An image of a Bodhi tree surrounded by devotees erected in stone more than two millennia ago in present-day Andhra Pradesh appeared on the screen as Richard Blurton began speaking on the opening day of the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF). In its 16th edition this year, JLF is seeking the aid of art and artefacts like the Amaravati Stupa and authors like the British archaeologist Blurton to extend the intellectual canvas beyond books. Art and also artificial intelligence (AI) have emerged as major mediums that along with literature could collectively alter the way in which cultures are understood and respected.
In the times of the Make in India movement, the screen image of the Amaravati Stupa reminded the international audience of JLF that there was a flourishing construction expertise in ancient India more than two thousand years ago that rivalled Gothic cathedrals in Europe like the Notre-Dame in Paris. “The Amaravati Stupa is an important lynchpin in the story of development in India,” says Blurton, the author of India: A History in Objects, a work that traces history through art and artefacts.
American art history professor Pia Brancaccio is another JLF speaker this year who is using her expertise in early Buddhist art in South Asia to widen the scope of cultural engagement and conversation by a society slowly recovering from the disastrous consequences of a punishing pandemic.
The topic of Brancaccio, who teaches Asian art at the Drexel University in Philadelphia, is the Ajanta and Ellora caves and their illuminating artworks in Maharashtra. Artist Dayanita Singh’s presentation is a new genre—the photo novel. “A photo novel could bridge the world of literature and art,” says Singh about her work, titled Let’s See.
British art historian and curator Katy Hessel, the author of The Story of Art Without Men, documents the life and works of women artists from the 16th century to contemporary times to remind the world of the patriarchy that erased the names of great women artists. A key speaker at JLF, Hessel runs an Instagram account (@thegreatwomenartists), which has celebrated women artists on a daily basis for nearly a decade. Among the major speakers on the opening day of the festival were eminent art critics and historians Gayatri Sinha, the author of SH Raza: Sketching Silence, and B N Goswamy, author of Conversations, a compilation of his columns published over a quarter century. English sculptor Andrew Logan, who founded the Alternative Miss World half-a-century ago to celebrate diversity in art, is yet another acclaimed artist at the JLF this year.
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It’s not only the artists who have made their mark on the JLF sessions. This Far, an artwork made from scrap discards and found objects by Jaipur-based artist-couple Surya and Ritu Singh mounted on the wall outside the Durbar Hall venue of the festival, resonates with the literary event. “The work starts as many nibs that make up the word,” says Ritu Singh in an apparent reference to the use of discarded nibs of pen, the word in this case being erasure, about the absence of women from the world of literature in early times forcing many women writers to adopt the title of anonymous.
Technology, which is rewriting rules of creativity through AI, is another major subject that has garnered many sessions at the JLF’s 2023 edition that has returned to the physical format to its new venue, the Hotel Clarks Amer, after a hybrid edition last year. ThisDay, a cultural storytelling platform by the startup Ekank Technologies, joined the JLF to launch a podcast with entrepreneur-investor Mohit Satyanand to promote cultural, non-fiction storytelling in the country through vernacular languages. “This partnership will help us reach a wider audience who wish to explore art, culture and history through newer avenues of storytelling,” says JLF producer Sanjoy K Roy.
In a world dictated by fast-changing technology, tech morality is a key word among JLF speakers. Australian Toby Walsh, one such speaker, is a who’s who in AI. In Machines Behaving Badly: The Morality of AI published last year, Walsh, a Professor of AI at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, talks about the societal and ethical impacts of trusting how machines might think. His last book was titled It’s Alive! Artificial Intelligence from the Logic Piano to Killer Robots.
In his new book, 2062: The World That AI Made, Walsh argues that “all traces of Homo sapiens will be erased from the Earth, just like almost all traces of our predecessor Homo neanderthalensis have gone”. The human successor, he says, is Homo digitalis, “the evolution of the genus Homo into digital form”, predicting the world’s artificially intelligent future.
Walsh writes in 2062: The World That AI Made that most experts in AI believe there is a 50% chance the world will have created machines that can think as well as humans by 2062.
“The (Swedish-born) philosopher Nick Bostrom predicted in 2015 that ‘in the long-term artificial intelligence will be a big deal—perhaps the most consequential thing humanity ever does’. If he is right, we ought to explore those consequences,” says Walsh.
In The Great Tech Game: Shaping Geopolitics and the Destinies of Nations, author Anirudh Suri, managing partner of India Internet Fund, a technology-focused venture capital fund, describes technology as the new “wealth of nations”.
Delivering his brief keynote address, Tanzanian-origin British writer Abdulrazak Gurnah, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2021, gave enough hints of, unlike machines, what writers are thinking about in the contemporary world. Speaking on writing as a form of resistance, Gurnah, the author of Afterlives, Paradise and By the Sea, said, “Writing, above all, is about upholding the ideas and beliefs that we think are important and that we value. When someone says, ‘writing as resistance’, these are the kinds of things I think of rather than fighting tyrants or necessarily standing on platforms making powerful speeches to energise people; but more the ordinary, mundane business of not forgetting, of making sure that what is important is always kept alive.”
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Among the key speakers at JLF this year are Sri Lankan writer Shehan Karunatilaka, who won the Booker Prize 2022 for his new novel, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, Booker Prize-winning British author Bernardine Evaristo, Portuguese writer Ana Filomena Amaral, winner of the Los Angeles Book Review prize for her novel, Vaulted Home: Those Who Cheated Death, and Geetanjali Shree, who won the International Booker Prize last year for the English translation (Tomb of Sand) of her Hindi novel, Ret Samadhi.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer