Jaipur Literature Festival: Literati glitterati weekend in India

Jaipur Literature Festival: Literati glitterati weekend in India

Gear up for the annual book festival that's putting royal Rajasthan on the international literary map this week
Jaipur Literature Festival
Author and former UN Under-Secretary General Shashi Tharoor in conversation with Tehelka's Shoma Chaudhury a few months before he became India's Minister of State for External Affairs.

The gates at next week's Jaipur Literature Festival are about to burst open. Attendance for this fifth occurrence of the annual event is expected to exceed last year's estimated crowd of 20,000 by at least 30 percent.

Jaipur Literature FestivalFestival director William Dalrymple praises Vikram Seth, the author of "A Suitable Boy," as partly responsible for the range and quality of Indian writers at the Jaipur Literature Festival.The book hungry crowd set to descend upon Jaipur's Diggi Palace are excited for good reason. With a schedule jam-packed with plum international stars, engaging talk sessions and nightly music events, the Jaipur Literature Festival has become one of the most anticipated events on the literary-social calendar. William Dalrymple, the event co-director and the adopted son of India's literary scene, even likens last year's event to Woodstock, as a potentially life-altering event.

"It was wonderful, there really was something in the air," says the author. "The weather was perfect, huge crowds turned up. I know of three or four romances that started that week, and at least one relationship breakdown. It was like Woodstock, people suddenly seeing their lives changing gears."

Last year's festival coincided with the announcement of the Oscar Academy Awards nominations and Vikas Swarup, author of "Q&A" (upon which "Slumdog Millionaire" was based) was on stage alongside veteran poet Gulzar, who wrote the lyrics to the theme song "Jai Ho."

"When the nominations came through we put them on stage and announced it, and of course the whole place exploded. It was one of those fabulous moments when something you'd been working on for ages came to light," says Dalrymple.

Jaipur Literature FestivalIt can get quite squeezed in the Diggi Palace halls, so make sure you find a chair in advance for these talks and sessions.The festival is a literary labour of love for Dalrymple and co-director/curator Namita Gokhale. As the festival is free and open to all and relies on corporate sponsorship, there's no profit motive and indeed, no profit for the pair.

"It does take up about a fifth of my year now, unpaid. We have times when we want to give it up, but the reality is we love it," says Dalrymple.

This year, a number of big international names are slated to appear: Hanif Kureishi, Roddy Doyle, Alexander McCall Smith, Niall Ferguson, Stephen Frears and Tina Brown. There will also be a number of local literary stars: Chetan Bhagat, Shobhaa De and Amit Chaudhari among them. But the festival directors insist the real drawcard of this year's event -- in keeping with its overarching, if unstated, theme of democracy and egalitarianism -- is not the big names, but the sessions featuring Indian language writers, in particular Dalits and those keeping alive the great oral tradition of storytelling.

"There is a sort of accelerated energy happening in India," says Gokhale of the country's literary scene. "There are people writing for the first time and expressing their voices for the first time, in particular some Dalit writers. The thing about the festival is that you have Tina Brown on one hand, and then there are people like Nirmala Putul, a poet who is from a tribe in Chhattisgarh," says Gokhale.

Jaipur Literature FestivalOne of the many sunny, quiet outdoor venues within Diggi Palace.The festival seeks to realign the focus from Indian writing in English towards India's diverse regional-language based literary traditions and give writers in these languages access to larger audiences. Indeed, when asked to select his festival highlights, Dalrymple immediately names Indira Goswami, a tribeswoman from Assam, and Sister Jesme, a former nun from Kerala whose recent book "Amen" lifted the lid on the sexual and psychological abuse she says is rampant in the Catholic church in India.

So what are our top Jaipur Literature Festival picks? From a jam-packed schedule, we most want to see: Om Puri’s sonorous pipes reading from "Tughlaq" (Day 1, 6pm); Mark Tully discussing The Queen’s 'Hinglish' (Day 2, 5pm) and the nightly spoken word and performance poetry sessions.

The Jaipur Literature Festival in the north Indian state of Rajasthan runs from January 21 to January 25 inclusive.

Jaipur, The Pink City

Jaipur is one of the world's top travel destinations for its cultural heritage reminiscential of Indian royalty, with a wealth of things to do, see and buy before or after your chosen festival events.

Jaipur Literature FestivalTravel writer Fiona Caulfield founder of the well-received Love Travel Guides, is launching the "Love Jaipur" guide at the festival. Caulfield recommends sticking to tried and true places. "The bazaars are great fun, but I would recommend going to reputable places if you don't know what you're doing," Caulfield says.

Shopping: Hot Pink, Jaipur's favourite shopping destination in the courtyard of the Hotel Narain Niwas Palace now has a branch at the Amber Fort. Hip interiors burst with wares from top Indian designers and Hot Pink's own fashionable accessories at both locations. Other top options include interior design store AKFD, which fuses modern and traditional design; Anokhi, stocking breezy, well-cut cotton blockprint clothing and homewares; and Neerja for Jaipur’s signature blue pottery. Jaipur is also famous for gems and jewelery, so famous that it can sometimes be a case of buyer beware. Caulfield suggests Amrapali, Gem Palace and Tholia's Gems and Jewels (Tholia Building, MI Road, Jaipur, +91 (0) 141 2372790).

Eating: When it comes to dining, Caulfield recommends a Jaipur institution, LMB, for authentic Rajasthani dishes in the Johari Bazaar of the Old City. "Rambagh Palace is a beautiful place for lunch on the verandah, but my preference is to go there for sunset drinks or dinner," she says. Best chaiwallah for tea? Caulfield recommends Sahu Chaiwallah, on Chauru Rasta in the Old City, near the Shah building. "The secret is the way he cooks the milk for a long time, then boils it on a cold stove, then adds cardamon." Best breakfast? Le Meridien Jaipur, where the breakfast offerings have recently had a makeover thanks to Michelin-starred chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Best lunch? Flow Cafe at Diggi Palace, the venue for the literature festival and which has become the handy, unofficial, shaded hang-out spot and meeting venue.

Jaipur Literature Festival"The bazaars are great fun, but I would recommend going to reputable places if you don't know what you're doing," Fiona Caulfield advises.Where to stay: Top: Apart from Taj's Rambagh Palace, there’s also the Raj Palace, a fantastic, jewel-studded converted royal palace, Samode Haveli, just outside the city, and the sprawling, lush Le Meridien Jaipur. Middle: Caulfield regularly stays at Shahar Palace, one of the city's numerous havelis, or traditional courtyard homes, converted into guesthouses. Other highly recommended stays include Khandela Haveli and heritage hotel Umaid Bhawan. Budget: Karni Niwas is a spotless, friendly and centrally located guesthouse. Other recommended options include Pearl Palace, Arya Niwas and Sunder Palace guest house.

Sightseeing: A heritage walk of Old Jaipur, with Jaipur Walks, is Caulfield's top pick, as is a balloon safari which begins from outside the city. Amber Fort is also a great draw, in particular the nightly sound and light show.