Jaipur Literature Festival allows Northern Ireland to savour literary tastes of India
One of the most prestigious festivals of its kind in the world, the Jaipur Literature Festival comes to Northern Ireland next weekend. Why? Precisely because nothing like this has ever been done before, organiser Sanjoy Roy tells Robert McMillen
INDIA might seem far away and exotic to Irish eyes but a deep connection between the two countries stretched back millennia.
Irish is an Indo-European language which shares words with Sanskrit, the ancient classical language of India; both countries have had periods of colonial rule; both have suffered great famines; hunger strikes are part of each culture and there is far more ready to be discovered by an enquiring mind.
Irish-Indian links will be savoured in what promises to be a feast for the head and the heart as the Jaipur Literature Festival comes to the Lyric Theatre in Belfast and to the Seamus Heaney HomePlace in Bellaghy next weekend when JLF Belfast will recreate the magnificent atmosphere of the legendary Indian festival as it comes to the north for the first time.
It has all come about because the Arts Council of Northern Ireland went a-courting to Jaipur, hoping to bring what has been described as "the greatest literary show on Earth" to these shores and found a willing suitor in Sanjoy Roy, the founder of Teamwork Arts, the company that is bringing a flavour of Jaipur for us to taste.
"Belfast will explore our common legacy of post-conflict literature and its cultural and political impact," he says. "The festival will showcase ideas and voices outside of Anglo-centric cultural expectations and will be a celebration of poetry, music, food and the written word.”
Speaking on the phone to the non-stop, 24/7 Sanjoy last week, he told me of his love of the theatre at school and university, how he become involved in a theatre company before branching out into television where he and his colleagues made all kinds of programmes for a host of different TV channels but his heart was always in the live audience.
That is why he set up Teamwork Arts over 25 years ago, an organisation which now runs 30 arts festivals which take in every artistic genre, from music and theatre to food and fabrics, in 98 cities in 67 countries over the past quarter century.
Jaipur is known as the Pink City and Sanjoy and Teamwork have helped its literature festival spread its wings from its home in Rajasthan to the world beyond.
“We want people to get to know the new India, an India people might not yet understand, but we also like to be local as well ” he told me.
“For example, when we went to Boulder, Colarado, to us, the USA could have been a different planet – apart from its popular fiction, we had no idea about the much more interesting writing that is happening in North America.
“Setting up in Boulder, exposed us to incredible African-American writing, to Latino writing, to Native American writing and we were able to take some of these writers to India or to our other festivals throughout the world.
“Most of our festivals look behind the ideas behind the books, the commonality and our shared human reality,” explained Sanjoy.
Certainly, that was an idea that appealed to the Arts Council of Northern Ireland's Noreen McKinney who worked tirelessly with other ACNI staff to bring JLF to Belfast and Bellaghy.
“I was very impressed with Noreen and the team,” says Sanjoy. “They came five years in a row and finally, when we got to talk I asked why they didn't invite another festival – there were many in Britain and Ireland which would be great and Belfast doesn't even have a very large immigrant community.
“‘That's the point,' they told me. 'We want you to bring new thoughts, new ideas in terms of how the world is evolving. In Ireland, we tend not to see beyond our own problems.'”
And of course they are right, but it will be a two-way process as India gets to know what is happening to their long-lost Indo-European cousins. Sanjoy is certainly looking forward to coming.
“What is really exciting about Ireland is the nuances I've been picking up. When you're in London, for example, you take things like LGBTQ, same-sex marriage and abortion for granted.
"In Northern Ireland, this has been rejected by many people whereas in the Republic of Ireland, thing are different and changing and I think it's fascinating in terms of how different parts of the globe have different perspectives on certain social issues,” he says.
Sanjoy believes that the JLF is about new writing and about being able to tell a story in a place that isn't frightened of talking about change.
“That's what the arts can do – they can help you create a window of opportunity in your brain whereby you can explore a different philosophy,” he says.
It was always important that the JLF would go to the Seamus Heaney Homeplace in Bellaghy.
“What better place to talk about non-violent struggle than here? We will talk about Gandhi and prison protests and non-violence in an artistic space where there once was a fortified police station,” says Sanjoy.
And while the focus is most definitely on the world of ideas, there is much fun anticipated at the JLF Belfast. As writer and festival programmer Paul McVeigh says: “If you love listening to and engaging with writers and thinkers from around the world then you'll love JLF Belfast.”
And the final word goes to Sanjoy.
“We want to make our festivals sexy; we want to have music, food, merchandising, literature, great conversations. We want to excite young people and not so young people, those not very taken by reading, and introduce them to a world of ideas in a way that is accessible and fun,” he says.
The festival will reinforce south Asia's unique literary heritage and JLF's international programme while infusing it with flavours true to the proud literary legacy of Ireland.
It will be a festival that is “rooted and local and deeply cosmopolitan”. Who could say no to that?
JAIPUR LIT FEST HIGHLIGHTS
:: ASMA KHAN: Celebrity chef, restauranteur, epicure, author, founder of charity Second Daughter's Fund and star of Netflix's Chef's Table.
:: TARA GANDHI BHATTACHARJEE: the distinguished granddaughter of Mahatma Gandhi who has devoted her life to working for public welfare.
:: NAMITA GOKHALE: Award-winning author, publisher, columnist and festival co-ordinator of the Jaipur Literature Festival.
:: MARCUS DU SAUTOY: Author, renowned mathematician, a regular on television programmes about since and mathematics and the Oxford Simonyi Professor for Public Understanding of Science.
:: LAXMI NARAYAN TRIPATHI: Outspoken activist, dancer, actress and leader of the movement which got India's Supreme Court to recognise the third gender.
:: The above join the list of distinguished speakers already announced including: PATRICK GALE, BRIAN KEENAN, RUTH PADEL and WILLIAM DALRYMPLE, alongside a wealth of immense writing talent from Northern Ireland, DAVID PARK, SHANNON YEE, GLENN PATTERSON, JAN CARSON, PAUL McVEIGH, GARRETT CARR, MALACHI O'DOHERTY and LUCY CALDWELL.
:: Jaipur Literature Festival, June 21-23; full programme at artscouncil-ni.org. Tickets for JLF Belfast start from £25 for a day pass/ £14 concession. Book at lyrictheatre.com or seamusheaneyhome.com