary discussion out of quiet academic seminars.
You may marvel at India’s economic growth rate of around 8% or 9%, but the Jaipur Lit Fest’s six-year growth rate since it started with an audience of a few hundred in 2006  averages about 20% – with little advertising or marketing. The crowd has jumped six-fold in the past three years from 10,000 in 2009 to 60,000 this year (including open air evening concerts) – leading to the tag “India’s literary Woodstock”.
In January 2006, at the first festival, I walked into Diggi Palace’s majestic Durbar Hall (pictured below last year) and sat on a faded sofa with Namita Gokhale, one of the festival’s two co-directors, to listen to the flowing cadences of Urdu traditional Dastangoi story telling. This was on the fringes of the Jaipur “Virasat” Arts Festival, which was led by Faith Singh, a doyen of Rajasthan arts and crafts. There was a magic mixture of dance, music, and art exhibitions. “Later, we sat on the lawns and talked about the (literature) festival and how we hoped it would be a little larger next year,” wrote Ms Gokhale


She needn’t have worried. By 2009, it was becoming internationally famous and attracted people like US-based historian Simon Schama and editor-writer Tina Brown (who had just launched the Daily Beast news website), as well as Vikas Swarup, an Indian diplomat who wrote the book Q&A that became the award-winning Slumdog Millionaire film. Last year, with some 33,000 people, speakers ranged from Dalit writers at the bottom of India’s social strata to Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, the Queen Mother of Bhutan, and four raucous Scottish writers led by William Dalrymple, the festival’s other co-director.
One can easily yearn for the simplicity of that first relaxed year, now that the Durbar Hall has become just one of four over-flowing concurrent locations. But the energy is irresistible.

Market forces at work

Market forces are delightfully and brutally at work, as I realised when I moderated a session on Brand India. People standing at the back and sides of the seated areas move around as boredom strikes and word filters out about particularly good or bad sessions, so you can instantly see how you’re being rated. Fortunately, Brand India’s crowd grew, thanks to the sometimes-combative eloquence of the three speakers – Amitabh Kant, a remarkable bureaucrat who master-minded the development of Kerala tourism as God’s Own Country brand and then ran the (albeit ambiguous) Incredible India campaign, William Bissell who runs his family’s booming FabIndia shops, and Suhel Seth, an eloquent and outspoken branding guru. Basically, we all agreed that Brand India needs to smarten up.

Literary stars included Nobel laureates John Coetzee (who held his audience with a 45-minute reading from his The Old Woman and the Cats) and Orhan Pamuk, Swedish crime fiction writer Henning Mankell, Martin Amis, Richard Ford, and many others. Palestinian writer Dr Izzeldin Abuelish read from his book I Shall Not Hate. Iconic Indian poets and lyricists from Bollywood such as Gulzar and Javed Akhter drew huge crowds, and prominent Hindi writer editor Mrinal Pande spoke eloquently about the literary scene in Hindi and other Indian languages.


In a popular session on Tamil pulp fiction, some erotic reading was discreetly censored when schoolchildren (like those on the right) walked in. That led one boy mischievously to ask what he could or should read, admitting he was into an odd mix of Enid Blyton and Dan Brown. “Just read whatever you can get and throw away what you don’t like,” was the unanimous reply.
Last year, there was a theme running through the festival about the appalling unevenness of India’s economic growth, sparked by Dalit writers’ stories of exclusion. This year there was much agonising about the partition of India and Pakistan at independence in 1947, whether that could have been avoided, and if so who was to blame – and about Pakistan’s imploding crisis and allied unrest in Kashmir.
This was partly sparked by the recent launched Tinderbox, the past and future of Pakistan by M.J.Akbar, an Indian newspaper and magazine editor, who talked about Pakistan with Mani Shankar Aiyar, an author and diplomat-turned-politician. Mr Akbar floated the idea that, in the run-up to 1947, some people had hoped that India’s relationship with Pakistan would be as easy and open as it had been with the Princely States under British rule. A Muslim and an ardent opponent of partition, he told how his father had moved from India to East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in 1947 but quickly returned, explaining years later that there had been “too many Muslims” there. Rebuking laughter in the audience, Mr Akbar said his father had meant he missed the “multi-culturalism of India”.

Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist who has made his name internationally since 9/11 as the foremost authority on Afghanistan and the Taliban, had no time for what he saw as India’s irrelevant “obsession” about partition and the political leaders of the 1940s. The current crisis of Pakistan and Kashmir should be the focus now, he told me. Pakistan’s current crisis was “of its own making…..and bad management”.
That opens up a much bigger subject, but here’s a final word on Lord Mountbatten, the much-criticised governor-general who presided over India’s independence and partition, and whose wife had a close and much debated relationship with Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s independence leader and first prime minister.

Namita Gokhale, Willie Dalrymple, Sheuli Sethi, Sanjoy Roy

Alex von Tunzelmann, who has written a controversial book, Indian Summer, on the subject, suggested that Mountbatten tolerated his wife’s Nehru relationship because he knew she could not leave him for the Indian leader. When asked whether she disliked any of the characters in her book, Ms von Tunzelmann said she had been “irritated” by Mountbatten.

Even Philip Ziegler, Mountbatten’s official biographer, she said, “had to have a note on his desk saying ‘Remember, despite everything, he was a great man’”.

The crowds have now dispersed, and Diggi Palace has returned to its usual role as a quiet secluded Jaipur hotel, with its owner Ram Pratap of Diggi and his wife waiting to hear how many more people might be coming next year. Some visitors complain about the large numbers, but the crowds contribute to the ambience, and it is a tribute to the Diggi family and to Namita Gokhale and Willie Dalrymple, plus producers Sanjoy Roy and Sheuli Sethi of Teamwork Productions, that the festival brings stimulation and enjoyment to so many. Here’s to next year!

closing debate on the right to information

The Jaipur Lit Fest earlier on this blog:
2011 opener:
2010 at the end:
2010 opener:



  1. Thanks John for taking note and writing beautifully about pink city.
    We are happy that you enjoyed lit fest.
    It makes me feel proud about Jaipur, as i am from Jaipur.

  2. Hey John…I was there all days…all rooms :)Enjoyed every bit of it all!!

  3. Excellent article, John. Felt I was there –

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