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JLF stirs the lit pot
Joaquin Ruiz “Caravana” from Spain performs on the Coke Studio stage at Hotel Clarks Amer on Sunday evening

As you weave your way to the entrance of Diggi Palace, past the first khaki-clad police cordon, there’s a colourful hoarding to your right announcing in big, bold letters “DSC Jaipur Literature Festival — The Greatest Literary Show on Earth”. And what a show it is! As the second Kolkata Literary Meet gets underway from Wednesday, in association with The Telegraph, t2 does a quick recce of what impresses at JLF 2013 and what doesn’t.

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Diggi Palace: If a property is defined by three things — location, location and location — JLF 2013 scored a hat-trick. With an entire palace at its disposal, sprawling lawns, courtyards, halls, bageechas et al, JLF was worth a visit for the grandeur and beauty of Diggi Palace alone. The location of Jaipur, a cool drive from Delhi, was an added plus.

The greatest literary show on earth...

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The venues: There were six venues holding simultaneous sessions at JLF, from 10am to 7pm. While the TATA Steel Front Lawns had a stunning pink shamiana, with a capacity to hold some 7,000 or 8,000 people, Char Bagh was the showstopper, with colourful cloths forming a rainbow canopy overhead. The closed-door Counselage Durbar Hall provided just the right touch of Rajasthan, while the most comfortable was the aptly named Baithak, where cane chairs with bright cushions provided relief to tired backs and bottoms. Samvad was the destination for intimate gatherings, with the speakers sitting amid the audience, but it was the Google Mughal Tent that did it for us. Invariably pronounced “Google Moogle” by the thousands of foreigners milling about, this venue never failed to make us smile!

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The crowd: Imagine Maddox Square, Bosepukur and College Square pujas all bunched up within a radius of 500 metres and an Ashtami evening crowd trying to jostle its way through after every hour. The crowd crunch at JLF is NOT fun, not even for a seasoned pandal-hopper from Calcutta. At a session on ghazals on Friday, Javed Akhtar spoke about “jigar ka sher”. At JLF, you need a “sher-e-jigar” to brave the crowds.

Lazy corners at JLF

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Security: A huge shoutout to organisers Teamwork, led by Sanjoy K. Roy, and festival directors William Dalrymple and Namita Gokhale for the top-notch security detailing, from double frisking at the entrance and CCTV cameras everywhere to barcoded entry passes and hand-held barcode scanners at every entry and exit point for the six venues. Plus, a reassuring number of cops at every corner.

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The sessions: With a total of some 174 sessions, JLF touched upon a mind-boggling range of subjects — novels to non-fiction, poetry to paintings, history to histrionics, romance to resistance, sexuality to spy thrillers and everything else under the bright January sun. There was something for everyone... and more.

Tea in earthen cups — the well needed chai breaks in between the loaded sessions at JLF. (PTI)

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Parallel sessions: What do you do when you have Pico Iyer speaking on the art of biographies at Char Bagh, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Amit Chaudhuri discussing post-colonial critiques at the Front Lawns and William Dalrymple holding forth on princes and painters of Mughal Delhi at Baithak... at the same time? You fret. With six venues holding simultaneous sessions, the overriding feeling for any greedy bibliophile is more of missing out great interactions even as you try to enjoy the session you are actually attending.

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By the clock: The festival functioned like clockwork, with hardly any of those 170-odd sessions starting or ending behind schedule. It was not just clockwork, it was magic.

Shobhaa De poses for the t2 camera with her bag (The Socialite Bag) at the Penguin stall

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Controversies: JLF has become the happy hunting ground for obscure groups trying to gain mileage by opposing the presence of certain speakers (like it happened with Jeet Thayil) or waiting like a crouching cat, ready to take offence at the slightest or imagined provocation. Controversy is equal to prime time at JLF.

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The stalls: Counters selling coffee, cakes, sandwiches, shawarma, dosa or frozen yogurt ensured everyone was well-fed. The festival bookshop stocked the works of all the speakers, arranged in alphabetical order. The JLF merchandise stall ensured you could take a piece of the festival back home with you (though most items were abominably overpriced) and the colourful Penguin stall was one happy zone. The bean bags and sofas outside the stalls were always in high demand and just what the doctor ordered in between heavy-duty sessions.

The JLF merchandise shop

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The books: For a festival that is supposed to be celebrating reading and writing, the space dedicated for the sale of books was disappointing. Books came as an afterthought, not as the epicentre of this grand literary “show”.

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Book-signing counters: Every venue had a dedicated table for authors to sign books after sessions with long queues of autograph-hunters.

Dada at JLF
On Day 3, January 26, Rahul Dravid, Ian Buruma and Suresh Menon were talking cricket with Rajdeep Sardesai. Here’s the opening shot that left everyone in splits. Suresh Menon: “John Wright once told me he was so frustrated! He used to get all these books for the team but only two guys read — Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble. And Ganguly used to pretend.”

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Evening shows: A massive Coke Studio stage at Hotel Clarks Amer made for enjoyable musical evenings, complete with paid bar and food counters and a ticketed entry of Rs 300 (entry to Diggi Palace is free). Performances ranged from Susheela Raman and Rock Veda to a children’s choir from the US, Punjabi folk and Spanish musicians.

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Participation: Every session, be it on Sanskrit or Jataka, Urdu or Africa, was richly attended. People stood at the back and on the sides, gathered in the aisles or even squatted near the stage to listen to the speakers.

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Bebo at JLF
On day 5, January 28, Sharmila Tagore was invited on stage to release A Life Apart, the English translation of Prabha Khaitan’s autobiography. Looking every bit royal in a pale pink sari, as the former Bolly star walked up to the stage, one member of the audience whispered to his friend, “Dekh, dekh, Sharmila Tagore... Kareena Kapoor ki saas!”

The literistas: After spending four days scurrying from one venue to another and milling about in the sun-kissed lawns at lunch and tea breaks, one realises that literature is the new Louis Vuitton. If Page 3 threw up “fashionistas”, Jaipur Literature Festival has birthed the “literista”. It’s easy to identify the literista. Usually turned out in smart layers ala Katrina Kaif in Jab Tak Hai Jaan, topped by branded shades and bottomed by designer boots, this breed troops in mostly from Delhi, though also from Mumbai, Calcutta and beyond. The men wear a nifty hat, always. They are here to see and to be seen. As V.K. Karthika of HarperCollins remarked at a session on innovative collaborations, JLF is the domain of the “audience”, not the “reader”.

Quite understandably, cricket and Bollywood drew the largest crowds. In fact, such was the crush when Rahul Dravid took the stage on Republic Day that the main gate to the Front Lawns had to be shut after some 8,000 people packed themselves in like sardines. The handsome and super witty Javed Akhtar hit the nail on the head when he was asked to recite some lines in the session on ghazals: “Jitni bhi akalmandi ki baat kar lo, madaari ko toh khel dikhana hi parega (However much you speak intelligently, a performer has to stage a show)”.

Jaipur Literature Festival is an experience and every bookworm must come here, at least once. And after you have enjoyed your favourite authors at a distance of 5,000 people, come to Kolkata Literary Meet to meet them at an arm’s length.