India’s most democratic, free spirited literary festival, the Jaipur Literature Festival takes off two days on, at its heritage site-the Diggi Palace. But already a PIL regarding the cramped venue is in the High Court, waiting to be heard. Diggi Palace owners Thakur Ram Pratap Singh Diggi and wife Jyotika Kumari are not worried as they prepare for their annual literary sojourn. The Rajasthan Post team caught up with them
Jaipur’s literary calendar is again looking up. It is that time of the year when the grandest of all literary fests, the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) begins on Jan 21 this year at the heritage venue-the 17th Century Diggi Palace.
But two days before it takes off, the JLF, which has always been dogged by controversies, is in the midst of another.
With a PIL to shift the venue to a more appropriate place due to the ever increasing footfalls, the consequent traffic snarls, the road blockades and the difficulties faced by patients of the nearby hospital, the Diggi Palace is again under siege.
But its owners, Thakur Ram Pratap Singh Diggi and his wife Jyotika Kumari Diggi remain unfazed. They say: “JLF made its humble beginning in 2006 from here when it was called the Jaipur Festival and was part of the Jaipur Virasat Festival. We were part of it in 2008, when the fest became an independent entity. In 2006, the book readings could gather only 11 spectators and that too Japanese tourists, who came here because they lost their way. We along with the JLF organisers, Namita Gokhle, William Dalrymple and Teamwork’s Sanjoy Roy all work like a family. We have always provided our Palace as a venue for anything that invigorates the mind, inculcates sound thinking and raises good, debatable thoughts. And not just JLF, there have other festivals too like Jaipur Art Festival, the Sufi Festival. Anything to promote the art, culture and traditional customs.”
Maintaining the traditional customs and culture has always been a priority for the Diggi family. Their family has been looking after the temples in their native place Diggi for eons. As rulers, they have always patronised music, art and culture.
One of the examples is the popular religious Diggi padyatra, usually held in July, which attracts more than 15 lakh devotees. The yatra begins from Jaipur’s Tarkeshwar temple and ends at their native village, Diggi about 60 km from Jaipur. The devotees walk for two days to reach the Kalyanji ka temple built by the King Digva around 6000 years ago. The family also holds the Jal Jhulini ekadashi annually, wherein the Gods are taken to the water body and the whole village participates.
And it is not just religious ceremonies, which the Diggis believe in. Jyotika says: “We as a family strongly believe in the joint family system. It is such a pleasure to live together and carry on the customary family traditions . So for the JLF, the whole family is involved, my mother-in-law and sister-in-law are overseeing the kitchen and are the meal planners. My two sons, daughter, niece, nephews are all part of the JLF,overseeing some department.”
But despite having a distinguished legacy, the Diggis are modest. Both Ram Pratap and Jyotika admit: “JLF has given us more than what we could have ever asked for. Name, fame and a distinct identity to not only Diggi Palace but also to Jaipur, which has also come to be known as the Literature City. For our younger generation, being part of the JLF and helping to manage it has provided the best education in life. For our staff and local people, JLF has provided employment. ”
Diggi Palace has been their home for generations but it was only in 1991 that Ram Pratap along with his nephew Shakti Singh,his wife, Kaushika Kumari converted the family home into a friendly hotel.
Always seen in a Rajasthani poshak with the typical borla ( trinket) hanging from her forehead, Jyotika says: We never thought our hospitality would attract a festival like Jaipur Lit Fest.”
The Diggis provide the venue for free. Other than the sprawling venue, which hosts over 250 sessions with more than 300 speakers and where authors and readers mingle without the VIP baggage, they also host some of the writers in their 72 rooms.
And the the onus of serving the delectable Rajasthani dishes also lies on the Diggi family. So at least 50 traditional cooks from the Diggi village have been working overtime to dish out the mix of continental and Rajasthani fare, tempered to suit the international taste. So this time, at JLF one can smack their lips over hot raabs (drinks made from bajra (millet), makka (millet), handmade ice-creams,Gond ke ladoo, Diggipuri ki chai and dharwaali coffee. You can also munch on shakker paare while listening to the jampacked session all round.
JLF has actually spawned a rash of such literary festivals across India. Many say this may have undermined the popularity of the JLF.However, Diggis say they are not worried, rather proud of the fact that JLF has managed such a feat. Jyotika says: “Even a place like Sangrur in Punjab has held a small literary inspired by JLF. It speaks volume for the lit fest.”
But the ever increasing footfalls and the surging crowds also worry them. Although Jyotika believes the crowds cannot increase any further. She quips: “Last year the count was 2.75 lakh over five days. Everything reaches a plateau once it reaches its peak. I think JLF has reached this stage.”
And all this while, they have been opening up spaces, decongesting the place every year. “It is not just a few days job. We are at it the whole year, maintaining, repairing, renovating the entire area. This time we have earmarked a special volunteer area. The volunteers who number about 500 have nowhere to relax in the midst of surging crowds. So this year, we have a special place for these harried youngsters. We have also tried to smoothen out places where people may have tumbled, places which aged people find difficult to negotiate, places where we need to put up ramps for wheelchairs to facilitate smooth functioning of JLF. We have also got water-proof tents to deter the rains. Also the food outlets have been asked not to overprice any item.”
Jyotika , who says her home is a haven for birds and squirrels has got squirrel addas installed on trees so that they do not go without food on those five days. She says : “We start spreading daana on the terraces two three months before the fest starts, so that the birds get used to getting their food there.”
Amidst the hullabaloo over the PIL and the debate over shifting of the venue, Jyotika says she is never tensed or worried. Just before the JLF takes off, she just says her little prayer to the Lord, so that this mega jamboree just remains as it has always been : no tickets, no reservations, no VIP treatments, but lots and lots of authors, books and people.