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A five day college

By January 22, 2019No Comments

Source : DNA – JBM


Diggi Palace, the venue of the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival (ZeeJLF), is around 18 acres – not a small area, but not too large either. On the five days of the festival, however, you might be forgiven for thinking that it’s much bigger, that it encapsulates, in a manner of speaking, an entire universe.

Much of this has to do with the sheer multitude of ideas and knowledge – past, present and the possible – that the festival brings together and opens up to its audience. Discussions, freewheeling and dispassionate mostly, cover a plethora of subjects – from history and politics, to economics and geopolitics, social issues, popular culture, films and high art, literature, music, science, technology, medicine and so on. Then there are the many geographies that the festival gets its speakers and audiences from, that further adds to its quality of expansiveness.

The old and the young; men, women and those in between; the famous and the little-known; the rich and the poor; the city sophisticate and the village gauche; the scholarly and the not-so-interested in books – the human diversity at ZeeJLF can be immensely educative for those with the patience and imagination to listen – somewhat like the ‘university’ that William Dalrymple, the festival’s co-director, often likens it to. (Again, like the university, the festival is remarkably egalitarian. Anyone is free to walk in – for free, if they register a day before the festival begins – and anyone is free to ask questions.)

It’s a testimony to the imaginative programming by the three who helm ZeeJLF – Dalrymple, his co-director, Namita Gokhale, and Sanjoy K Roy, ZeeJLF’s producer – who manage, winter after winter, to draw the very best of writers, artists, scholars, and public intellectuals from across India and the globe to Jaipur.

The Sci-fi train

This year, for instance, Nobel prize winner in chemistry, Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, will deliver the keynote address on ‘The role of science in today’s world’, a subject that’s of some controversial interest in India today.

Science is a special focus at this year’s ZeeJLF, with several sessions on biology, health, medicine, technology and the Web, astrophysics, and the like. Notable among the speakers here are two Indian-origin scientists – Priyamvada Natarjan, professor of astronomy at Yale University and author of a book on black holes and other cosmological imponderables; and Sharad Paul, a skin cancer specialist in New Zealand who believes that our genes contain the secret of good health, and also has a line of sunblock creams named after himself.

Genes and what they reveal are also what engage David Reich, the Harvard scientist who, in a landmark study in 2009, proposed that ancient India comprised two groups of people with divergent genetic compositions –ANI (Ancestral North Indians) and ASI (Ancestral South Indians), he called them. The study has had interesting fallouts in ancient Indian studies, bolstering the Aryan-Dravidian theory, and that Aryans migrated to India from central Asia. Also attending will be his Harvard colleague Daniel Lieberman, also called the ‘barefoot professor’, because he runs barefoot, having found, during his scientific research into how humans run and how the human anatomy evolved, that it’s the more sensible way to do so.

Lit treasures

It’s the writers – the novelists, poets, essayists, travel writers, etc – who’re the main draw at a literature festival. As with each year, there will be rich crop of these at Jaipur, led by Ben Okri, the Nigerian author poet who won the Booker for his 1991 novel The Famished Road, and is one of the foremost names in post-modern, post-colonial writing. Besides, there are two Pulitzer fiction prize winners – Andrew Sean Greer who won this year for ‘Less’, and Colson Whitehead, who won last year for ‘The Underground Railroad’.

But there are others, as eminent, such as Alexander McCall Smith, the prolific British creator of The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series of novels; Irvine Welsh, the writer of ‘Trainspotting’; and ‘Book Thief’ author Markus Zusak. Then there’re Yann Martel of ‘Life of Pi’ fame and Jeffrey Archer, the British peer and bestselling author of pulp novels such as Kane and Abel, who went to jail for perjury.

Other exciting authors to look out for, if only because we know so little of them in India are Sebastian Barry, the very eminent Irish writer; Alvaro Enrigue, considered one of the finest writers in Spanish today, and Yasmine El Rashidi, the young Egyptian writer of the riveting ‘The Battle for Egypt: Dispatches from the Revolution’. Among the diaspora, from the US, there’s Amit Majmudar, the first ‘poet laureate’ of the American state of Ohio, also a radiologist, who joins Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Amitava Kumar, and Vikram Chandra. ZeeJLF is, increasingly, not just about English –bhasha writing finds a significant presence, led this year by such heavyweights as Perumal Murugan, Narendra Kohli, Benyamin, Jayant Kaikini, Uday Prakash, and Paramita Satpaty.

Keeping it real

Each year, a significant chunk of sessions at ZeeJLF are taken up by issues and people who’ve been in the news, both from within India and without. It’s what brings in the eyeballs as speakers – there’s always an agent provocateur among them – make comment that sets the news channels all atwitter.

This year, with general elections coming up, and the Rajasthan elections just past, politics is on every mind. Thus the state’s debonair deputy chief minister Sachin Pilot will hold forth on ‘Democracy, Freedom and the Political Process’ on day one, his party mates Shashi Tharoor and Kapil Sibal will take the dais on others. Interestingly, the ideologues of the ruling dispensation at the centre won’t make much of an appearance in Jaipur, with the notable exception of Ramesh Patenge, editor of Marathi weekly Vivek, considered to be an RSS mouthpiece, who will speak at a session titled ‘Manuvad and Modernity’.

With #MeToo still trending in blips and starts, a whole host of feminists, writers, scholars, female executives who broke the corporate glass ceiling and gender rights activists are among the line-up, with 79-year-old firebrand feminist Germaine Greer as the lead attraction. The session heads indicate discussions on every aspect of the issue – ‘The Shape of Justice: Identifying Gender Violence and Finding Solutions that Fit’, ‘Gendering Change: The Welfare State and Women’s Rights’, ‘Women and Power’, ‘Women and Work’, ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape’, and so on.

What to look forward to at JLF

  • Rajasthan’s Deputy Chief Minister Sachin Pilot will hold fort on a session titled ‘Democracy, Freedom and the Political Process’ on Day 1
  • Notable speakers like Priyamvada Natarjan, Astronomy professor at Yale University, who authored a book on black holes and other cosmological imponderables; and Sharad Paul, a skin cancer specialist in New Zealand, who believes that our genes contain the secret of good health, and also has a line of sunblock creams named after himself, will be present
  • Germaine Greer, 79-year-old firebrand feminist, along with a host of feminists, writers, scholars, female executives who broke the corporate glass ceiling and gender rights activists are among the line-up

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