Creating Dialogue, Between a Rock and a Hard Place

By Sharaad Kuttan

In his third piece for GRC, Sharaad Kuttan reviews the famed Jaipur Lit Fest, to posit a space in which creativity, culture, and commentary can reside—all to the backdrop of contemporary India’s polarised political landscape. What are the ethical complicities to attending such an event? How does one navigate cultural awareness in an age of woke capitalism? Sharaad shares his experience.

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When I had made-up my mind to attend the bucket-list worthy Jaipur Lit Fest in India I was intrigued to not only witness its famed scale and significance but also to understand how it might negotiate the intensely polarised nature of contemporary Indian politics. Would these conflicts be reflected in the curation of the conversations or would they simply be in the air? But it wasn’t only politics—and the ways it might be presented or emerged—that interested me; I was genuinely excited by the possibility of other conversations—about aesthetic traditions, cultural confluences, personal and collective histories—that were not directly about the big political questions of the day, from Kashmir to the anti-CCA/ NCR protests.

Without fail, on the very last day of the festival I was dragged into these questions via Twitter. Priyamvada Gopal, author of “Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent” issues a challenge to foreign visitors to the JLF: “To people outside India who attend this festival: it is fully funded by and named for an organization that makes the Koch brothers & Fox news look moderate. If you wouldn’t attend a literary festival organized by Fox news, why are you here? Fostering fascism in India is okay?”

I was tagged to this Tweet by a Malaysian who was aware of my presence at JLF and I paused before issuing a series of responses, none of which I myself thought wholly adequate to the central charge of “fostering fascism in India”.

Gopal’s own broadside against foreign attendees was related to a “flash protest” at the Festival grounds that I had mistaken for a musical performance as I whizzed past, pushing my way through the throngs of trendy young people to the next session. It was on the next day, that a moderator (filmmaker Ruchira Gupta) of a session on intersectionality and social struggles issued a protest at the treatment of the students (they were removed by security personnel) who were protesting the Central government’s policies. After making her point about the forcible removal of the protestors and how it was not in keeping with the spirit of JLF, Gupta continued with the session.

I weighed my options on engaging with the charge of complicity, of “fostering fascism in India” by attending the JLF. The best I thought I could do to address my fellow Malaysian was to issue a series of questions:

#JLF2020 Shd peaceful protest been allowed? JLF did have many robust discussions on Indian politics including Kashmir, etc. Wouldn’t it hv been enough to join these? & what if “all sides” of these heated debates were allowed to occupy d grounds? Or is free speech just for comrades?

 

#JLF2020 A session moderator on Intersectionality & social struggles registered her protest at the handling of activists. Could it have been handled better? Note: the Fest explicitly bars such activities. Maintaining civility isn’t easy, means respecting rules.

 

#JLF2020 Does d Fest funding pass the purity test? Does yr current university, & indeed your former uni, pass the purity test? Does the TV station I work for or Twitter pass d purity test? What about the food you eat? Perhaps living ethically is not black & white. #CastingStones

 

#JLF2020 Shd d Fest take a stand on the specific political issues or remain an open platform (& safe space) for all views? Can it justifiably eliminate the more extremist views (even if their views have been mainstreamed)? [Answer] depends on what Fests are for, d curatorial strategy.

 

While one of JLF founders William Dalrymple liked some of my tweets, I did not have a chance to speak to him or others about how they viewed the competing demands on them in a period of heightened social and political antagonism.

Having recently taken on the responsibility of the George Town Lit Fest in Penang, Malaysia I have become acutely aware of the tightrope that Directors walk in keeping all stakeholders on the same page and committed to the platfor—especially when contradictions sharpen.

I don’t mean to evade really important questions of living ethically but I have serious doubts that boycotts or de-platforming or other such strategies are transformative in a positive sense. I am discounting their strategic value, but I think there is also a profound need to continue to engage through listening, immersing, and observing the most difficult of situations from close up.

In fact I believe there were many lectures, panel discussions, and debates that spoke to the complex character of India as a nation, its still vibrant intellectual output and spirit of civility. The 202 sessions could not be for any one attendee a master class in Indian and international conversations—typically 6 sessions ran simultaneously—but it was certainly both spectacle and showcase, so that one left having sampled a range of issues, perhaps alerted to previously unencountered points of view.

The Keynote Address was shared by British mathematician Marcus du Sautoy and Indian classical singer Shubha Mudgal. In her address Mudgal reminds us of the long established inter-disciplinary aesthetic Indian tradition, as did du Sautoy who made a persuasive case for the link between the Sciences and the Humanities. Coming from a country where politicians mindlessly spout acronyms like STEM or wax lyrical about Industry 4.0, the idea that all knowledge systems can contribute to creativity was refreshing and set the tone of the festival for me.

Held at the wonderful private grounds of Diggi Palace (suffering with dignity under the crush of thousands of participants), there was absolutely no compulsion to take in the Fest as a whole. One could quite easily flit in and out of sessions or find a perch or prospect from which to observe people. By the weekend, this became a real challenge, but the brilliant sunshine and cool weather made it all bearable.

Like others, I circled favourites—Peter Frankopan (“The New Silk Roads”) who I have read; Simon Schama (too numerous), who I planned to read, Thant Myint-U (“The Hidden History of Burma”) who I wanted to meet, and Johka Alharti (“Celestial Bodies”) who I had books to deliver to. I also stumbled on writers by chance or sat in sessions I hadn’t intended to. With Former diplomat, writer, and politician Shashi Tharoor displayed in abundance that essential capacity to entertain and engage intellectually, adding another dimension to the festive character of the Festival—made up of music, food, drink, and shopping.

That the book launches (Indian publishers release new titles at this time of the year) drive the programming does not preclude a show of where India’s literary imagination is headed—Varun Mathew’s “The Black Dwarves of the Good Little Bay” conjures a dystopic vision of India caught in the cult of happiness ala Brave New World, or Annie Zaidi’s “Prelude to a Riot” is a sober excavation of the roots of communal violence.

Doubtless at any Festival are literary aspirants seeking words of wisdom—a method, a pep talk, emotional re-assurance. For them there was “Ikigai—the Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life” (Francesca Miralles) or hilarious “Where Does Fiction Come From?” (Elizabeth Gilbert, Leila Slimani, Avni Doshi, Howard Jacobson) or engaging “Biographers Ball” (Simon Schama, Miranda Carter, Supriya Gandhi, Ramie Targoff).

Lectures by Stephen Greenblatt (“The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began and the World Became Modern”) and BN Goswamy (“The Great Mysore Bhagavata”) remind one of the importance of painstaking scholarship that unearths ideas or artistic practices which mirror the evolution of human society and thinking.

These seemingly arcane subjects—Epicurean philosophy or innovative early 19th Century illustrations—are connected to more contemporary concerns reflected in sessions like “The Democracy Index” (Sachin Pilot, Rajdeep Sardesi), “Nationalism, Populism and the Fate of the World” (Simon Schama) or “Kashmir: Of Barbed Wires and Almond Blossons” (Asiya Zahoor, Manoj Joshi, Amitabh Mattoo) if only we seek them, because embedded in each is a sense of our place in the world as well as that of Others.

Was I better off catching JLF this year? I was. Was the world better off? The jury can’t be convened quite yet.

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Notes:
Sharaad tweets (a lot) at @SharaadKuttan
Jaipur Lit Fest Sessions are available on youtube.