At the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) this past week, I sat next to young men of modest means, probably barely in their twenties, not so nattily dressed and, on the other side, someone straight out of central casting from Oxford or Cambridge complete with the stereotypical tweed, while a giggling high schoolgirl in the front row peered at a boy on whom she probably had a crush. Celebrate the audience diversity at the JLF which, after many years of planning to attend, I finally managed to.
This motley crew listened to panels ranging from the recent Indian elections that propelled Modi to Delhi, to the centuries old Art of Puppeteering, to a sweeping retrospective of five centuries of ‘money.’
One thing I watched for was the extent to which JLF’s founding democratic ethos from almost a decade ago – festival to be open to everyone and remain completely free – had remained intact despite the rather dramatic rise in its popularity. Sanjoy Roy of Teamwork, the entity that puts together the JLF, told me that at one point this past weekend, they were handling 25,000 people every hour!
Just to be clear, the challenge here is that as the masses surge into JLF, eager for substantive engagement, it’s not easy to maintain a high quality discourse, nor to manage flows of people into and out of the facility, maintaining security and the festival’s fun-and-good-conversation ethos. And the organizers are adamant that they don’t want to charge for access, as it will mean effectively limiting access to those who can pay.
Massive crowds notwithstanding, I found ample good conversation, exciting ideas in the air, and disparate folks mingling freely, sometimes in structured fashion (e.g. in pre-defined panels) and often in unstructured ways (e.g. serendipitously during open seating meals).
Of course, there were limits to ‘democracy.’ Not everyone of thousands can have access to the exactly the same experience. For example, there is a separate authors’ area where we were shielded from the bustle of the crowds. There’s another space where fine food and drink are freely available for select guests, including the authors, but others must jostle each other in the non-cordoned off areas. That can be fun, I suppose, but probably gets old quickly. When ‘rock star’ President Kalam showed up, all bets to democracy were off, all mobility ceased, as he bathed in the crowd’s adulation. And so on.
JLF – Quite a contribution to society’s intellectual fabric. Well done JLF team!
(Pictures below show the ‘gate’ through which all must enter, featuring ‘Free Entry’ prominently; on the podium in Char Bagh, one of the five venues on which parallel events occurred; and a view of the audience at Char Bagh from afar)