The Journey of Sanjoy K Roy and the Jaipur Literature Festival

Sanjoy K Roy has emerged as a connoisseur of Indian literature and a major figure in the festival circuit as the organizer of iconic Jaipur Literature Festival. An alumnus of St Stephens College, Roy was in the advertising world before immersing himself into the world of art and lit-fests.

With these festivals comes the inevitable burden of expectation from literary establishments and a fair share of controversies. Sanjoy K Roy talks about all of this in a freewheeling interview with Ashutosh Kumar Thakur for The News Mill.

How did the idea of starting the Jaipur Literature Festival come about, and what challenges did you face during its inception?

The idea for the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) originated during my travels across the UK, where I noticed a lack of world-standard Indian content in mainstream spaces. Recognizing the abundance of content but insufficient platforms, we initiated our first festival at the Edinburgh Festival, the world’s largest. Expanding internationally, we set up an office in Singapore, collaborating with the Esplanade Theatre and organizing various festivals.

In 2001-2002, while working on projects like restoring built heritage, John Singh from Jaipur approached us after witnessing the success of heritage festivals in Edinburgh. Inspired, they organized the Virasat Festival in Jaipur.

During this Virasat Festival in Jaipur, Namita Gokhale and William Dalrymple curated the literature segment. Their involvement in programming the literature events within the Virasat Festival laid the foundation for the literary aspect of Jaipur Literature Festival. Later Namita Gokhale and William Dalrymple approached me and my team that led to the birth of the Jaipur Literature Festival.

This year JLF completed 17 years. What were the challenges this year for the festival?

The successful conclusion of the 17th edition of JLF was marked by several standout moments and highlights. Despite continuous rain, the festival continued seamlessly, showcasing its resilience. Notable sessions included the presence of former prime minister of Australia, Malcolm Turnbull, and a series of discussions on pressing global issues such as the environment, climate crisis, and the situation in Palestine.

The festival also delved into topics ranging from regional conflicts to international affairs, featuring sessions on the challenges faced by countries like Russia and Ukraine. Ajay Bisaria’s book on border issues added depth to the conversations. Furthermore, the participation of Booker Prize winners, including Paul Lynch, enriched the literary discourse at the festival. Overall, the 17th edition of JLF was distinguished by its diverse and engaging conversations, featuring insights from over 550 speakers.

While curating JLF, how do you balance showcasing established voices with providing a platform for emerging writers and diverse perspectives?

In curating the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), we leverage a unique advantage. Attendees flock to Jaipur, irrespective of the writer’s fame, giving us the responsibility to feature both established voices and emerging talents. Over the years, we’ve proudly showcased a spectrum of writers, from our youngest author, who wrote a book at the age of eight to the oldest, who penned her debut at 92. This year, we featured a 95-year-old poet who wrote his first book.

We also delve into deeply academic subjects, offering profound discussions on topics like AI and mathematics. This blend of established and emerging voices, coupled with our diverse range of subjects, ensures that JLF remains an inclusive platform, catering to varied interests and perspectives of our diverse audience.

Jaipur Literature Festival
Jaipur Literature Festival
What are your observations on the status of Indian literature, encompassing both Indian writing in English and other languages, in the marketplace? Additionally, what trends or changes do you foresee in the publishing industry?

The landscape of Indian literature, encompassing both Indian writing in English and other languages, has undergone significant transformations. One of the most compelling developments is the rising prominence of translated works. Unlike the past, where the quality of translation hindered accessibility; today, the contributions of translators like Nandini Ayer, Arunava Sinha, and others have elevated the visibility of Indian literature globally. This surge in quality translations has not only enriched the English-language literary scene but has also made Indian works accessible in various other languages, such as Spanish, Polish, Russian, German, and Latin.

Another noteworthy trend in Indian publishing is the thriving growth of both digital and physical formats. Unlike the global trend where physical publishing may be on the decline, Indian publishing has experienced a remarkable 17 to 18 per cent year-on-year growth. This robust growth is reflected in soaring book sales, with bestsellers now reaching sales figures of 35,000-40,000 hardback copies compared to 17 years ago. Even the Jaipur Literature Festival has witnessed a significant increase in book sales, from 500 copies initially to over 1,00,000 copies today.

Looking ahead, the challenge for the publishing industry lies in adapting to the digital era and finding sustainable online models. While acknowledging the growth of digital platforms, there is a prevailing sentiment in India and Asia that the physical book, with its tactile qualities, will endure. The sensory experience of holding, smelling, and showcasing books on a shelf contributes to the enduring appeal of physical books over e-readers like Kindle. As technology continues to shape the industry, maintaining the cultural connection and emotional resonance associated with physical books will likely remain a distinctive feature of Indian publishing.

How does Jaipur Literature Festival ensure inclusivity for regional language authors, and what initiatives are in place to provide them with opportunities to participate and showcase their work on the festival platform?

The Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) places a strong emphasis on ensuring inclusivity for regional language authors by actively featuring diverse languages and providing opportunities for writers across linguistic terrain. In the 2022 edition alone, JLF showcased content in 24 different languages, with 16 of them being Indian languages. The festival’s commitment is reflected in its annual efforts to represent a broad spectrum of languages.

To further promote inclusivity, Jaipur Literature Festival hosts the Kanhai Lal Sethiya Award for Poetry, a prestigious prize that spans multiple languages. This award recognizes and celebrates poets across various linguistic backgrounds, contributing to the festival’s goal of creating a platform that transcends language barriers.

One powerful example of the impact of Jaipur Literature Festival’s inclusivity efforts is the story of Manoranjan Byapari, a former rickshaw driver who went to jail, learned to read and write during his incarceration, and eventually became a published author. His encounter with Mahashweta Devi, who discovered him reading her book in his rickshaw, led to the publication of his story. This narrative exemplifies how JLF acts as a catalyst for underrepresented voices, providing a platform for their stories to be heard and shared on a global scale.

The success stories of individuals like Manoranjan Bypari and Baby Haldar illustrate the transformative power of literature festivals in giving voice to regional authors. Jaipur Literature Festival’s impact is not only measured by the number of attendees but by the festivals it has inspired and the diverse voices it has elevated. Through these initiatives, Jaipur Literature Festival continues to break down barriers, making literature accessible across different linguistic and cultural landscapes.

Sanjoy K Roy
Sanjoy K Roy
What challenges (any controversies) did you face during its inception and later?

Organizing any festival comes with its set of challenges, and starting something new involves dealing with aspects like capacity, growth, attracting attendees, and securing resources. However, in our case, we were fortunate to have the support of Diggi Palace, along with the unwavering encouragement of Ram Pratap and Jyotika, who have been with us every step of the way.

The journey began in a small venue at Diggi Palace with just 230 seats and three rooms. Over time, it has transformed into a vast space, including a theatre and over a hundred rooms. This transformation has been a collective and thrilling experience, with everyone involved contributing to the festival’s growth.

Despite facing controversies in the initial years, such as the ones surrounding Salman Rushdie’s attendance, Ashis Nandy’s comments in a panel, and Taslima Nasrin’s participation, it’s crucial to note that the true essence of the festival goes beyond these controversies. At the end of the day, what truly defines the festival is its content – the most exciting aspect that has kept the Jaipur Literature Festival vibrant and engaging.

Can you share some insights into your early life and what influenced your interest in the arts and cultural sector?

In my early years, my journey into the arts and cultural sector was shaped during my time at St Stephen’s College, where I became involved with the interaction group led by the renowned Barry John, serving as the artistic director. Subsequently, I took on the role of executive director at TAG (Theatre Action Group) for several years. It was during this period that I crossed paths with my future wife, Puneetha.

When the prospect of marriage arose, my father-in-law expressed concerns about my career in theater and questioned my ability to support his daughter. I confidently asserted that Puneetha, being a manager in a large company, would be the one supporting us. While this response didn’t necessarily impress him, it marked a pivotal moment in my career trajectory.

What inspired you to establish Teamwork Arts in 1989, and how did the vision for the company evolve over the years?

In the mid-80s, when TV shows like ‘Mahabharat’ and ‘Hum Log’ became popular, there was a need for TV professionals. I teamed up with Bobby Beattie, who later worked on films like ‘The Rising’. We started with TV production, doing shows like ‘Elephant’. This eventually led to Teamwork Arts, initially created to give job opportunities to our theater friends. Early on, we focused on TV and film, making hits like ‘Chuna Dum Laga Ke’, ‘News Line’, and ‘Toh Mool Ke Bol’. By 1995, we had a lineup of 14-15 daily soaps and game shows.

In 1995, we saw the need to diversify and entered the arts. With colleagues, Mohit Satyanand, Kanika Satyanand, and Val Shipley, we founded ‘Friends of Music’, nurturing talents like Indian Ocean and Mohit Chauhan. Encouraged by this success, we expanded into theatre, supporting new writing, and later into dance with artists like Aditi Mangaldas and Daksha Sheth. This journey from theatre to TV and then to a broader arts and culture realm has been rewarding. Over time, I’ve shared my insights through lectures, contributing to the growth of the cultural landscape.

Winning the National Award for Excellence and Best Director for ‘Shahjahanabad The Twilight Years’ is a significant achievement. Can you share the story behind the film and its impact?

After transitioning from television to documentaries, our team focused on heritage and history. We created a four-part series about Sahajanabad, the old city of Delhi. Each episode explored its architecture, food, clothes, and lifestyle. The story, spanning from 1857 to 1947, unfolds through the eyes of its people. It’s a captivating journey, showcasing the city’s evolution and cultural richness over a hundred years.

Thank you for taking the time to share your insights and experiences with our readers.

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About Ashutosh Kumar Thakur

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Ashutosh Kumar Thakur is a Bengaluru-based management professional, curator, and literary critic. He can be reached at [email protected]