By Tolu Ogunlesi
In 2006, the Jaipur Literature Festival kicked off in India, featuring eighteen writers and an audience of about a hundred. Six years later the festival has become, in the words of Founder and Co-Director Namita Gokhale, “the largest free, unticketed literary festival in the world” with more than 30,000 visitors in 2010.
The fact that there are no entrance fees may play a role in the impressive (by Indian standards) visitor numbers. But at a panel discussion on Indian literature at the Frankfurt Book Fair, Gokhale confessed that she “[doesn’t] have a clue why it’s so big.” She thinks the internet may be playing a role in the enlargement of the literary community (readers establishing connections online via blogs and social media) and in creating publicity for book events.
Publisher Urvashi Butalia adds that it was inspiring to see so many people attending a book festival where there are “no other forms of entertainment.”
Jaipur stands out for the prominence it gives to literature in local languages; as many as half of the fair’s guest writers write in Indian languages. This may also account for the popularity of the festival, in a country where the number of speakers of Hindi, a local language, is 4 times the English-speaking population, and where as many as 22 local languages each have more than 1 million speakers.
Next year’s visitors (20-24 January, 2012) will attend readings and discussions by a wide range of local and international authors and academics: political scientist Sunil Khilnani, musicologist Mukund Lath, screenwriter Madan Gopal Singh, and foreign fiction writers Annie Proulx, Ben Okri and Michael Ondaatje are some of the 100-plus speakers already confirmed for the festival.