Talks by Manisha Koirala, Germaine Greer, Venki Ramakrishnan and more; here's a preview of Jaipur Lit Fest 2019
From science writing, climate change, historical fiction and non-fiction to mental health and storytelling for general well-being, this year’s showcase at the JLF is much larger than before
Join Shashi Tharoor as he discusses his #Tharoorisms in conversation with Mihir Sharma. Or meet Venkatraman ‘Venki’ Ramakrishnan, the structural biologist, who was one of the Noble Prize awardees in Chemistry in 2009, as he discusses ‘The Role of Science in Today’s World’ with a poetry recitation by British poet Ruth Padel. Or listen to actor Manisha Koirala talk about her journey of being a cancer survivor and penning the book, Healed: How Cancer Gave Me a New Life. If all this sounds like a heavy dose of science, then head to the For Abba, With Love rendezvous with Shabana Azmi where she will speak about her ‘abba’, father Kaifi Azmi and his poetry. If you are a Gulzar fan, then take tips from the father-daughter duo of Gulzar and Meghna Gulzar about how they work together as creative professionals.
Or, you could even join the discussion ‘Eleven Gods and a Billion Indians’, with sports writer Boria Majumder, as he reveals interesting facts about the Indian cricket team. Now in its 12th edition, ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) is set to host all these eminent speakers and other distinguished authors at Diggi Palace, through the Republic Day weekend this month. This year, JLF has curated an eclectic line-up of nearly 300 writers, speakers and creative professionals from India, and across the globe.
“Every year, we try to increase the length and breadth of the programme, and this year, we have everything from arts and intelligence to genetics,” informs festival producer, Sanjoy K Roy. He adds, “We have broadbased to give the kind of knowledge that JLF is known as a platform for. The majority of our participants are in the age group of 20-35, it’s a young audience, so it’s our responsibility to give them a dimension to everything — the environment, travel and tourism — all of which are a part of the festival.”
Micro-macro view In line with the organisers’ — Namita Gokhale, William Dalrymple and Sanjoy’s ideas — the inaugural session, Imagining Our Worlds, will also feature a talk by Venki Ramakrishnan, the structural biologist and Nobel laureate. Venki penned his first book, Gene Machine: The Race to Decipher the Secrets of the Ribosome, a compelling account of his race to discover the inner workings of biology’s most important molecule — the ribosome. However, at the inaugural address, the biologist hopes to discuss some pertinent topics related to science in the evolving digital age. He offers, “Science and innovation have generated huge wealth, and are the reason we live twice as long as a century ago. I will talk about how, in an era of fake news and all sorts of irrational beliefs that can be harmful, science is more important than ever, because it is evidence-based.”
The other session that Venki will be a part of is the ‘Gene Machine and the Culture of Science’. He will be in conversation with Priyamvada ‘Priya’ Natarajan, who is a professor of astronomy and physics at Yale University and is the author of Mapping the Heavens: The Radical Scientific Ideas That Reveal The Cosmos. This session will focus on Venki’s book and why he wanted to chronicle his journey. When asked about his thoughts on how science writing has evolved and if the storytelling format works, he says, “We live in a golden age of popular science books. However, I am biased. I still think it is important for scientists to tell their own stories to a larger public, partly because as humans, we tend to think of everything as a story, with good and bad characters.” Venki, who will serve as President of the Royal Society in London till late 2020, has no time to pen another book, but he admits that he has a few biological themes in mind: “One of them is about how and why animals evolved to die, and why species have such different lifespans.”
Apart from the Nobel laureate’s sessions, a few other discussions that include science-related topics are ‘Imagine A World Without Bees’, ‘Mapping the Heavens’, ‘Northern Lights’, ‘Climate Change: A Call To Action’ and ‘Ancient DNA: Who We Are and How We Got Here’. Though it might seem like science sessions will be the biggest highlights of JLF this year, the organisers believe it’s a balanced line-up. Sanjoy reiterates, “Without the liberal arts, science will not be able to envision, imagine and look at the other, without the sciences, none of the evolution of human forms would exist, so we need to continuously tread with this thought.”
Cooking up new ideas
While sessions on genetics, climate change and bees might be among the biggest draws, the other diametrically opposite yet engaging discussions are about gastronomical and culinary evolution. One of these sessions, ‘Feast’, will be helmed by Claudia Roden. The 83-year-old British cookbook writer, best known as an authority on Middle Eastern cuisine, having penned books like A Book of Middle Eastern Food (1968, which is still in print) and The Food of Spain will be in conversation with Sir Roy Colin Strong, an English art historian, museum curator, writer, broadcaster and landscape designer. “I was asked to speak about ceremonial ‘feasts’. I will speak about my personal experiences in the world of chefs, artisan food producers, and food and wine writers. I will describe some extraordinary experiences
and people,” says Claudia.
When she started writing about food in the 1960s, there were few people who took interest in it, a complete contrast to the food writing revolution that’s happening currently, something that Claudia says is a good thing. “Food was a taboo subject of conversation that caused embarrassment (in the ’60s), and it was only mentioned as a drudge that shackled women to the kitchen,” reveals the octogenarian author. She observes how today things are getting glamorous in the food space. “Now, the interest in food has exploded. Writers find new angles to write such as food memoirs, food and travel pieces and storytelling with recipes. Cooking is glamorous, chefs are venerated, and we have a social elite that has become connoisseurs of food and wine. However, a majority live on ready-tocook meals and fast food,” adds the writer, who says she is keen on discovering more Indian writers at the JLF.
Mind over matter
Other subjects that will be highlighted at JLF this edition are writing on mentalhealth, and the evolution of different forms of storytelling. Although Indians are gradually opening up to discussions on mental health, the literature on it is still inadequate. Thirty-four-year old Shabri Prasad Singh, author of Borderline: Reclaim Your Life is one of the featured speakers, who will talk about mental health. Her session will be a conversation with Shelja Sen, a psychologist and author, and Amrita Tripathi, who runs The Health Collective initiative. “Mental health deserves the day in the sun, and what better a platform than JLF,” says Shabri, a debutante author. The writer herself has coped with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). “At the session, I will be talking about the process of writing my book, how it helped me and how it can help others too, and a little bit about the condition, as most people in India are suffering silently. It may be difficult to delve deep into the matter, but we will try our best to leave people on a positive note, saying there is hope,” adds Shabri.
The other voice that will be prominent at the fest this year is that of Neelesh Misra. Journalist, author, lyricist, scriptwriter and more importantly, the voice behind the Yaadon Ka Idiot Box radio show, Neelesh is also a storyteller who has mentored many up-and-coming writers through the initiative, Mandali. A collection of 20 short stories, by members of the Mandali, was published as the book Storywallah (in 2018). Though Neelesh started telling stories on radio because of sheer serendipity, his pithy, bittersweet and evocative narratives set the storytelling trend on the airwaves. Talking about one of his three sessions, ‘The Storywallah: Writing Across Borders’, Neelesh (who will be in conversation in Amitava Kumar) says, “My career has been diverse and scattered, and I have been privileged to do so many things. One thing that has been common in all is storytelling. This session will encompass a lot of what I do, and my journey.”
When Neelesh started telling stories on radio, the spoken word was not as popular as stations had three cardinal rules that they followed. “Nobody listened to radio at a fixed time, they just tuned in. Second, stations believed radio is only about Bollywood and third, nobody wanted to hear stories in today’s day and age. However, when we started telling stories, it touched a raw nerve. A young person who loves to listen to Badshah or Honey Singh, the same person loves to hear our stories, they thrive and laugh with these,” says Neelesh, who will also talk about the emerging language trends at the ‘Naye Bharat Ki Hindi’ session at the festival.
Going forward, the writer will launch an app called Mic, to help more storytellers have their own channel, and he will travel across the country in The Mic Tour with Neelesh Misra (yet-to-be-launched), an open platform to nurture storytelling. While these are just a few voices from the upcoming edition of the Jaipur Lit Fest, there are several more authors, ideas and subjects to be discovered at the Diggi Palace.
Must-do at JLF 2019
Don’t miss the Jaipur Music Stage that will feature performances by Indian Ocean, DubFX, Jasbir Jassi and Kutle Khan.
Participate in the Heritage Evenings at Jawahar Kala Kendra and Amber Fort. Discover ‘Clothing as Identity’, a showcase of the Kutch region’s weaves and crafts, at the Kendra. On Republic Day, enjoy a performance by Theyyam at Amber Fort, and a Sitar Ensemble performance by Shakir Khan and Azeem Ahmed Alvi with Ustad Akram Khan and Hafeez Ahmed Alvi.
British contemporary visual artist Marc Quinn will feature in the session ‘After Bloodhead’, which will explore what it is to be a human in the world today.
Jaipur-based artist Sandip Gomay will be photographing live human models as inanimate objects or subjects, to make them appear two-dimensional.
The 12th edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival is set to be held between January 24-28, at the Diggi Palace, Jaipur.