A special report on
The Jaipur Literature Festival
by Deepa Vanjani

 “The old order changeth, yielding place to new…” sang Lord Alfred Tennyson and rightly so. The invasive presence of AI and social media have definitely been changers to reckon with, but love for literature and the arts and books seems to close to our heart. The Samsung Galaxy Tab S9 Series Jaipur Literature Festival 2024 from 1-5 February, was a confluence of sorts that gave audiences moments to relish some cerebral champagne in jam-packed sessions. 

As a media representative for Confluence for the first three days of the festival, I had the opportunity to talk to writers and attend some invigorating sessions. 

2nd February: “I see myself as a seeker…” 

In conversation with Arundhati Subramaniam 

Having attended the release of her book Wild Women, I was eager to know how the poetic journey began and how women and spiritualism became part of that journey. The charming poet, also a Bharatanatyam dancer, with a voice that resonates in your memory, talked about how she “grew up with arts” and “her liberal, secular upbringing, with exposure to classical music and dance, eastern philosophy, but I was drawn to poetry.” In a way the gravitation towards poetry was natural for she had this sense that “poetry is the only place where one can wonder, articulate existential questions, share deepest fears of loss and death,” until this questioning took an urgency around 1997 when “an inexplicable experience’’ led to an urge for spiritualism and spiritual guidance. 

“My life shifted in 1997, poetry returned, but I now approach words with a much greater respect for silences. Poetry and my love of dance is still part of my life but something much more fundamental has shifted.” 

How have the online platform and literary festivals impacted poetry? “Online exposure of poems has democratised the form and literary festivals have discovered that poetry is a potable form.” 

Where does the inspiration come from? “Women’s voices, especially the spiritual mystic poets, for I have a thirst for hearing voices. It’s not just women who are thirsty, the world is thirsty.” 

A lot of the inner working of the poet’s voice is found in his/her writing. So I asked her about her poems, particularly the one titled ‘Prayer’, where she writes about the vigil ending – 

“when maps shall fade, nostalgia cease and the vigil end.” 

“This book was published in 2001, but I remember that I had this nascent understanding that shifts happen in quiet and undramatic ways in the hush of the bedroom in that hush that solitude dreams are born, things shift and it is when nostalgia ends. That is the moment when there is just the present, to inhabit the self, the moment when the vigil ends.” 

There is another poem which seems to have anger pent-up in it: 

“The halitosis of gender, 

my homogenised plosives 

about as rustic 

as a mouth-freshened global village.” 

“ Yes, it is an angry poem,” she answered, “anger about voices that tell us how to belong, whether in our culture or outside, that give us prescription for belonging, recipes of belonging to a particular culture 

or faith, I wanted to feel my own way of who I was.” 

Do you think poetry is on the decline? 

“There is an online explosion of poems , the form has been democratised on the other hand there is not particular attention to form.” Literary festivals, she adds, in inviting poets have understood…”. 

She talks about her recent work about women’s voices in which she has translated from other languages as well, for she felt “thirsty for voices, and it’s not just women who are thirsty, the world is thirsty for 

more balanced narratives, there are gaping historical silences.” 

“No change is linear, it’s always two steps forward, one step back.” 

In conversation with Urvashi Butalia 

Writer, academic, and founder of Zubaan, Urvashi Butalia talked about change in gender perspective, “I don’t know if there is any major, substantial change, even if there was how do you measure it. I mean you can see some change- like I teach in public universities and I see both men and women students wanting to understand gender and work on it. You can see many more women in education. You see some good legislation. With the removal of Section 377 and the recognition of trans people, there is change but I cannot say it is radical across India. There is a political will to change but by and large the mind-sets and the hold of patriarchy hasn’t gone away.” 

Change is happening but it is still way to go. Should that dishearten us? “There are some countries where women’s status and position is further ahead than in India. We cannot allow the slowness of change to disappoint us because any change is never linear, it’s always two steps forward, one step back, it is zigzag. In a country like ours it’s to be understood as a mosaic.” 

We then talked about the kind of work her endeavours Kali and Zubaan have been undertaking. “Both”, says Butalia, “were set up to publish works on and by women and to bring women’s voices to public attention. They were not doing from the ground for women, it we were certainly publishing women’s voices and trying to encourage more and more women to write in their own words”. 

3rd February: 

“Acting and art and everything else went hand in hand from the time of play…” 

In conversation with Kelly Dorji 

We began by talking about how modelling, acting, illustration, writing got into his life and he made a simple yet profound statement, “The origin was play.” He recalled how during the growing –up years, his siblings and he “used to act and 

entertain our parents every evening. We were conditioned in our outdoor play” building our own roles and playing outside, forced to be creative in our spare time because pre-electronic days.” 

He left his career as a soldier and also trained in Wushu or Kung Fu which the Chinese martial art form, and Muay Thai which, says Dorji, helps take injuries better. 

Reminiscing his acting days, he said that it was his friendship with actor Bobby Deol that brought him into films. He was young and he would perform his stunts, “almost died in a couple of stunts”, fell off a helicopter “doing crazy things” and then decided not to go out of the way for anyone. 

When I asked him about his modelling career he remarked, “I am an incidental model.” His mother had it clear that he would do no modelling till he got a Ist class in his BA. So he began modelling in his second year on the sly. 

Finally, and importantly we got to his book The Rainbow of Clouds which has his beautiful illustrations with some poems of his and brief explanations. Explaining the illustrations, he tells me how the silk scarf is an important symbol in Buddhism and how “peace is a generic reference in Buddhism.” He refers to himself as being more spiritual which reflects well in the sentiment he voiced by the time the conversation was drawing to an end, “When your actions and livelihood show disregard towards life, your advancement in spirituality is also hampered.”