NEW YORK – The Jaipur Literature Festival, a mini capsule of the organized charisma that descends upon the city in Rajasthan every January, enthralled New York City on September 20, at the Asia Society, where the audience got to savor some excellent panel discussions on literature, art and history, as well as music from the Sufi singer Zila Khan.
The day-long meet was capped by a rousing talk with the politician and writer Shashi Tharoor, who in his inimitable style delved into a host of issues queried by interviewer Namita Gokhale, with a degree of sophistication and erudition which perhaps nobody else from the subcontinent possesses, especially when enunciating it in the English language.
The popular festival, which had around half a million attendees in India this year, and is touted as the biggest literary show globally, also had shown up at Houston, Texas, before it made its way to the Big Apple, and goes next to Boulder, Colorado, to complete proceedings in its US iteration.
A riveting afternoon session which featured the Indian Ambassador to the United States, Navtej Sarna, author William Dalrymple, and Navina Haidar, on the topic of ‘Kohinoor: the Light of the World,’ was another fine highlight of the festival.
The orchestrated discussion by three experts who have all written about one of the most famous diamonds in the world – which India ultimately lost to colonialism, was a fascinating weaving of popular folklore and legend, encapsulated by the bitter factual history, which surrounds the narrative.
Sarna, a prolific author, speaking at the inauguration of the meet, pointed out to the close ties between India and the US which have flourished in the last 20 years.
“Twenty years ago, we were estranged democracies,” Sarna said of Indo-US ties. “But since the last 20 years, there have been positive relations between India and the US.”
Sarna also talked about the “efflorescence” of Indian fiction and non-fiction writing since the 80s, which have also been helped to a great extent by the advent of the Jaipur Literature Festival, and the many other festivals which have come up in the last decade or so.
Later, Tharoor stole the limelight, with his take on Hinduism, and his comments on cricketing ties between India and Pakistan, which led to comments on the cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan, the newly minted Prime Minister of Pakistan.
Saying Khan is a “fine human being,” and a “good guy” whom he has known for a long time, during his time here in New York City, when he was a diplomat the United Nations, Tharoor said that Khan, however, was bound by the dictation and will of the Pakistan Army, and could swing either way, like a pendulum.
“(Khan is a) good guy and if the military decide they want peace, he will be a wonderful face for that peace but if the military decide they want hostility, I’m sure he is equally capable of being an effective voice for hostility,” Tharoor said during a conversation with Gokhale, entitled, ‘India Sutra’.
Tharoor said that the experience India has had with Pakistan for the last 70 years “shows us that it is what the Pakistani military decides that will determine the prospects for any genuine or lasting peace between our countries.”
Tharoor quipped that in India the state has an army and in Pakistan, the army has a state. He said the army in Pakistan has ruled directly for 32 years and indirectly for the other 38 years by “essentially controlling how much the government could do or not do.”
He said: “Every time a civilian government in Pakistan has attempted to make some progress in responding to Indian peace overtures, every single time it’s been interrupted by either a military action directly undertaken by the Pakistan Army like in Kargil or militants unleashed by the Pakistani Army’s notorious ISI as we saw on 26/11.
“The question that comes up to any Indian government is – is it worth talking to a civilian government in Pakistan or are they all either unable or unwilling to fulfill their professions of peace. That worry will remain, whoever is Prime Minister,” he said.
On cricketing relations between India and Pakistan, Tharoor said: “Sport is a sport; it should be seen as such. Whether we win or lose will have no bearing on whether we are going to be able to make peace with the Pakistani authorities. I honestly think we should separate the two,” he said.
Tharoor, who spoke about his new book “Why I am a Hindu”, defended Hinduism as the religion most suited for the modern era. He said it questions even the presence of God, and that kind of incertitude is what is required in the era when people blindly followed what’s narrated to them, or read in a book.
“Hinduism rests on the fact that there is a heck of a lot we don’t know about,” Tharoor said. “The first is the wonderful fact that in an era of uncertainty, incertitude, you have uniquely a religion that privileges incertitude”.
He added: “A religion that is prepared to question the omniscience of the creator is to my mind a wonderful faith for a modern or post-modern sensibility,” going on to say, “on top of that, you have got extraordinary eclecticism and since no one knows what God looks like one is free to imagine God as one likes in Hinduism.”
About the Laws of Manu, he said, “there is very little evidence as to whether they were observed and there were many texts that existed. I don’t think every Hindu took the advice of the Kama Sutra, either”, he added, to laughter.
“For every misogynistic or casteist pronouncements, I can give you other equally sanctified texts that preach against casteism,” he said, explaining that Hinduism “is not a religion of one holy book, but of multiple sacred texts. There’s an awful lot to pick from. What you pick is up to you. If you choose to pick the misogynist or casteist or offensive bits of the religion and say my religion allows me to discriminate against people or to oppress people, it is your fault, not the religion’s.”
Tharoor said that the Hinduism that he has seen, read, grown up with, practiced and being taught is a much more “self-confident Hinduism”.
Apart from the Jaipur Literature Festival, the Asia Society is also featuring an impressive, and comprehensive art show, ‘The Progressive Revolution: Modern Art for a New India’, through January 20, 2019.
At a reception and unveiling of the exhibition, on September 17, the curator, Dr. Zehra Jumabhoy, Associate Lecturer, at The Courtauld Institute of Art, in London, gave a widely appreciated talk on the relevance of modernism in India, and how it stood up to the Western contemporaries and masters.
The collection, which Indian American art collector and entrepreneur Kent Charugundla – who has one of the most extensive collections of modern Indian art, termed as “excellent”, at the reception, comprises of more than 80 works by members of the Progressive Artists’ Group, which formed in Bombay, in the aftermath of independence.
The exhibition comprises some of the most well-known works from the group’s core founders – K. H. Ara, S. K. Bakre, H. A. Gade, M. F. Husain, S. H. Raza, and F. N. Souza – as well as later members and those closely affiliated with the movement: V. S. Gaitonde, Krishen Khanna, Ram Kumar, Tyeb Mehta, Akbar Padamsee, and Mohan Samant.