Minus the drama and the jamboree, the Jaipur Literature Festival this year is a quiet return to the core
The COVID-19 pandemic seems to have stripped the JLF of all its frills. After forced confinement of two years, it was a joy to see, hear, and meet so many other people. The festival may have changed in countless big and small ways, but it has retained its indomitable spirit.
After braving near-stampede-like situations countless times in the earlier editions of the Jaipur Literature Festival, I never thought I’d ever find an empty seat at this fabled mela. So you can imagine my surprise when I found several at every session yesterday, the first day of JLF 2022.
I actually sat and listened to the speakers talk on stage without anyone elbowing me or stepping on my feet. Emboldened by this new sense of decorum, I even dared to leave my seat once to grab a glass of water and returned to find it vacant, waiting. I wept tears of joy.
Much like all of us and everything we know, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed “the greatest literary mela on earth” too. This year, the festival has gone hybrid and therefore the organisers used the opportunity to extend it for 10 days instead of the usual five. The first half, from 5 to 9 March, was conducted online, with speakers from across the world talking about their books, lives, literature, the new world, and everything else in between. Women dominated the illustrious line-up. Some of the most notable included Indra Nooyi, Nayantara Sehgal, Sonali Bendre Behl, Lilly Singh, and Usha Uthup.
The second half of the festival, from 10 to 14 March, will be conducted both on-ground and online, ensuring that people who cannot attend the physical event can still access the many spirited and insightful conversations that the JLF has come to be celebrated for. Another stark difference that makes JLF 2022 stand apart from all its previous editions is the change of venue. This year, the festival has left the quaint and charming Diggi Palace, its home of 14 years, and moved to Hotel Clarks Amer.
The atmosphere at the on-ground festival is rife with several theories floating by, questioning the migration. Each told more confidently than the previous one. All of these reasons could be true. Or maybe none of them are. But the change of venue has completely altered the face of the festival and its feel. When I first heard about it, I was heartbroken. Because as equipped as Clarks might be, it has none of the heritage, the rootedness, and the distinct character of Diggi Palace. I feared that this decision would reduce the festival to just another seminar—sterile, impersonal, and business-like—that are conducted by the dozen across the country each month.
A lot of my fears did come true. JLF 2022 is not half as colourful or picturesque as the dreamy festival of my teens. Whatever little they have done this year to give it the local vibe—the decoration, the Rajasthani memorabilia, the stalls—feels forced and uninspired. So much so that I, who has an entire folder overflowing with JLF photos, didn’t click any.
But. The JLF this year is more accessible than any other that I have attended. And I have been going for way too many years to count. The crowd is sparse and hence manageable. It could be because of the lingering post-pandemic fear, or the change of venue, or the fact that this year, the JLF is actually focused on writers and books, and has not given in to making itself a big Bollywood parade just to pull crowds, as it had been doing for the last few years. The biggest names on the roster for the on-ground festival this year are Manoj Bajpayee, Neena Gupta, and Anupama Chopra. It could also be because entry to the festival is no longer free. If you are a school student, it will cost you Rs. 100 per person. If you’re not, it’s Rs. 200 for one ticket.
The prices of food and drinks are also not exorbitant, like always. The stalls are fewer, less gimmicky. The festival bazaar is tucked away in a corner, so you can skip it entirely if you’re not in the mood to browse or shop. Also, it helps that some of the halls are air-conditioned, considering it is mid-March and not late January.
Unsurprisingly, Indians are in an overwhelming majority at the JLF this year both on stage and on the ground. This is a first for a carnival that is known to attract the most formidable names from the world of writing, publishing, reading, and music across varied geographies.
The pandemic seems to have stripped the Jaipur Literature Festival of all its frills. Minus the drama and the jamboree, this year is a quiet return to the core. A festival by literature enthusiasts for fellow aficionados. After forced confinement of two years, it was a joy to see, hear, and meet so many other people. And this joy was visible on every face. The festival may have changed in countless big and small ways, but it has retained its indomitable spirit.
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