The culturally curious flocked to the British Library last weekend for the London leg of the popular ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival for sessions on a range of topics including travel writing, the constitution, PG Wodehouse, the Raj, partition and Lutyen’s architecture.
Many of the sessions drew on the rich collection of the library and brought it to life through storytelling and debates.
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By the time the doors opened on day two all tickets had been snapped up and the buzz of ideas filled the spaces of the British Library. Zee JLF @ The British Library is one of the first major events in the UK as part of the India-UK Year of Culture in 2017, which showcases the cultural diversity of India in the UK.
Some of the world’s leading travel writers gathered together in Footloose: The Travel Session to discuss their personal journeys and the experiences behind their writings. Anthony Sattin, Hugh Thomson, Samanth Subramanian with William Dalrymple demonstrated that although the most historic form of literature, travel writing has an unending capacity for reinvention.
In a rich and wonderful session with Rachel Dwyer, singer and author Vidya Shah emphasised the importance of remembering the long-lost music recorded by women in India, in the early days of the gramophone. “We barely have names for them. We don’t know where they came from.”
Constitutional experts all over the world are examining the challenges faced by new and changing political realities, and how to understand and implement established legal systems in a shifting context. In an important session Constitutions: We the People, presented by the Aga Khan Foundation, the panel discussed the separation of powers, lines of accountability and the balance of judicial activism and restraint.
Helena Kennedy cited US President Donald Trump’s first 100 days as an example of this, saying the period saw the degrading of the American constitution. His use of nepotism, Kennedy said, should not have been any more possible than the ways he has tangled his business dealings with those of his Presidency. And yet he has been able to do so. Patrick French surmised that the vagueness of the American constitution on the role of the President is why it has been so limited in its ability to hold Trump to account so far.
P G Wodehouse’s popularity has endured over the years and he is known and loved all over the world, especially India. Shashi Tharoor, former president of the Wodehouse Society at St Stephen’s College, Delhi University, discussed his legacy along with author Mihir S Sharma, journalist Swapan Dasgupta and author Tony Ring.
Tharoor argued that the magic of Wodehouse was not restricted to a certain kind of comfortable Indian audience, pointing out that the world depicted by the author was an idyllic never-never land, so it was as unreal to the English as to Indians, comfortable or otherwise.
In a session exploring Lutyen’s Delhi, Delhi biographer Malvika Singh contended citizens should take ownership of their city spaces to create a workable city. Singh observed that the city has mushroomed in a very haphazard way since the 1950s, with different colonies springing up, such as the lawyers’ colony and a colony for people displaced from East Pakistan.
Another session titled Ideas of India and the Theft of the Raj: The British Empire in India, saw a panel including Arundhathi Subramaniam, Namita Gokhale, Mihir S. Sharma and Sanjoy K. Roy discuss the scrutiny placed on the Idea of Modern India.
The final session saw Roy Moxham and Shashi Tharoor in conversation with Mukulika Banerjee about colonialism’s claims of benefit and development despite evidence of its fundamental nature. From Vasco da Gama to the final emergence of the English as the principal colonisers of the Indian subcontinent it was a period of acquiring as much and as many of India’s riches as each European power could lay their hands on. This lively session brought this first edition of the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival at the British Library to a rousing close.
ZEE JLF@The British Library is the first of five cultural strands which form part of the Year of UK-India of Culture in 2017, celebrating the deep cultural ties and exchange in what is a year of great significance for the world’s largest democracy as India marks 70 years as an independent democratic republic.
The year-long programme also includes India@Edinburgh in August, The Independence Gala@Southbank Centre in October, a season of Dance and Theatre and the UK Premiere of the Bharat Symphony by Dr L Subramaniam and the London Symphony Orchestra in November.
This year marked the fourth London edition of the JLF, which is rooted in the Pink City of Jaipur. Held every January, this year marked the 10th anniversary of the flagship event.