Jaipur Lit Fest: Lanes of nostalgia show glimpses of prestigious PEN conference 

Jaipur Literature Festival has become one of the most prestigious literary festivals of India in 14 years. It reminds of PEN conference of writers and scholars organised in Jaipur way back in 1945

Jaipur Lit Fest: Lanes of nostalgia show glimpses of prestigious PEN conference 

Prakash Bhandari

In fourteen years, the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) has become one of the most prominent literary festivals of India and in the whole of Asia. The JLF has become a big brand and it has grown as a multi-dimensional event of freeedom of expression. The event's venue, the Diggi Palace serves as a fitting setting for the literature's mega show. But 75 years ago, the Pink City had the honour of hosting the first-ever literature jamboree when it hosted the PEN conference at the Pink City's Town Hall, which later served as the Vidhan Sabha after Independence when Jaipur became the Capital of Rajasthan.

The PEN conference-the conference of poets, essayists and novelist was organised at Jaipur in October 1945.

International PEN, is an international organisation of writers. The original PEN was founded in London in 1921 by the English novelist John Galsworthy, and it has since grown to include writers worldwide. The name PEN is an acronym standing for “poets, playwrights, editors, essayists, and novelists.” International PEN promotes international intellectual exchanges and goodwill among writers. It promotes freedom of expression for all writers regardless of their nationality, race, or religion, or of the - system under which they live. PEN is especially active in defending and supporting writers who are being harassed, persecuted, or oppressed by their government. The organisation also bestows literary awards, sponsors translations of works written in obscure or neglected languages, holds conferences on current politico-literary topics, and publishes pamphlets and newsletters.

It was an Indian couple-the Wadias- Sophia and BP Wadia who founded the All India Centre of the International PEN in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1930 and launched two journals, Sophia studied in Paris, London and New York. In 1927, she met BP Wadia, an Indian theosophist on tour to European countries, was influenced by his philosophy and married him in 1928. The next year, she went to India with her spouse and got involved in his activities. The Wadias founded several branches of the United Lodge of Theosophists in various places in Europe and founded the first Indian branch in Mumbai in 1929. She came in contact with Sir Mirza Ismail, who was the Dewan of the Mysore state and later became the Prime Minister of the Jaipur state.

Sophia received the patronage of the ruler of Mysore and the Maharaja of Mysore helped her in setting up the Indian Institute of World Culture in 1945 at Basavanagudi, near Bengaluru.

The friendship of the Wadias with Sir Mirza Ismail helped her in receiving the patronage of the Maharaja of Jaipur Sawai Man Singh. Sir Mirza, who is considered the builder of the modern Jaipur was able to convince the Maharaja that Jaipur which had started receiving both inland and foreign tourists in the forties had the potential of becoming a conference destination. It was with this idea that Sir Mirza Ismail with the help of Sophia Wadia organised the Indian edition of PEN which was also called the all-India Writer's conference that was held from October 20 to 22,1945.

The JLF has now become a fountainhead of ideas and human expression on topics that cover all aspects of human life. Many eminent guest speakers and personalities from all over India and across the world also attend this Festival. The Festival gives promising writers an opportunity to showcase their writing.

But way back in 1945, Jaipur hosted such big names as the English author and writer E M Foster, Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru, Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan, Sarojini Naidu and R J Oulde,another British writer.

It was the first conference where scholars of Assamese, Bangla, English,Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Maithili, Malayalam, Marathi, Oriya, Punjabi, Sanskrit,Sindhi, Tamil, Telugu and Urdu read out in English the trends in their respective languages. It was for the first time that the leading Indian language experts were invited at the expense of the Maharaja of Jaipur to speak about their languages.

This kind of patronage to Indian language authors was given for the first time and the best and the knowledgeable were invited to speak at a forum which was the first and most authentic platform that was provided by Jaipur. I remember Pandit Nehru, Sarojini Naidu and Dr S Radhakrishnan and EM Foster, the British laureate were treated as the royal guests.

The PEN conference was, in fact, a symposium of Indian languages and the symposium was arranged alphabetically, as a result, Urdu came last according to the alphabetical order and it came as the last language after Telugu as there was no language which began with Z. This caused resentment among the Urdu writers and authors and they felt as if Urdu was insulted and they created an uproar and the organisers had to offer a lot of explanation to pacify the Urdu authors and writers that there was no intention to insult the language.

Thus , it was the first conference where the language experts questioned the treatment meted out to the Urdu language. Prof Rashid Ahmed Siddiqui of Aligarh Muslim University read out the trends in Urdu 73 years ago. Following the controversy, he was heard with rapt attention as he spoke about the trends in his paper which was in English.

Similarly, Nilmani Phukan spoke about the trends in the Assamese language then and later Kazi Abdul Wadud, who hailed from Dhaka in the undivided India who was known then as the fire-brand Bangla writer spoke on the Bengali language.

Jayant Krishna H Dave in Gujarati, Ram Kumar Verma,who was a teacher in Saugor University spoke about Hindi language, V K Gokak in Kannad, C Kunkan Raja in Malyalam,M D Atalekar in Marathi, Kali Charan panigrahi in Oriya,Madan Gopal in Punjabi,R N Dandekar in Sanskrit, Lalchand A Jagtiani in Sindhi. M K Jambunathan in Tamil, C Narayan Rao in Telegu spoke about the trends in their respective languages. What was heartening was all the speakers tried to explain the trends in their respective languages in English to enable the delegates understand better.

There are not many living persons now who attended the conference which was restricted to scholars and the Nobles of the Jaipur state.

Those were the years when the freedom movement was at its peak and inviting two noted Congress activists like Sarojini Naidu and Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru for the PEN conference was a risk that the Maharaja took. This would have irked the British rulers as even the princes were under the direct control of the British and the Viceroy kept the knowledge of all the activities of the rulers. The two political invitees Naidu and Nehru were personal friends of Sir Mirza Ismail and so was Sir Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan. Both Nehru and Naidu were members of the Constituent Assembly. When India became independent, Nehru became the country's first Prime Minister and later Radhakrishnan became the country's second president and Sarojini Naidu, the governor of Uttar Pradesh.

Sophia Wadia, her husband B P Wadia and Prof M D Atlekar, a professor in Bombay's Wilson College were the people who selected authors and scholars for the programme. who also introduced the conference and its theme to the delegates.

It was in this conference that the Nightingale of India Sarojini Naidu recited some of her patriotic poems that aroused nationalist feelings so much so that several delegates proposed that her patriotic poems should be translated in various Indian languages and the translated version should be recited in the political rallies against the British rule and also should be sung in the Prabhat Pheries taken out during the wee hours to nationalist feelings among the citizens.

What was amazing was all these were done in the precincts of the City Palace at the Town Hall that was enough to cause immense damage to the Maharaja in the eyes of the British rulers.But the show went on.

Sarojini Naidu also read his love poems to add colour to the session and she was heard with rapt attention as she recited her love poems. She read a selection of love poems from The Golden Threshold and also read her poem "A Rajput's Love Song".

When Pandit Nehru came to take part in the conference, it was the first meeting between the Maharaja and Nehru. Nehru had come with his daughter Indira Gandhi and were made to stay at Rambagh Palace. In the morning the literary sessions were on and the evenings were for cocktail and dinner. Pandit Nehru also used this visit to meet his wife Kamla Nehru's sister Dr K N Kathju's wife. Indira Gandhi used to spend her day at the Kathju's house as Pandit Nehru would attend the academic session at the Town hall.

Pandit Nehru read pages from his was for the first time that the leading lights of the various Indian language could hear Nehru speaking through his book which till today remains a great work of historical literature. Nehru treated his audience with flourish as he read from essays and reflections,philosphical surmises and deep prose scattered among historical facts.

Nehru avoided to air his political views during the conference and chose to talk about his observation on the various aspects of the Indian history.

He also talked about the idea of the book Discovery of India and he wrote the book when imprisoned at the Ahmednagar Fort from 1942 to 1946, to keep him away from the political limelight. Forced to this dreary lonesomeness, Nehru discovered time to re-live his creative passions.

Jawaharlal Nehru decided to pen down his thoughts and experiences living in the country he fiercely loved. He dedicated the book to the prisoners of jail.

This journey of discovery of his beloved nation became the nation’s most magnificent historical treatise ever written.

E.M.Foster was the biggest literary name that came to Jaipur for the PEN conference. Foster had lived in India for a decade and he finished his masterpiece, “A Passage to India”, just over a decade later.

Foster read from his book A Passage To India that took him 11 years to write. At the time that he embarked on A Passage, Forster was at a curious point in his creative life. All of his other published novels were written in a flurry between 1905 and 1910.

He also talked about an Indian Muslim to whom Forster taught Latin in England.

One of India's most distinguished 20th-century scholar Sir Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan earned his Knighthood 10 years before he came to Jaipur for the conference. Radhakrishnan rose to become the country's President.

Radhakrishnan spoke about Advaita Vedanta where he defended Hinduism against uninformed Western criticism. The bridge builder between Indi and the West Radhakrishnan. He also described what impelled him to make a study of Hinduism and find out what is living and what is dead.He also spoke about Swami Vivekanand who was his inspiration.

The JLF has been graced by such luminaries like Salman Rushdie, V.S Naipaul, Paul Theroux, Vikram Seth, Pico Iyer, Michael Ondaatje, Hari Kunzru, Tariq Ali, Ahmed Rashid, Patrick French, Shashi Tharoor, Shobha De, Kiran Desai, Kamila Shamsie, Amit Chaudhuri, Eimer McBride and several others.

But, 75 years ago Jaipur hosted E M Foster and the best literary Indian figures like Sarojini Naidu, Nehru and Radhakrishnan along with the best signatures of the Indian languages.

This conference had no support of any sponsors and was entirely funded by the Maharaja who knew nothing about literature,but trusted by the advise of Prime Minister Sir Mirza Ismail that hosting an event like PEN would make Jaipiur a conference and festival destination and the JLF is the best example of this destination.

The JLF is also known for applying best practices in logistics and hospitality and has elicited words of appreciation from patrons and organisers of most reputed literary Festivals. Similarly, the various authors and writers who came to Jaipur wrote about their days in Jaipur when they were treated like "kings".

Interestingly, the collections of these essays could be published two years after the event because that was the time when the papers for printing was under rationing and the quota of paper could come only in 1946.

"The Indian literatures of today a symposium. Essays presented at Jaipur, October 20th-22nd, 1945, the All-India Writers' Conference organised by the All-India Centre of the P.E.N." which was painfully edited by a US educated Bharatan Kumarappa was published by India Book House of Bombay. This is a rare book which is not even available in Jaipur and this writer after great search, I could locate it in the Dhaka University's English department's library. This book is out of print now, but 71 libraries in the world still possess it.

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