Authors, ideas, controversies… often but not always with a South Asian twist and now in its 10th edition here…
FROM the Huns to the South Asian global creative renaissance and the need for India to ditch its colonial baggage, the Jaipur Literature Festival at the British Library in London, lived up to its eclectic reputation.
What other festival could comfortably feature Warwick Ball, world-renowned archaeologist on the Eurasian Steppe (Ukraine & Russia) and iconic turntable master and cultural activist, DJ Bobby Friction. They were not in the same session – we hasten to add!
And what other festival might kick off with Shashi Tharoor, prolific author (24 books) and Indian, left-leaning, Congress Party opposition MP, and Amish Tripathi, the head of the Nehru Centre in London, and effectively the Indian (BJP) government’s voice on art and culture in the UK, locking horns on ‘Myth and Memory’ and revisiting, sometimes quite politically contentious, interpretations of the ancient Indian texts, ‘The Mahabharata’ and ‘The Ramayana’.
JLF at the British Library had them all – and politics even got an airing at the session on Indian culinary affairs, as Asma Khan, the famed chef and entrepreneur behind London’s much sought after Darjeeling Express restaurant, didn’t mince her words when it came to calling out racism in the UK, cultural erasure (more in India) and how Brexit continues to hamper the hospitality industry here.
The sell-out crowds (all sold online prior to the fest) are anecdotally liberal, Indian-born, and solidly middle class (a more loaded word in India than it is in Britain – but that will have to be for another time and another story, probably).
Perhaps all this was most evident at one of the final sessions on Saturday (June 11) in which Friction spoke to Reeta Loi, storyteller and musician and LGBT activist and Dhruva Balram, a Canadian-raised British-based music journalist and cultural activist.
They discussed the South Asian Renaissance – a slightly elaborate way of saying, South Asians are okay or are now accepted by the mainstream (West) and that an artist with talent can command the same respect and attention as their non-South Asian counterparts.
Friction raised the ‘Latina Moment’ in US music culture coming some years earlier and cited Indian Punjabi iconic singer Diljit Dosanjh’s, and Ali Sethi, a hugely popular Pakistani musical artist’s appearance at Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in the US in April 2023, as a ‘moment’.
Friction felt that in the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was a similar sense of palpable excitement with the Asian underground music scene (in the UK) breaking into the mainstream. Friction himself first started broadcasting for BBC Radio One, the country’s biggest radio station, in this period and figures like Nitin Sawhney and DJ Ritu, were making a mark on the broader scene through music and controlling the turntables in clubs, respectively – but arguably, Friction posited, it didn’t last and in some ways, it all slid back underground – until now.
Loi and Balram expressed some optimism from the current generation – but with caveats: Loi’s journey from lonely gay teenager in Winchester – a predominantly affluent white area – and unable to come out to her shop-owning traditional Punjabi parents, saw her lose contact for 15 years after she did – and only just renew them. “It’s chaos,” she said referring to the way she still has to negotiate all that.
Balram said that he pitched a story about a prominent South Asian musical artist to a North American publication, only to be told by its editor, dismissively: “We already have one for this month.”
The audience was somewhat smaller than in other sessions, www.asianculturevulture.com attended but Nutkhut, the UK culture outfit should be commended for bringing a cross-generational panel together.
The business and economic perspectives between India, the UK and the global economy were covered in two separate sessions – seemingly without much connection – but in practice there was much crossover discussion about students, universities and in the earlier session, more about global power and trade (which is surely what international education is really about?)
While India has the fifth largest economy currently (by several measures and different bodies), it is likely to be number three within a few decades and just behind, the US and China. India’s economy has already eclipsed the UK in some surveys.
For Lord Karan Bilimoria, a British cross bench peer, former Confederation of British Industry (CBI) chair, and founder of Cobra Beer, and Naushad Forbes, an Indian tech entrepreneur, it was clear that the UK and India had more to do economically and a trade deal between the two would undoubtedly help and isn’t far off, said Bilimoria. He felt UK engagement with India had slackened off since Theresa May was prime minister following her visit in 2017 – and that the education sectors in both countries could benefit from greater engagement.
That theme was explicitly discussed in, ‘Bridges of Knowledge: The India-UK Partnership’ which brought together Tharoor, Rohit Kumar from York University, international recruitment, partnerships and mobility; and Vivienne Stern, chief executive UK Universities, with Sanam Arora, chairperson of the National Indian Students Alumni Union UK, moderating.
In both this and the earlier debate on ‘Innovation, Marketing and The Matrix of Success’, it was hard to tell whether Indian students settling in the UK was an inevitable or desirable outcome – it was said that 90 per cent of India’s 100,000 plus student population in the UK, do want to return.
Tharoor he said he knew of many who did return to India but after a few years came back to the West because the work opportunities and facilities were more compelling. The UK government, as all know, remains highly sensitive about the issue of immigration, full stop.
Perhaps the most esoteric of sessions were both at the beginning – William Dalrymple, festival co-director, and Ball discussed ‘The Eurasian Steppe – People, Movement and Ideas’.
The Huns were among the earliest groups to take control of what we consider Western Europe and their settlements straddled further across The Eurasian expanse.
One of the many interesting discussion points was – just how easy it was for rulers and Kings (mostly) of kingdoms to change faiths (some Jewish and nowhere near the Middle East) one theory – and how a less patriarchal culture in this region was virtually usurped by one coming from further south (ie South Asia!) – another theory, anyway. Ball also raised the idea of Europe and Asia not really being very separate – and his area of study shows how much movement there was across these regions – and he emphasised not so much of whole populations but elite groups (and their armies).
Tharoor and Tripathi covered a lot of contemporary debate about India’s ancient culture without coming to any rhetorical blows in this opening session on Friday (June 9) but there was a palpable, creative tension, shall we say.
There seemed to be a general agreement though that India’s education system needs to be reformed – it was said Indians continue to be taught about seasons (as there are in the UK) but India arguably has just two or three – Winter, Summer (Monsoon) and that too only the North of India has a winter, so to speak.
India’s pluralism/liberalism was undoubtedly on proud display – and no one can surely find a more agreeable way to open an international literary festival, showcasing books and ideas.
Vikram K Doraiswami, India’s High Commissioner to the UK – who participated in a session on Indians love of British comic novelist, PG Woodhouse (1881-1975), on Saturday (June 10) – said as much in his opening ceremony remarks and even raised the metaphorical image of Sanjoy Roy, the producer of the festival through his Teamwork Arts and Sir Role Keating, chief executive of the British Library, getting into bed together…
There was also music in form of Indian pop virtuouso Usha Uthup who performed at a JLF London function at the Taj Hotel at Buckingham Gate on Saturday evening, while sarod maestro Soumik Datta and tabla player Gurdain Singh Rayatt performed in the morning (June 10) and Deepa Shakthi presented ‘Saints and Sages’ on Sunday.
Roll on JLF London!
(Sailesh Ram, editor)
ACV covered the Jaipur Festival 2014-18 in Jaipur (http://asianculturevulture.com/?s=JLF) and has been a community partner to JLF London at the British Library previously.
Scroll down to see JLF at the British Library 2023 programme (at the time of going to press): https://www.bl.uk/events/jlf-jaipur-literature-festival-at-the-british-library
Videos of these and other sessions should be available from the JLF YT channel – see here – https://www.youtube.com/@JprLitFest