The plans for the Jaipur Literature Festival 2022 have just been announced. Sanjoy Roy of Teamwork, the company that organises JLFs around the world, spoke to Scroll.in. Excerpts from the interview:
Are you back on the ground in Jaipur in January 2022?
Yes! Yes we are, if everything falls into place.
So what are the plans?
We will have both a physical and digital festival, we will have five-plus venues on the ground. So during the five-day physical event, from January 28 to February 1, we will have unique sessions on the ground, some of which we will also broadcast online in real time. After the physical events, we we will have a series of unique digital sessions.
So, not everything you see physically will be broadcast live, and not everything you can watch digitally will be a physical event on the ground. We are trying to create a unique opportunity for both sets of audiences. And we’re adding a new venue, which will focus on writing around the performance arts and visual arts, with a focus on photography.
Will the on-ground events continue to be held in Diggi Palace?
The main festival will move from Diggi Palace to Clarks Hotel in Jaipur, in conformity with the request made by the authorities last time we held it there, in 2020. The music stage will move to Diggi Palace.
Oh. JLF won’t be the same if it isn’t in Diggi Palace, will it?
As it happens, there is actually way more space at Clark’s Hotel, and most of the venues will be outdoor ones. But of course Diggi is Diggi. And there is no second Diggi in Jaipur, but what do you do?
Will the audiences have to be smaller?
The audiences for the physical events will certainly be smaller, since Covid protocols won’t allow us to have as many people as we used to, and we will implement whatever protocols will be in place at that time. We will open registrations in a very restricted way, till we understand how the pandemic situation is panning out and what kind of crowd we will be allowed. So basically we are saying that anybody who has been double vaccinated aur or got a negative RTPCR test will be able to make it.
What about the concentration of events? Will you still have as many panels on ground as you used to?
Yes, absolutely. The effort for the physical events will be to get as many speakers in as possible.
So are you saying you will actually end up with more panelists than before, because you will still have the same number for your physical events and then you will have an even greater number when the digital events are added?
Let me put that differently. You remember when we used to have only on ground events we used to pack the panels, with the result that sometimes participants had very little time to speak. The digital format does not allow for so many panelists – it works best with one-on-one or maybe two with one conversations. Where necessary and possible, we will beam in participants from other countries who do not – or cannot – travel and add them to on-ground panels.
Eventually every conversation has to work the way it works best given its specific theme or topic. But you’ll see far more intimate conversations than before, because we have seen that digitally these work beautifully. Even for the physical events that we want to broadcast live our effort will be to ensure that is easy to view on your phone. Otherwise it can get too crowded on the small screen.
So how many participants are you expecting in all this time?
It’s difficult to say. In previous years the list would have been complete by now. But because international travel plans are still uncertain, we’re trying to see what we can do by way of getting participants from each country as it opens up for international travel. It’s still evolving, so I don’t have a sense of whether the total number is going to be 140 or 500.
I don’t think we’ll have a sense of it till December. Everybody is still in a wait and watch mode. Is there going to be a third wave after Diwali? And then there’s the fact that the numbers in the UK and America are still high. And the maximum number of speakers we get from outside of India are from those two countries. So you may end up seeing an India-heavy physical programme with a large international contingent being both beamed into the physical events, and appearing on the digital events.
Is the hybrid format here to stay then?
Absolutely. Look at the numbers watching us online even as people are saying that there’s going to be a decline in interest in watching things online, that there is Zoom fatigue. Last year the average online viewership of JLF’s Brave New World events was about 30,000. This year the digital series of the Jaipur Litfest gets an average viewership of 60,000.
The way our viewers have changed is incredible. Earlier, when we were only on ground, the majority of viewers would be from Jaipur, from Rajasthan, obviously. So that was about 50%. About 10% or 11% were from abroad, and the majority of the rest were from Delhi NCR. And then much smaller proportions from Mumbai and Bengaluru, and even smaller from Chennai and Kolkata.
If you look at our international audience today, of the largest numbers are still from the US and the UK because our presence is fairly robust over there because of the international festivals. But the third position now keeps switching between China and Germany. Yes, China. Indonesia is fourth and Uzbekistan is fifth. And then there is Japan.
So the whole distribution of viewers has changed. The average viewing time in China is high, at about 18 minutes, and then we figured that the teaching shops in China are being told to go and watch our programmes. Why Indonesia? Why Uzbekistan? One doesn’t know. Germany has never had a physical presence at their festival. But now it’s like the top of the pops.
If you look at India, the audience has shifted to the east. So now it’s east, then west, then Delhi NCR Bangalore Chennai Hyderabad, and then some of the smaller cities. This is the latest situation, not a cumulative one. It’s a whole different audience.
So we’re programming blind. What does China want? What does Germany want? What does Indonesia want? So while we have data on usage, we don’t know who our audience are. Unlike in Jaipur, where we know who these people are, they’re young, they’re 20-somethings, and we don’t necessarily change our programming to specially appeal to them because they’re there for what we have.
But now with these new audiences it’s complex, so we’re trying to make sure we have a wider programming span. And keeping online viewing in mind, even some of the on-ground events will be 20 minutes long. So like everything we do, we’ll experiment and we’ll see.
What about the JLFs around the world?
We just finished America. We were hoping to do it live but we couldn’t. At London we were partly on ground, we did five sessions at the British Library and at the Aga Khan Centre. After Jaipur our new on ground festivals will be in the Maldives, in May. Then London will be in June, and we hope we can go on from there. The only question mark for next year is Australia, we don’t know when they will open.
What about changes in the content? In a Covid world, do you expect to see changes in content and themes?
We will have an accent on medicine, medical health, the biosphere, these will continue be a trend. We will be commemorating India at 75 with a series on memories and migration and partition, we will be looking at the 1971 war and the stories coming out of it. There’s the visual and performing arts and photography focus.
Then, look at the number of biographies and memories. Whether it’s Zohra Sehgal or Girish Karnad or Farookh Dhondy… it’s like a torrent. We’re drowning in lists of books sent in by publishers. It’s staggering. We’d asked FICCI for a report on how much more has been published and how much more has been bought. We’re waiting for the figures, but I suspect the numbers have risen hugely.
The other exciting thing is the kind of translations we now have. Translations earlier were not necessarily good ones, they’re excellent now. The JCB Prize has brought that out. And then the Europoean Union programme we’ve been doing – never before have we had access to writers from Germany and Norway and Poland… only France. That’s the other terrific thing, the discovery that translated literature brings from outside the English-speaking world, both in India and around the world. The writing is so different.