Freedom to Dream: Inaugural Address

ZEE JLF@The British Library

Namita Gokhale, William Dalrymple, Sanjoy K. Roy, Neeraj Dhingra, Jamie Andrews, Mr YK Sinha, His Excellency the High Commissioner of India in London

The ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival, which recently won the ‘Best Festival’ award at the Outlook Traveller Awards, has teamed up with the iconic British Library to showcase South Asia’s unique multilingual literary heritage and celebrate 70 years of India-UK relations. The festival has brought together over 70 eminent authors and thinkers from across the globe to explore diverse ‘Ideas of India.’

Managing Director of Teamwork Arts and producer of the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival, Sanjoy K. Roy, welcomed the packed audience to the inaugural session of the fourth Jaipur Literature Festival in London. He praised ‘the fit’ between the festival and the British Library and said he hoped it ‘will be our home for the next few years.’ Roy described the festival as ‘a platform of speakers, for people across the world to come and share their ideas and their dreams.’ He observed, ‘We know we live in fractured times, and yet as the Pope said, this is the most peaceful period in history.’ But still, there are many suffering from persecution and prejudice, and as such, ‘we need people from all walks of life to come together and tell us their thoughts. The Jaipur Literature Festival represents that.’ He noted the important role writers have always played in society, citing 2001: Space Odyssey, and George Orwell’s dystopian vision of Big Brother: ‘Authors help us to divine the future, they are very much part of our world.’

Festival co-director Namita Gokhale welcomed ‘friends of literature’ and spoke of the festival’s humble beginnings 10 years ago. She revealed, ‘we never imagined how much joy, how much transformation it would give to our lives.’ Gokhale described the festival as a place of ‘genuine, spontaneous, democratic human interaction,’ explaining that it had helped build a literature community in India across 24 languages, and across the world. She quoted past festival keynote speaker, Mahasweta Devi: ‘the right to dream should be the most fundamental human right,’ adding that ‘to share our dreams is at the core of our literary experiences, not just dystopias and nightmares.’ Gokhale praised London as a cosmopolitan city of deep heritage and diverse culture, and thanked ‘the rich treasure of the British Library’ for providing many of the session cues, from the Beatles’ Rishikesh archives, to rare Indian artefacts, urging the audience to ‘join us on our magical mystery tour of the mind, spirit and imagination.’

Festival co-director William Dalrymple likened the literature festival phenomenon to ‘a hydra creature from Greek myth,’ currently engulfing South Asia.’ The Jaipur Literature Festival was the pioneer, and there are now 90 festivals across the region, including in Nepal, Bhutan and Pakistan. Dalrymple quipped that literature festivals had ‘replaced fashion shows and polo matches as a default weekend filler.’ This heartened him, since although the internet has transformed the materials of literature, ‘the literary tradition in South Asia continues as strongly as ever.’ He noted that even EM Forster had attended a Jaipur Literature Festival, in the 1920s! On a personal note, Dalrymple said he was ‘very excited to bring the festival to the British Library,’ since it was ‘the nearest thing I’ve ever had for an office’ when writing his own books. He praised their tremendous archives, saying ‘we’re taking the raw materials of the British Library and giving it a massive injection of Indian colour and life.’

Jamie Andrews, Head of Culture and Learning at British Library, welcomed the audience to the British Library, ‘otherwise known as William’s office.’ He said it was ‘a privilege to be hosting JLF in London this year, and hoped it was the start of a long relationship. He described the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival as ‘the greatest literature festival on earth,’ and observed that ‘it could not be a better year for us to start hosting the festival,’ since 2017 marks 70 years of Indian Independence, and is the India-UK Year of Culture. Andrews explained that the British Library is the national library of the UK, ‘with a mission to make our intellectual heritage accessible for everyone for research and enjoyment. We prize our international purpose to advance understanding and mutual knowledge’ through partnerships such as this one. He joked that despite the ‘unerring and disappointing tendency’ for rain in the UK, ‘nothing will dampen the spirits of the festival.’ Andrews described the Library as ‘proud guardians of wonderful collections related to India.’ He urged the audience to enjoy some of these during the festival, since many precious and rare artworks were on display. He ended by encouraging the audience to get involved with supporting the Library, which is working to digitise its collections and democratise access to the archives.

Mr YK Sinha, His Excellency, the High Commissioner of India in London quipped, ‘I have no literary pretensions, I’ve been struggling through a book for 1 month now,’ adding that his wife’s father was a publisher, and his dowry had been 500 books that he’d carried to every diplomatic office. Mr Sinha was ‘very happy’ to be on his first visit to the British Library, since his army officer father had done research on a scholarship here, about an Indian freedom fighter in 1857, who was still winning battles aged 80: ‘a fitting story for 70 years of Indian independence.’ He spoke of how happy the High Commission was to partner with the British Library and the Jaipur Literature Festival to host this event, noting that the British Council and High Commission in Delhi were hosting a similar series in India to celebrate Indian Independence. He observed that Indian culture has always transcended borders, and the festival keeps that tradition alive, both in and outside India.

Neeraj Dhingra, CEO Europe for ZEE Network said ZEE was ‘very honoured to be partnering with the Jaipur Literature Festival and Teamworks.’ Dhingra described the festival as ‘the key event in the calendar for everyone interested in literature,’ observing that literature has many forms, starting with the written and the spoken word. He explained that ‘ZEE are also storytellers, we live by the philosophy that the world is my family, bringing peace and harmony through the medium of entertainment.’ He observed that in today’s troubled times of uncertainty, ‘it is so important to be positive and promote happiness. Literature does just that.’ He joked that since most Indian stories are about good over evil, ZEE’s tagline was ‘I feel Bollygood.’ Dhingra cited Subhash Chandra, chairman of ZEE, as the ultimate dreamer, pointing out that ‘he started with nothing in his pocket at 17, but conviction and perseverance turned his dreams into reality.’ He noted that Chandra was always urging his employees to be innovative, naming initiatives that had emerged as a result, including ZEEL for Unity, a series of commissioned short films to promote peace and harmony amongst warring nations, and the recent decision ‘to save Indian plays from extinction,’ by working with over 120 playwrights ‘to restore, revive and spread this culture around India and the world.’

– By Louisa Tomlinson, Jaipur Literature Festival Blog Editor

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