The Jaipur Literature Festival has often been called a tamasha, the accusation suggesting trivialisation or commercialisation of literature. But here’s a vote in favour of some tamasha, which, frankly, is what makes the festival such a hit, as well as fun.
This year’s edition of the festival had ample pull right from Day 1, not only because of the generous line-up of film stars — guaranteed crowd-pullers — but also when a discussion on VS Naipaul’s book, A House for Mr Biswas, ended up moving the Nobel winner to tears, spurring his wife to step up immediately to wipe her husband’s tears — with eyes firmly on the audience. An encore followed on Saturday. Pure tamasha, but around 6,000 people turned up to witness it!
Girish Karnad revealing that he was ‘stroked’ to get into the mood of an affectionate husband by Shabana Azmi, who quietly rubbed her foot against his to get him to emote for a scene, had the crowd in splits, while a cookbook launch by Vikas Khanna had hundreds of girls swooning. Cookbooks at litfests? Unheard of!
What about serious literature discussions then? Across the garden was a parallel session on “Is commerce of literature killing good writing?”.
But hey, where were the crowds? Jostling for foot space at Devdutt Pattanaik’s session on “The Power of Myth”, where he had the audience eating out of his hands as he explained subjectivity and firmly put logic and mythology in separate boxes.
Waheeda Rehman said nothing of consequence during her session, and nobody expected her to, but even before it started, listeners were cramped under a leaky tent, braving the rain and cold, clapping wildly as she stepped onto the stage with a popular song from Guide playing in the background. Gay and lesbian sex was openly talked about at another jam-packed session, where most had no clue who Sarah Waters is, but still listened with rapt attention. The foreigners waited patiently for a discussion on Indo-Pak relations, hoping not only to be enlightened, but gathering some masala as well.
If busy economists Arvind Panagariya and Bibek Debroy took time to travel to Jaipur, the ‘tamasha’ carried on well into the evenings, when Naseerudin Shah and Shabana Azmi read out Manto and poetry.
The over two lakh people who throng the festival every year are not all literature buffs, but they attend several sessions, mostly because they are witty and vigorous interactions between the panelists and the audience on topics that include sex, religion, films, and A House for Mr Biswas.
Would staid, academic debates on literature attract similar crowds, even if they were conducted on colourful premises?
So what’s wrong in some fun if it encourages participants to walk to the book store in the middle of the venue and buy a few books each, even if out of curiosity? Would we rather have empty chairs—a la science congress—in the interest of the purists, or lakhs thronging a literature fest, and maybe a few hundred going back as book lovers?