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Posted at: Jun 10, 2018, 12:12 AM; last updated: Jun 10, 2018, 12:12 AM (IST)

Bollywood power at London Jaipur Literature Festival

Hasan Suroor
Bollywood power at London Jaipur Literature Festival
MP Shashi Tharoor in conversation with Namita Gokhale, JLF founder, in London.

Hasan Suroor in London

It might be billed as a literary event, but it is Bollywood power that’s pulling in the crowds at the London edition of Zee Jaipur Literature Festival with Shabana Azmi and Javed Akhtar proving by far the biggest draw. They’re appearing at several sessions, both together and individually, and apparently all are sold out. Shashi Tharoor is the other star of the show featuring in at least four programmes, including one on that other great South Asian passion: cricket, examining how feelings of nationalism stirred by cricket are fanning political tensions in South Asia.

The Bollywood ‘power couple’, as the festival brochure describes the Azmi-Akhtar, and Tharoor are among more than 100 writers, academics, artistes and critics gathered at the British Library for the three-day event being advertised, with a touch of breathless hard-sell, as the “greatest literary show on earth.”

It kicked off on Friday with an elaborate programme of discussions, interviews and performing arts. Baroness Tessa Blackstone, chairperson of the British Library, described it as a ‘taster’ of South Asia’s cultural and social diversity. The festival’s co-director William Dalrymple called it a “mixed platter of veg and non-veg.” He joked: “There will be veg with meatier stuff thrown in.”

The themes this year are more diverse — ranging from contemporary issues such as the rise of nationalism and the changing role of Commonwealth to Islam and modernity, and Urdu poetry. And it is topped by two of India’s (indeed South Asia’s) biggest national obsessions: Bollywood and cricket. 

“As the world’s economic and geopolitical dynamic undergoes a transformational change, it is the aim of our festival to understand these new paradigm shifts through literature, arts and culture,” a festival spokesman said.

Curiously, for a literary gathering, the focus is more on sexier non-literary issues. Some said they would have liked to hear how Indian publishers and writers view the changing face of mainstream publishing in response to challenges from social media and electronic printing on the one hand, and growing pressure on free speech from nationalistic governments on the other. Gurbir Singh, a blogger from Manchester, was disappointed that “there’s nothing on e-publishing or what’s happening on the social media front in South Asia.”

Namita Gokhale, writer and founder of JLF, said the programme was designed to “investigate and interrogate” ideas and trends. “The festival seeks to celebrate the arts, listen in to writers and thinkers, and investigate and interrogate our ever-changing world,” she said in her inaugural remarks. 

Those who believe that bringing JLF to London is a PR gimmick drew a response from Sanjoy K. Roy, of Teamwork Arts which has curated the festival. “London is the capital of the arts world and it was important for us to set up a platform here to bring together authors to debate and discuss, and most importantly to dissent. It is through dissent that we create some kind of dialogue, and have a sense of everybody’s point of view,” he said. 

For Dalrymple, being at British Library was like coming back home, reviving memories of the days he spent researching books on India. “It is the perfect venue for our festival. I worked on my first two books on Indian history here and it evokes happy memories,” he said.

This year the London JLF is celebrating its fifth anniversary, and whether by design or coincidence, there’s a refreshing change with some of the “usual suspects” giving way to some new faces and voices. Subhas Chandra Bose’s daughter, Anita Bose Pfaff, is making a rare appearance in a discussion on Ashis Ray’s book, “Laid to Rest — The Controversy Over Subhas Chandra Bose’s Death”, claimed to be the first definitive account of the circumstances of his death in an air crash.

Among newer voices is Saif Mahmood, a young Urdu critic and author of a forthcoming book on Delhi and its great poets (‘Beloved Delhi: A Mughal City and her Greatest Poets’), in conversation with Javed Akhtar and Shabana Azmi about the books they’re publishing about their respective fathers - Jan Nisar Akhtar and Kaifi Azmi.

But, critics claimed that the festival still remained very much a cosy club of networkers. Organisers, however, dismissed the allegation as unfair and unfounded insisting that the effort always was to pick the best people. 

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