MUMBAI (Reuters) - An outcry over Salman Rushdie's participation in Asia's largest literary festival has threatened to overshadow an event to showcase the best of Indian, South Asian and international writing that is rapidly growing in global cultural clout.
Oprah Winfrey, Michael Ondaatje and Tom Stoppard will share the stage with local-dialect authors and ancient-language poets at the 7th Jaipur Literature Festival, as organizers broaden the annual event's focus to economics, religion and geopolitics.
Rushdie, famed for his Booker Prize-winning Midnight's Children, has sparked protests from some Muslim leaders who have demanded he be prevented from entering the country, where his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses is banned.
The vice-chancellor of India's Darul Uloom Deoband seminary has called on the government to block Rushdie's visit, accusing the 65-year-old of hurting the religious sentiments of Muslims.
In response to a protest march planned on Friday January 20, the festival's opening day, organizers have rescheduled Rushdie's sessions, but event sources told Reuters that his invitation to take part still stood.
Over 70,000 visitors are expected to rub shoulders with more than 260 authors at the five-day festival, which takes place in the grounds of a 150-year-old palace in the heart of the pink-tinted city in the desert state of Rajasthan.
"We've got a raft of major first-division players this year, some giants of world literature," said William Dalrymple, best-selling author and co-director of the festival.
The event's meteoric rise, from a handful of guests in 2006, is testament to an explosion of interest in literature in India, driven by a rapidly growing middle class, steadily rising incomes and hundreds of millions of English speakers.
"There's been awareness that South Asian writers are the next big thing since the mid-1980s ... and now publishers have woken up to the size of the market here," Dalrymple added.
Penguin Books, one of the world's largest publishers, is sending top executives to Jaipur to hold a series of meetings in the city, a sign of the importance Asia's third-largest economy has for the industry.
Under cotton drapes and through hand-carved wooden gates spread across five acres, the festival's five stages, where only 60 percent of the sessions are conducted in English, bear the undeniable signs of India's emerging economic clout.
Gulzar, the celebrated 75-year-old Hindi-Urdu poet, will take the stage on Friday in the Bank of America Mughal Tent, while Tata Steel is sponsoring the festival's main front-lawn arena.
"The two ideas here are to bring the world to India, and bring India to the world," said Dalrymple.
Winfrey, widely regarded as one of the world's most influential women, turned little-known authors into global stars as part of her "Book Club," with 59 of the club's 70 selected books making the USA TODAY Top 10 best-sellers list.
Tom Stoppard, David Hare and Ariel Dorfman, three of the world's most celebrated living playwrights, will mingle with the crowds as Iranian writer Kamim Mohammadi and Palestinian lawyer Raja Shehadeh debate the impact of the Arab Spring uprisings.
Classical Bakhti and Sufi poets have been highlighted by organizers in this year's program, while biography fans will likely flock to hear Simon Sebag Montefiore speak on Josef Stalin and James Shapiro on William Shakespeare.
In response to a number of similar events across India and the region that have emerged in recent years, Dalrymple and co-director Namitha Gokhale have expanded the festival, adding new languages and writers from more countries, and enhancing sideline attractions such as the musical program.
"There are now 25 literature festivals here, as compared to none other when we started," said Dalrymple. "I guess that proves it was a rather good idea."
Editing by John Chalmers and Elaine Lies