The spectacle of books
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"This is literature as spectacle" — the phrase was a common refrain at the recently concluded DSC Jaipur Literature Festival. I heard it uttered, worriedly, by publishers, sceptical that all the song and dance would translate into sales. I heard it from journalists, expounding between complaints of the festival's two dry days (books without booze — the horror). The sentiment was even echoed in the festival's blurb on its promotional materials, cadged from Tina Brown: "The greatest literary show on earth!"
Cynics and worried intellectuals might argue that the JLF's spectacular aspects — the overblown Ashis Nandy controversy (this year's Rushdie incident), the inclusion of celebrities like Rahul Dravid or the Dalai Lama (this year's Oprahs), the parties and the concerts could overshadow the books themselves. Though quieter and better organised, the sixth JLF also drew an increased footfall of nearly two lakh people over five days — and yes, many of them seemed to be there to show off outfits, distribute business cards, pose for photos, or stalk The Wall.
Groups of schoolchildren were seen, notebooks in hand, collecting autographs like butterflies. British author Howard Jacobson joked that, at home, his audience is usually no younger than 90. Here, he'd found a fan club of 14-year-old girls. In some of the festival's wittiest sessions, the comic novelist had the audience chuckling, schoolgirls and retirees alike.
Jacobson may have made questionable jokes, but his sessions were enjoyable because he didn't, like some, court controversy for controversy's sake. For example, moderator and British Conservative MP Kwasi Kwarteng came off as needlessly belligerent towards Anjan Sundaram, tipped as this year's hot non-fiction author, in a panel on Africa. More interesting than the panels focused on vague questions of nations or literature were discussions between a few experts on a particular subject — Indian miniatures, for example — or talks featuring one deeply knowledgeable speaker. And of these sideshow gems, there were many.