Festival co-director William Dalrymple says litfests are both educational and entertaining, as well as what his new book will be about

Scottish historian, critic and curator William Dalrymple’s Indian ties are as strong as his love of Indian history. Dalrymple, who has written books on Indian history such as The Anarchy (2019), White Mughals (2002), The Last Mughal (2006) and Return of a King (2012), is also one of the directors of the recently concluded Jaipur Literature festival .

He believes that JLF’s 2022 edition was a deeper dive into Indian culture and literature as Indian authors dominated the festival. Due to the pandemic delay in issuing visas, a number of authors from other countries were unable to reach the festival. This ensured that Indian authors and works took center stage. “On the one hand we lost international flavours, but on the other hand we were strongly Indian this year. There were great history sessions at the Cholas, Pallavas, Rashtrakutas, Chalukyas, in addition to contemporary art sessions,” he says, adding, “Indians are interested in India, so I don’t think anyone has felt cheated this year.”

Dalrymple says he had reservations about the festival’s hybrid nature, but that it was successful. “We’ve had an online festival, a hybrid and on the ground, so we’re ready for pretty much anything now,” he laughs.

“We had panelists both on screen and on stage for the sessions on the Ukraine-Russia conflict and it went smoothly,” he says. One of the main attractions of a literature festival is that it brings together some of the most prominent names in literature on one platform and sparks conversations that are accessible to the general public. Dalrymple rightly believes that the aim is to ‘educate and entertain’ and not ‘promote social change’, even though literature festivals become agents of change. He shares that this year’s JLF had four Nobel laureates, including 2019 winner Abhijit Banerjee, 2002 winner Daniel Kahneman, 2021 winner Abdulrazak Gurnah, and Sahitya Akademi Award winners such as Namita Gokhale (2022). “It costs a lot of money to go to Harvard but a student can attend a JLF for Rs 100 and listen to such wonderful people speak. So for the youth it’s a great place to be.” He adds that their motive is to provide debate, education and entertainment and not to advocate political or social issues.

‘Choose historians responsibly’

When asked if history is subjective and if facts are twisted in historical books, Dalrymple says it’s a good possibility. “Just as there are good and bad novelists, there are good and bad historians. Just as you differentiate between the work of a chicklit author and the work of a Nobel laureate, you must make a discriminatory choice between historians and see their credibility. It’s the reader’s job to make informed choices,” says Dalrymple. “Choose the book that is worthwhile and educational. History is fun, but it also has to be reliable,” he adds.

History in the cinema

As a historian, William Dalrymple believes it is important for people to remember that cinema is fiction. “In 1995 I watched Braveheart and as a Scot I wanted to believe it was all true, but I understand English people would find it offensive. These are fictional works. No one should go and watch a film expecting it to be a historical work. Padmaavat turned out to be the most pro-Rajput film ever,” he laughs.

He says that when he watches a movie inspired by history, he googles facts because it intrigues him. “That is true, because often we have not written many texts about them. India has been very slow to produce works that are accessible and scholarly about history and at this celebration we are producing authors who are changing that,” he adds.

As for his new work, he is working on a forthcoming book which will revisit his old passion for ancient and medieval India. “When I first came to India, I went straight to the Ajanta Ellora Caves and Sanchi Stupa. My new book is a story of how between the 3rd and 12th centuries Indian culture spread across borders and how Indian numbers traveled west. The research has been completed and I will start writing next month,” he signed.

This post How India took center stage at the Jaipur Literature Festival

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