How India took centrestage at Jaipur Literature Festival

Festival co-director William Dalrymple talks about litfests being educative as well as entertaining, and also what his new book will be about

Scottish historian, critic and curator William Dalrymple’s Indian ties are as strong as his love for Indian history. Dalrymple, who has authored books on Indian history like The Anarchy (2019), White Mughals (2002), The Last Mughal (2006) and Return of a King (2012), is also one of the directors of the recently concluded Jaipur Literature Festival.

He feels that JLF’s 2022 edition was a deeper dive into Indian culture and literature as Indian authors dominated the festival. Since there were some delays in the issuing of visas due to the pandemic, a number of authors from other countries could not make it to the festival. This resulted in Indian authors and works taking centrestage. “On one hand we lost international flavours, but on the other, we were strongly Indian this year. There were great history sessions on the Cholas, Pallavas, Rashtrakutas, Chalukyas, besides contemporary art sessions,” he says, adding, “Indians are interested in India so I don’t think anyone has felt cheated this year.”

Dalrymple shares that he had reservations about the hybrid nature of the festival but it went successfully. “We have had an online festival, a hybrid one and on-ground ones, so we are prepared for pretty much everything now,” he laughs.  

 “We had panelists both onscreen and onstage for the sessions on the Ukraine-Russia conflict and it went on smoothly,” he says. One of the main attractions of a literature festival is that it brings together some of the most prominent names in the field of literature on one platform and stirs conversations accessible to the general public. Dalrymple rightly feels that the objective is to ‘educate and entertain’ and ‘not to drive social change’ even though literature festivals become agents of change. He shares that this year’s JLF had four Nobel Prize winners including 2019’s winner Abhijit Banerjee, 2002 winner Daniel Kahneman, 2021 winner Abdulrazak Gurnah and Sahitya Akademi Award winners like Namita Gokhale (2022). “It takes a lot of money to attend Harvard but a student can attend a JLF for Rs 100 and listen to such great people speak. So, for the young, it is a great place to be in.” He adds that their motive is to provide debate, education and entertainment and not to advocate political or social issues.

Choose historians responsibly’

When asked if history is subjective and that if facts have been distorted in historical books, Dalrymple says it is quite a possibility. “Just like there are good and bad novelists, there are good and bad historians. Just as you discriminate between a chicklit author’s and a Nobel Prize winner’s work, you should make a discriminating choice between historians and see their credibility. The reader’s job is to make informed choices,” says Dalrymple. “Choose the book that’s worth it and educative. History will entertain but it also has to be reliable,” he adds.

History in cinema

As a historian, William Dalrymple feels it is important for people to remember that cinema is fiction. “In 1995, I watched Braveheart and as a Scottish, I wanted to believe that everything was true but I understand that Englishmen would find it offensive. These are works of fiction. No one should go watch a movie expecting it to be a work of history. Padmaavat eventually turned out to be the most pro-Rajput movie ever,” he laughs.

He says whenever he’s watching a film inspired by history, he googles facts as it intrigues him. “That is also the case because many times, we don’t have many texts written about them. India has been very slow to produce works that are accessible and scholarly on history and at this fest, we are producing authors who are changing that,” he adds.  

As for his new work, he is working on a soon-to-be-published book in which he reverts to his old passion for ancient and medieval India. “When I first came to India, I went straight to the Ajanta Ellora Caves and Sanchi Stupa. My new book is a story of how between the 3rd and the 12th centuries, Indian culture spread across the borders and how Indian numbers travelled westwards. The research is complete, and I start writing next month,” he signs off.






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