Behind the Scenes at the First Ever Virtual Jaipur Literature Festival

Ananya Jain, a volunteer working behind-the-scenes at Jaipur Literature Festival 2021, which is completely virtual this time around, shares her unique experience.

By Ananya Jain

The first time I visited the Jaipur Literature Festival, I was a 14-year-old school student, passionate about books, but still trying to find my feet and exploring what I truly identified with. To put it simply, I was interested but not as invested. 

I remember some details quite vividly. It was a crisp January morning in Rajasthan, the sun shining in all its glory upon the city of forts, kings and history. The chatter of Diggi Palace (a 19th-century monument-turned-hotel where the Festival has been held annually since 2006) remains unforgettable.

The excitement was palpable on each attendee’s face, the different venues were bustling with audiences, enthusiastic to listen, to talk, to ask questions and to absorb. I remember buying myself a canvas tote bag by Penguin (the ones that look like book covers), one that I still have tucked away in my cupboard, however shrunk and battered after multiple washes and uses. 

Back then I never realised that literature, cultural exchange and conversation would come to occupy such a central part in my life, the way it has now. I am currently in my third year at St Andrews University in Scotland, studying art history and English.

While I believe that knowledge can be gained from anywhere and any experience, immersive experiences like the Jaipur Literature Festival have the ability to evoke and incite emotions and thoughts that one never even knew existed. 

Because I was shuffling between two countries, I was unable to attend the Festival over the past few years. This year, in an unexpected turn of events, I got the opportunity of being a virtual volunteer at the 14th edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival.

Due to the unprecedented times that we all find ourselves in, the Festival has gone virtual, and instead of five days, it has been extended to a 10-day long event, featuring writers, artists, academics, politicians, and thinkers from all across the world. 

As attendees, we are often only privy to the finished product. As spectators, we tend to marvel over the quality of the conversations, and at times talk about what went wrong. Most of us, however, cannot even fathom the effort that goes into creating such an event behind the scenes. The volunteer experience exposed me to some of these facets, highlighting processes that I had overlooked before. 

The volunteer application and process was split into different steps. There was a written application, followed by a group-based interview process. After being shortlisted, there was a three-day virtual training and team-building exercise, enabling individual growth and rethinking of personal biases and thought processes.

The sessions resulted in multiple insightful conversations, and allowed for a dialogue between volunteers from across the world. The best piece of advice that I took away from the training was, “Before feeding into or acting upon any advice given to you, reevaluate the extent of the advice-giver’s investment into you and your wellbeing” (given by Giraj Sharma).

It was also heartwarming to listen to Sanjoy K Roy recount his journey as founder of Jaipur Literature Festival, the connection with the Edinburgh Fringe Festival being particularly close to my heart. 

The 60 volunteers who made it through the process were assigned to teams, and that is when the experience took a new turn. Despite being situated in different cities, countries and spaces across the world, we were able to communicate, connect, and collaboratively work to amplify the content and cause of the Lit Fest.

Working virtually had a certain advantage: it helped me channelise my creativity and find ways to create a similar environment in my own space while coming up with innovative content. Sometimes, constraints and limits push us to do even better, and the 2021 Jaipur Literature Festival has exemplified this spirit better than any other. 

Apart from being enriched with insightful conversations between some of the best minds from across the world (most notable for me: Shashi Tharoor, Homi K Bhabha and Avni Doshi), I was also exposed to an array of books, ideas and exchanges.

The most interesting experience I had was of being assigned to make notes for a session that was entirely in Hindi, a discussion on the bhakti poetry of Rahim, one that challenged me to go above and beyond training and education, and listen more closely.

Interacting with other volunteers was a much-needed social outlet, but I would like to give a special shoutout to Shrishti Bhatia, our social-media team lead, who was extremely encouraging and, despite being drowned in work, continued to keep our wellbeing as volunteers in mind. 

Memories of the warm Jaipuri chai served at the festival were brought up countless times throughout these past days. As a 14-year-old, I was not a chai drinker, but as a 20-year-old, I thrive on my hot cup of morning chai, with a strong ginger flavour, notes of green cardamom and a hint of pepper hitting the back of my throat.

If I try hard enough, I can visualise myself on a sunny, crisp January morning back in the Pink City, sipping a cuppa, tote bag on my shoulder, notebook in hand, sitting on the front lawn at Diggi Palace.

But until then, I watch the Festival from the comfort of my home in the warm Delhi spring, grateful to be a part of an event that sparked a literary revolution in India. 

The Festival is ongoing until the February 28, 2021, and registration is free. You can register here.

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