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Mihir S Sharma: The patrons of Jaipur

There's something to be deduced from how JLF, India's most visible globalised cultural event, has weathered the storms that have buffeted this country's economy

Mihir S Sharma 

There is something daintily aristocratic about the Jaipur Literary Festival. It isn’t just that it is held amid the trappings of faded gentility that characterise the more touristy parts of Rajputana; or that Diggi Palace, which it occupies like a Mongol-style empire of tents, is filled with the drawling accents of upper-class Britons charmed into turning up by festival organiser William Dalrymple. No, particularly remarkable is how very how very discreetly expensive it must be, and how easily it wears all that expense. There are dozens and dozens of writers and critics and journalists from all over the world; they’re ferried to India and ferried around Jaipur from palace to palace, fed and entertained — as are sundry other individuals waving their tags of privilege, green and blue and red, demanding cars on call and enormous amounts of alcohol.

I don’t know what the finances are of something like this, but something that admits tens of thousands of people free is unlikely to be able to pay for itself, and it shouldn’t be expected to. (It’s good to know that JLF does, at least, make money off the on-site bookstore. Apparently people buy books after listening to authors, the sort of little fact that at first may seem obvious but, if you really think about it, warms your cynical heart.) JLF, I’ve said before, is the sort of gilded bubble where normal rules seem to cease to apply — except they don’t, and the most basic of rules in this most heartless of eras is that things have to be paid for. And thus, of course, you have sponsors. Oddly, that doesn’t take away from JLF’s genteel air, quite the opposite — what’s more aristo than a bit of Patronage of the Arts, anyway?

It isn’t easy to line up sponsors, and I don’t envy Mr Dalrymple and his co-organisers, Sanjoy Roy and Namita Gokhale, the task of persuading India’s notoriously tight-fisted and quite unliterary companies to hand over a cheque or two with a murmured prayer to Culture. Yet, surely, there’s something to be deduced from how JLF, India’s most visible globalised cultural event, has weathered the storms that have buffeted this country’s economy.

And it is easier to make that deduction than you would expect. You need no special information; you can ignore any gossip whispered eagerly in your ear; you don’t need to eavesdrop on whispered conversations in Diggi Palace’s famously public private spaces. No, all you need is to turn you eyes upwards, and look at the sponsors’ banners. In the past, the names emblazoned across them reflected those who made a fortune – or wished to make their fortune – from the brash, resource-driven capitalism of that increasingly distant era that gave India eight per cent-plus growth and made it the toast of the world’s investors. Vedanta, for example. Shell, for another. Those nice Jindals, too. The good people of Rio Tinto got themselves an entire tent. And then, of course, there are the erstwhile Masters of the Universe. Merrill Lynch/Bank of America was a major sponsor at one point. So was the chosen popular villain of the 2008 financial crisis, Goldman Sachs — the company Matt Taibbi cuttingly described as a great, insatiable vampire squid “jammed around the face of humanity”.

And now, what do you see? Google, Messrs “Don’t-Be-Evil” themselves. Tata Steel, the self-appointed moral exemplars of India Inc. And, in case you somehow miss the point, they’re happy to bang it in with polite remorselessness: the banners say “Tata Steel: the Carnival of Values”. Indeed.

True, things are tighter. Presumably the old, evil patrons were also a little more open-handed, because now we have to put up with advertisement breaks on the PA system between sessions. And, of course, Suhel Seth’s Counselage is still a major sponsor – I write this from what used to be the Counselage Press Terrace, thanks awfully, Mr Seth – and so he, as always, expects to be able to hold forth on stage on any subject under the sun. Patronage has a price, as Nayansukh’s famous self-portrait, bowing low to his overdressed royal patron, makes clear. You’re very foolish if you think aristocracy is ever classy.

But truly discreet patronage has its own, intriguing, effects, too. Here’s just one example, from Thursday evening. As I headed dutifully to the wine bar, I saw, shuffling shyly ahead of me, Binayak Sen. When he got his drink, he didn’t seem to pause to consider exactly which company he despises paid for it. That, too, is the magic of aristocracy, of the patronage it delivers — how the power to expropriate is somehow transmuted into almost celebratory moments in which everyone can thoughtlessly, joyfully participate. Times change, and economies with them; social structures change, and change our minds with them; but some things, it appears, are so basic to the way that societies pay for culture that they can’t ever be changed.  

First Published: Sat, January 26 2013. 00:41 IST