When writer William Dalrymple co-founded India’s Jaipur Literature Festival, he envisioned tweed-clad scholars parsing Nobel laureates’ works for students and bookworms. Now they’re doing it for executives and movie stars.
The festival, a six-hour drive from New Delhi, has become a magnet for chief executive officers, bankers, and Hollywood and Bollywood notables in its first four years. The fair starting today is expected to attract 50,000 people, according to the state tourism ministry, compared with 7,500 in its first year.
Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and the Rio Tinto Group are among the sponsors, and Nobel Prize winners J.M. Coetzee and Orhan Pamuk are among the authors participating in the world’s largest free literature festival.
“You’ll have bankers and millionaires and CEOs sitting on the floor, while students are sitting in the best seats,” Dalrymple said. “If the festival has become the place to be, the place to be seen, then the socialites are welcome.”
India’s social and corporate calendars traditionally lacked forums similar to those in Davos, Switzerland, or at the Aspen Institute where intellectuals, the rich and the politically connected mingle. So this festival, held over five days at the centuries-old Diggi Palace in Rajasthan state, has become that event.
Previous speakers include Salman Rushdie, whose novel “The Satanic Verses” prompted Iran’s leader to issue a fatwa condemning him to death, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born Dutch politician who also has been targeted by death threats for her work on a movie about the treatment of Islamic women.
Last year, Julia Roberts sat on the floor with Yashodhara Raj Scindia, an Indian princess and member of Rajasthan’s state government. Roberts was at the center of a stir when a festival representative asked her and her companion, Indian actress Nandita Das, to move away from an exit, prompting jeers from the crowd.
Paparazzi roamed the gardens of the palace, built in 1727, stumbling over peacocks to photograph billionaire and former Infosys Ltd. Chief Executive Officer Nandan Nilekani, and Indian movie stars Amitabh Bacchan and Amir Khan. During a talk by Vikram Seth, author of the award-winning “A Suitable Boy,” photographers swarmed around Khan, who rarely makes public appearances.
This year, the six most-expensive hotels in Jaipur as rated by Tripadvisor.com said their presidential suites are sold out. The Jaipur airport expects 18 private jets this weekend, said an official of the Directorate-General of Civil Aviation who asked not to be identified because he wasn’t allowed to release the information.
The mix of literature, star power and corporate sponsorships allows organizers to keep the festival free and bring in speakers from around the world, Dalrymple said.
“We don’t shut people out if they’re wearing pearl necklaces and not tweed jackets,” said Dalrymple, whose latest book is “Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India” (Bloomsbury).
“If we can showcase great literature and also less-publicized writers, and pull in Dior-clad, sunglass-wearing lovelies from Page 3, well, that’s perfectly fine.”
“Page 3” is an Indian phrase referring to the social elite, whose pictures often appear on the third page of newspapers’ entertainment sections.
Coetzee and Pamuk will be joined this year by Indian Seth and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, and American Candace Bushnell, author of “Sex and the City,” which inspired the television series and movies.
The festival also features more than 100 speakers on subjects including the financial crisis and the search for Che Guevara’s remains, along with concerts by Indian and international musicians, and poetry readings.
Attendance could reach 50,000, according to the Rajasthan State Tourism ministry. The major sponsors are Merrill Lynch, billionaire Vijay Mallya’s Kingfisher Airlines Ltd., Vodafone Ltd. and Pearson Plc.’s Economist magazine.
“The festival is strong proof that arts, literature and culture are a powerful intersect point for business, communities, centers of influence, clients and prospects,” Kaku Nakhate, the Mumbai-based country head for Bank of America Corp., said in an e-mail.