Jaipur: The past year has been hard for the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) brand. During the festival, they held at London’s Southbank in the summer of 2016, soon after the last iteration of the festival in Jaipur, they got bad press for their choice of sponsor in Vedanta, a global mining corporation allegedly involved in human rights violations and illegal deforestation.
Closer home this year, their tie-up this time with Zee has prompted critics to come down heavily on them, taking objection to how Zee’s new channels have covered events over the past year— from the Dadri incident to the travails of Kanhaiya Kumar at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).
Despite this, on 20 January—the second day of the JLF— festival producer Sanjoy Roy and director Namita Gokhale, along with representatives from the Government of Victoria, Australia, have announced that the festival will now travel to Melbourne next month.
Author William Dalrymple, one of the founders and co-directors of JLF, talks about all of this, especially with view of the festival marking its 10th anniversary, and their further plans. Edited excerpts from an interview.
As regards sponsorships both in Southbank in 2016 and now in Jaipur 2016, a lot of people are saying that it may be hypocritical to take sponsorship from Zee or Vedanta may be problematic in terms of the spirit of the JLF.
I’m sympathetic to people who worry about this. The reality is that we’ve created the largest literary festival in the world, and we fly in the greatest minds of the world at huge costs, and put them here on stage for free. And last year a third of a million people, and this year perhaps half a million people will see those writers for free. Whereas if they were to see them in New York or London a gala ticket at every independent festival costs $500. There’s swings and roundabouts with everything in life, and we do that and provide these amazing writers for hundreds and thousands of people for free by corporate sponsorship. And in an ideal world it would be lovely if this was sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Save the Children and Greenpeace. But it ain’t gonna happen (laughs). While we would love Amnesty International to be our principal sponsor and the Charbagh brought to you by Greenpeace, and have the Rainbow Warrior Lounge, in the real world— it is going to be a corporate. Not everyone is going to love the corporate who offer us their money.
This year, with demonetisation, Google, Ford, and, I think, British Airways all fell away within the last two months. And had we not got Zee, there’s absolutely no question we would’ve closed. And that’s the reality.
Would you say that what the JLF does, by bringing in diverse minds together, in a sense, mitigates the baggage that corporate sponsorships sometimes tend to carry with them?
All I can say now is that I‘m extremely grateful that Zee is there. We wouldn’t be sitting here talking now, and literally, none of these writers would be here. We’d all be home, or having a drink in a grotty bar somewhere in Hauz Khas Village. It’s that simple. So my main thought here in this difficult time is that I’m incredibly grateful to Zee. I say this with unambiguous warmth in my heart.
Despite this, 2017 is special for JLF. It is in its 10th year. Could you recall some of the high points and some of the low points in your career here?
The low point without question, was the entire meltdown when Salman Rushdie (in 2012), my close friend, idol, and hero was not able to come. And it was an utterly miserable moment when the pitch was overrun by thugs. That said, even that wasn’t without a glimmer of (hope). We got the interview out, Barkha (Dutt) got to interview him via video and it got out to 10 times more people than it would’ve done otherwise. Because it went global … so free speech was upheld, though in a different venue, in a different medium than what we would’ve ideally liked.
High point: well seeing because it has been 10 years, the sense of wonder at it…the fact that we are presenting the greatest writers in the world, the greatest minds all come year after year— Michale Ondaatje, Orhan Pamuk, Tom Stoppard, Tina Brown…all the writers I most worship and grew up wanting to write like and most admired have performed free.
I went to a small school in the North Yorkshire area and I just remember one speaker coming, a critic— and he spoke of the wonders of literature. And at age 17, I remember my skies unfolding, lightning striking (laughs)…this is what we must be doing on an industrial basis to the kids that come here. And there are hundreds of thousands and we are setting their minds alight here.
I suppose the highlights were the various moments when we suddenly realised that this thing had taken off. For the first couple of years, the first days were always empty. And then suddenly took off, and how. It’s grown like a monster in a puranic myth, rising from the deep, with tentacles reaching out now not just to London, but also now to Boulder (US) and Melbourne (Australia).
Jaipur Literature Festival will be held on 11 and 12 February in Melbourne as part of the Asia TOPA 2017 festival