In an entirely virtual avatar, Jaipur Literature Festival 2021 eyes 10 mm viewers

JLF this year went completely virtual, and its live site has worked very well despite increasing log-ins; its guiding tools are short and simple, thankfully, making it a tech-friendly platform

Representative Image (Photo Courtesy: Social Media)
Representative Image (Photo Courtesy: Social Media)

Papri Sri Raman

The COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown since March 2020 may have wreaked havoc for the travel and the publishing industry, and been generally dystopian but lit fests all over the world have seen a dramatic rise in attendance, says Sanjoy Roy, the curator of the Jaipur Literature Festival. The Festival expects 10 million viewers this year, he said.

The popular festival this year went completely virtual, and its live site has worked very well despite increasing log-ins; its guiding tools are short and simple, thankfully, making it a tech-friendly platform.

Describing how JLF evolved into its online avatar, Roy said, Team JLF had begun the transition to digital mode as early as April 2020. It started hosting a JLF show called the Brave New World and has so far curated 240 episodes. From then to now, the JLF viewership took a dramatic jump from 500,000 to 4.8 million. Where their London festival used to have a maximum of 7,000 participants on its best day, it has changed to 450,000 viewers a day for this one venue. Participation from South India was less than two per cent all these years, which also increased, Roy disclosed.

Speaking in a curtain raiser for its 14th edition, Roy, MD of Teamwork Arts that produces the festival, said, ‘technology’ is here to stay, and no writer is today out of reach for this festival. No one is ‘excluded’ due to inability to travel to Jaipur in India. ‘If you are online, you are online’, Roy emphasised with a kind of finality, adding the world has changed for good in how literature festivals will now on always have a bigger component online and a much smaller physical participation.

Festival Director Namita Gokhale said, so long, she had not much to say when asked every year, what is new but this year, ‘everything is new’. Enumerating what could not, or had not been possible earlier, like getting the activist Malala Yusafzai to come to the Jaipur litfest (security reasons) or getting Noam Chomsky, the sociologist commentator, to come (as he is very old), festival Director William Dalrymple said, this edition has them and more, for example Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Bill Gates and Joseph Stiglitz.

Very interestingly, the inaugural discussion was between art historian and author Ian Blatchford, Director and Chief Executive of the Science Museum Group, UK and Tilly Blyth, Head of Collections and Principal Curator, Science Museum, London and significantly noted that ‘ideas had no borders’. At a time when Artificial Intelligence is being heavily promoted in the nation’s education policy, these two guardians of the sciences quoted Einstein to point out, ‘Imagination is more important than Knowledge’.

They emphasised that in the 17th century, there was no distinction between art and science. Life was just about the ‘Art of Innovation’ in the Age of Romance. The first exhibition of human innovation in 1851 showcased seven million exhibits. Blyth noted how, even in the Age of Enthusiasm, artists like Luke Howard, Constable and Turner contributed to the scientific study of the clouds. They called the present age of computers the Age of Ambiguities and simply ‘overwhelming’.

The India-born astrophysicist Priyamvada Natarajan and acclaimed Italian physicist and writer Carlo Rovelli took JLF viewers through the deeper meaning of the universe and mankind’s place in it. Drawing inspiration from the ancient Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna, the two scientists explored the mysteries of the cosmos, the fabric of space, the nature of time and the nature of shunya. The 2021 edition has a large section devoted to science and technology, from Pandemic and AI to Environment & Climate Change.

While ‘life in the zoombox’ began, resources dried up, not only for JLF but for all such public festivals, and Roy announced that JLF has decided to become a viewer-supported medium providing audio-visual access ‘to 2,500 writers on its grandstage and 600 hours of content from eight regions’. At a time when ‘hate-mongering and whatsapp university’ thrive and even farmers in the country are troubled, it is forums like JLF that can provide ‘spaces for varied engagements’, Roy said. Expanding its global reach Roy also announced one more JLF festival, in Maldives in September 2021, beside the four they hold in UK, USA and Australia and India.

In his new book, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? philosopher Michael Sandel shows how the polarised politics of our time reflects the deep divide between winners and losers. He argues that we must rethink the attitudes toward success and failure amidst rising inequality. The Festival this year features over 300 speakers and performers representing around 25 Indian and 18 international languages.

(IPA Service)

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