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India’s largest lit fest ends on a high

The ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival, advertised as the world’s largest free literary festival, attracted 2,45,000 footfalls over the five days ending 25 January – the highest ever in the festival’s eight-year history. The over-crowded festival compromised the quality of experience for many visitors who had to either share crowded standing space, or be disappointed as gates were closed for certain popular sessions.

This was no surprise as the festival saw a doubling of international visitors from 50 countries, according to an official statement, and a 40% increase in students attending the festival held at Diggi Palace in Jaipur.

While more than 300 authors (up from 240 in 2014), and 140 musicians participated, only a few authors dominated audience’s attention, while many struggled to attract enough numbers to their sessions. The crowds struggled to secure space even as 209 sessions were spread across 10 venues, including two new locations Amer Fort and Hawa Mahal. The festival also took some authors to schools in Jaipur, with 50 sessions taking place over two weeks.

– Electric sessions with Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam and Sir. V.S. Naipaul rocked the festival on the fourth day

– 40% increase in students visiting the Festival, with average age of visitor being 21 years old
– Dates for next year announced as 21-25 January 2016
– Festival set to travel to London, UK and Boulder, USA later this year

The sessions that attracted the most cheer and crowd were by Nobel laureate Sir V.S.Naipaul, and by former President of India, Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam. The two speakers drew the biggest audience at the Rajnigandha Front Lawns with 5,000 excited book-lovers per event. Another sweet-heart of the crowd was legenday Bollywood actor Waheeda Rehman who launched her book Conversations With Waheeda Rehman, written by Nasreen Munni Kabir.

Similar crowds were also attracted by Bollywood actor Sonam Kapoor who was in Jaipur to launch film critic Anupama Chopra’s new book: The Front Row: Conversations on Cinema.

Anupama Chopra and Sonam Kapoor

Other highlights over the five days included Man Booker Prize winner Eleanor Catton, renowned travel writer Paul Theroux, Naseeruddin Shah and Shabana Azmi as well as leading novelists Sarah Waters, Kamila Shamsie, Amit Chaudhuri and Eimear McBride.

This year the Festival awarded three prizes, including the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, which was won by Jhumpa Lahiri, the Ojas Art Award which was presented to Bhajju Shyam and Venkat Raman Singh Shyam, as well as the Khushwant Singh Memorial Prize for Poetry which was awarded to poet Arundhathi Subramaniam for her work When God is a Traveller.

However, the highlight of the festival was its programme that brought together a plurality of speakers from across the political, social, religious, artistic, and national divide, to create a cultural forum for discussion.

The festival also championed freedom of creative expression with daily drawings from DNA newspaper’s Chief Cartoonist, Manjul – prompting discussion and debate over the rights and responsibility of writers and artists in the current climate.

The concluding debate of the festival was titled “Culture is the New Politics” featuring Suhel Seth, Rajiv Malhotra, Arshia Sattar and Shazia Ilmi. The audience were also polled on the debate during the event, with 55.7% agreeing that culture is the new politics.

Encouraged by this year’s success, the organizers have decided to add two further editions of JLF across the world: first at the Southbank Centre in London this May, and then a third JLF festival in Boulder, Colorado, US in the autumn. The international outposts of the JLF festivals will be produced by Teamwork Arts, in addition to the 21 other festivals they produce in 11 different countries each year.

“Another year over and the next one just begun,” says Namita Gokhale, author and co-Director of the festival. “My head is already teaming with ideas, themes, concepts for next year. 2016 will be our best yet!”

Not wishing to rest, William Dalrymple, author and co-Director of the festival, is looking forward to the next year. “We already have Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan, Noam Chomsky, A L Kennedy and Thomas Piketty confirmed for next year.”

Sanjoy Roy, Managing Director of Teamwork Arts, Producer of the Festival, said, “We have seen a record footfall across the five days.”

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