June 5, 2022 6:33:50 am
The Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) story is a story of a festival celebrating words that celebrate all that life is about. It is a most-inspired gathering, planned to ensure that those entrusted with words and those reading them present and understand them in ways that they remain most inspiring.
Orchestrating such a task is no easy matter. And that is where Sanjoy Roy comes in. A man of modest physical presence but beyond gargantuan in vision, he is one of three festival founders and the head of Teamwork Arts, the production arm of the festival. Namita Gokhale, co-founder and co-director, is also a prolific writer, with many awards and books under her belt. She gives Sanjoy’s grandiose vision her literary heft and depth as well as her hunger to discover, share and inspire. William Dalrymple, another founder and co-director, is a Scottish historian, curator, photographer, art historian and critic. Encyclopedic in Indian history, he leaves one spellbound by his passion and knowledge.
With such inspired custodians behind the festival, it is easy to appreciate how the JLF has become known as the greatest literary festival on the planet. It was my privilege to have been in conversation with the executive chef of American Masala, Vardaan Marwah, at the first post-Covid festival in Jaipur this March. Under the shimmer of the stars and in the cool of the desert night, we gathered on the rooftop of the Clarks Hotel in Jaipur. Authors from India and abroad were regaling attendees at the hotel grounds all day and into the evening. The excitement was as palpable as bees to a honeypot. The nectar of the festival was the power and persuasion of the written word.
I am not built for the tropics, but it was the quality of the roster of presenters and the passion of the attendees that had me readily agree to be part of the first-ever JLF in Maldives at Soneva Fushi last month. Soneva, like JLF, needs no introduction. It is part of the empire curated with utmost attention to detail by Indian-British hotelier Sonu Shivdasani and his wife, Eva. Guests at their island properties can rest assured, knowing that sustainable luxury will provide environs at once most luxe and green, lush and plush, with deeply delicious foods that leave the least harmful footprint. Knowing that Shivdasani’s principled approach to hospitality was the venue made me supplicant and ready to embrace the tropics. I came with a hunger for discovery and a commitment to share my story and my words.
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Our arrival at the island was made most- memorable by a warm welcome from our personal barefoot butler, who prompted us to give up our shoes and become accustomed to connecting with the earth in ways we hadn’t before. Reluctant as I was, something about the setting, the virgin beauty of the island, the smiles of the Soneva team members, and the circumspection with which the island was maintained — all gave me the confidence I needed to go with the flow.
Now that I had set my fears at rest, I was immersed rather quickly into the energy and feel of this island that was committed to celebrating itself, indulging its guests, and doing this while being sustainable and kind to nature. Morning to night, the foods we ate found inspiration from across the globe, and the books and authors being feted had similarly global reach. The best thing was the island’s isolation. Authors and attendees, festival directors and puppeteers, Shivdasani and his team — we had one another and none other to go to for that which we were wanting, or to connect with as humans.
Thirty world-renowned speakers, performers and authors took part in this vibrant programme: A keynote session by best-selling author Peter Frankopan; Gopalkrishna Gandhi, the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, in a most honest conversation with author and former diplomat Pavan Varma; Matthew Syed in conversation with mathematician extraordinaire Marcus du Sautoy on the power of diverse thinking; Sonam Kalra singing her Sufi Gospel and taking us beyond the stars and back; Gilles Chuyen freeing our soul with his dance lessons that are at once about rhythm and catharsis; Shashi Tharoor and Shobha De regaling us with their masterful communication and writings; Navdeep Suri presenting the writings of his grandfather with the help of his wife, Mani, and a vocalist friend, and many others. And, of course, it was my good fortune to have been in conversation with Anandita De, a first-time interviewer at the festival. The festival celebrated the theme of “Slow Life,” and covered a fascinating spectrum of topics: from nation-building to the natural world, politics to poetry, fiction and filmmaking to journalism, and spirituality to scientific discovery.
Every morning, the festival began with a choice of enlightening sessions that focused on expanding guests’ horizons before breakfast, including meditation with the gentle healing soul Puneeta Roy; snorkeling with Soneva Fushi’s resident marine biologist, and glassblowing at the Soneva Art & Glass studio.
Miles of pristine sandy beaches with turquoise water and a night sky most shockingly bursting with an abundance of stars and shimmering brilliance made for a one-of-a-kind experience that created memories for a lifetime for attendees and presenters.
With Vardaan Marwah by my side, I demonstrated three of my recipes, each from a different community and region, and in doing so I shared the syncretic majesty of India and its cultural heritage. I was privileged to be able to join over a million book lovers from across India and the globe and to be part of a non-aligned platform with free and open access to some of the greatest writers, thinkers, humanitarians, politicians, business leaders and entertainers on one stage to champion the freedom to express and engage in thoughtful debate and dialogue.
It was an honour to be part of a palaver where words reveal the worst that is gripping our human mindscape and where they become the salve that heals us into better living and being, both in our communities and as a human fraternity.
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