JLF 2018 Who Holds The Microphone at The Pink City's Literary Festival?

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JLF | (Collage): © jaipureliteraturefestival.org

The month of January is an exciting time for members of India’s elite intellectual circuit, when multilingual poets, reputed authors, Indian and foreign academics, human rights activists, musicians, journalists and more all come together on one platform.

From book readings to heated debates, the events rage on for 5 straight days at a Royal Palace-turned-Heritage Hotel, discussing diverse topics from the politics of women in the North East of India, to refugee crises, to the 'Indian' identity, to the art of biography writing. While literature remains the central focus of the Festival, themes of science, environment, gender, war and conflict, technology and more are also on the menu, usually served with a side of controversy, contradiction or ideological conflict. We're on the brink of the Jaipur Literature Festival 2018, let's dive in.

What is the Jaipur Literature Festival?

“This is a vintage year for the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival, with an amazing line up of international and Indian writers and multiple strands of thoughtfully curated sessions. A space to interrogate our changing times and to encounter poetry and the dreaming mind, the festival returns with its unique brand of magic, whimsy and intellectual rigour,” says Namita Gokhale, writer, publisher and co-director of the Festival.

Put together by authors and Festival Directors Namitha Gokhale and William Dalrymple, this decade-old Festival describes itself as 'the greatest literary show on earth’. Over 200 speakers hailing from over 35 different countries will gather at the 11th edition of this Festival, which claims to 'serve as a democratic, non-aligned platform'. The organisers also speak to the diversity they hope to produce through the speaker line-up, "in its 11th edition, the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival lives up to its promise of being the grand dame of diversity, magnitude and sheer range in programming. There is something here for everyone, much to explore and to suit every literary palate."

Who holds the microphone at JLF 2018?

The usual suspects of "India's intellectuals" will feature at the 2018 edition of the Festival: the likes of author and founder of the organisation PARI P. Sainath, novelist Ashwin Sanghi, Indian-American filmmaker Mira Nair, actress and director Nandita Das, journalist and writer Manu Joseph – all of whom are frequent faces in academic and literary circles.

The stage will also play host to other eye-catching 'star names' such as filmmaker Anurag Kashyap, Lok Sabha Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor, theatre and film actress Shabana Azmi, writer and this year's opening Keynote Speaker Pico Iyer, poet Javed Akhtar, economist and politician Jairam Ramesh, and columnist Shobha De. These, accompanied by a range of non-Indian contributors such as playwright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard, authors Amy Tan, Helen Fielding and Philip Norman.

While these names are regular features amongst literary events across North India, and don't take much creativity to add to the agenda (not to disregard the blood and sweat of the organising team that goes into procuring these speakers), there's a few curated on this year's list that stand out.

The stand-out list: Poets, women-centric voices, and emerging Indian voices

The art of poetry has been given a special focus in this year's festival, with renowned Hindi, Rajasthani and Urdu poet Ikraam Rajasthani, self-taught painter and poet Era Tak who explores themes of women and nature, author and poet Akhil Katyal who narrates on identity, sex and queer politics, Nigerian-born Bangladeshi-American poet Abeer Hoque, and renowned Marathi poet Hemant Divate  leading the charge, amongst others. One can expect a good mix of love, loss, identity, gender, personal location and humanity represented in a range of conventional and vernacular languages at these sessions.

For the uninitiated, a regular feature at India's literary events, like most in the world, is all-male panel discussions. That's not to say that these panelists have no value, but it's safe to assume a lack of diversity in perspectives, experiences and personal agendas. While JLF 2018 hasn't successfully broken this trend, there's an interesting mix of diverse gender voices to give male privilege a run for its privilege.

A few such speakers stand out with interesting experiences to share: investigative journalist Suki Kim, who spent a significant time of her career undercover in North Korea, co-founder of India's first exclusively feminist publishing house Urvashi Butalia, Cameroonian author Leonora Miano, Burmese doctor, writer and human rights activist Ma Thida  and Somali-British author Nadifa Mohamed.

Another interesting addition to this year's agenda is a few new voices from India with fresh perspectives. To name a few, the sole Dalit speaker at the event Manoranjan Byapari who has authored nine novels and several short stories, reputed writer Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, archiver and author Mrinalini Venkateswaran, and poet, dancer and author Tishani Doshi.

Not Without Controversy

While this Festival, for the last decade, has claimed to stand for the right to free expression and dissent, it has had its fair share of controversy. Opponents within India have time and again accused the event for limiting their speaker list to elite professionals, muzzling free speech and abetting anti-minority sentiments.

In 2012, conflict surrounding a fatwa by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini against author Salman Rushdie for his book The Satanic Verses found its way to this Festival. The author, although slated to be a speaker, was a last minute no-show as he feared for his safety in the state of Rajasthan. As a result, four other speakers of the event read pages of the disputed book, causing quite a stir.

In 2013, the Festival ended with furious demands for action against sociologist Ashis Nandy who made derogatory remarks against marginalised groups such as Dalits, tribals and OBCs during his discussion at the event. Professor Nandy stated, “It is a fact that most of the corrupt come from the OBCs and the Scheduled Castes and now increasingly Scheduled Tribes…”

However reputed Dalit-Bahujan author Kancha Illaiah called for a dissolution of the outrage stating it was a “bad statement with good intentions.” He stated, “While referring to Dalits as corrupt, Professor Nandy probably missed out saying that upper castes have always been corrupt.” He further said, “As far as I know, he was never against reservation. The controversy should end here.”

In 2016, the 10th anniversary of this Festival saw the inclusion of Manmohan Vaidya and Dattatreya Hosabale in the speaker list--both of whom belong to the right-wing Hindutva RSS political body which is linked to the ruling BJP party. Critics questioned the validity and qualifications of these speakers at the event.

In 2017, a reflection of the 2012 Salman Rushdie controversy reared its head again with Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen, who has lived in exile since 1994 due to her disputed novels Lajja and Dwikahndito. During her session at JLF, she stated that criticism of Islam was the only way to establish secularism in Islamic countries--a remark that spurred Muslim organisations to protest outside the venue and even resulted in the event organisers assuring she would never be invited as a speaker again.

In Anticipation of JLF 2018

In keeping with this trend, this year’s controversy has kicked off before the actual event. The last month has seen the Karni Sena--a nationalist Rajput outfit-- demanding a ban on the upcoming film ‘Padmaavat’, which they claim hurts the sentiments of their community. While the apex Supreme Court has ruled that this ban isn’t permissible, the Karni Sena has now sought to disallow Film Censor Board Chief Prasoon Joshi (a regular face at JLF) from attending this year’s event.

While conflict is stirring ahead of the Literary Festival, attendees are already gearing up: reserving rooms in the historic Pink City, marking their 5-day schedules, and counting down the days until January 25th.