January 21, 2010 / 7:36 PM / 9 years ago

India festival puts Jaipur on book lovers' map

JAIPUR, India (Reuters) - Perhaps it’s the location, a heritage hotel in a city of faded royal splendor. Maybe it’s the crowd: a motley crew of writers, Bollywood stars, agents and critics, groupies and, of course, book lovers.

Whatever the reason, the Jaipur Literature Festival, which kicks off in the Pink City on Thursday, has grown into a must-do event for publishers and party animals alike, creating a sometimes raucous affair with packed readings, heated debates and eclectic music performances.

Now in its fifth year, the event is billed by many as the biggest literary festival in Asia, drawing larger crowds than its also international peers in Galle, Sri Lanka and Ubud, on the Indonesian island of Bali.

It also scores higher for the sheer variety of attendees that range from Booker Prize winners to Bollywood stars rubbing shoulders with school students and day-trippers.

“We’re a lot more fun: there’s music, dancing and fireworks. There’s no other festival in Asia quite like it,” said writer William Dalrymple, who was inspired to put together the festival to bring writers and readers together in an Indian venue.

From 18 writers in 2006 — two of whom did not show up — the festival has drawn a steady stream of Pulitzer and Booker Prize winners. Last year, more than 100 writers and 20,000 visitors thronged the five-day festival.

Writers this year include Alexander McCall Smith, Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka and Booker Prize winner Roddy Doyle.

“I’m hoping the cold will keep some people away this year because we are already overflowing at Diggi Palace,” Dalrymple said of the venue, a sprawling 19th century mansion with quaint courtyards and peacocks strutting about in the lawn.

The festival has also put Jaipur, a popular tourist destination along with Delhi and Agra, on the literary map.

“Jaipur is a perfect festival city: in terms of location, it’s not too far from Delhi, and it’s not too far from Mumbai,” said Sanjoy Roy, a producer of the festival.

“Besides, the world knows Jaipur: it’s historic, it’s about royalty and chivalry, and now it’s also about this festival.”

With entrance free to all visitors, the festival has struggled to make ends meet, but this is also what sets it apart, said Dalrymple, who expects the event will break even this year.

“It’s democratic, it’s egalitarian, anyone can show up, from a regional poet in Bihar to a student in Jaipur to the budding writer with manuscripts in the bottom drawer,” he said.

“Everyone is treated equally, and in a country like India which is so hierarchical, that is great,” he said.

While wide-eyed students chase their favorite writers for autographs and publishers hope to strike lucrative deals, writers need no excuse to come to the festival, Dalrymple said.

“It’s not easy making a living as a writer. So to be flown to a pretty part of the world, to be wined and dined and surrounded by hundreds of adoring fans — it’s not such a bad gig, really.”

Editing by Alistair Scrutton and Miral Fahmy

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