Since 2006, the Jaipur Literature Festival has filled Diggi Palace in Rajasthan, India’s largest state, with the world’s premier writers, thinkers, and those who flock to see them. Known as the largest free literary festival in the world, JLF attracted more than 270,000 attendees last year to its readings, panel discussions, workshops, and musical performances. Sanjoy Roy, JLF’s producer, describes the event as “an Indian wedding meets literature, full of color, celebration, music, and tens of thousands of people.”
This week, JLF launches its first-ever U.S. festival in Boulder, thanks to the efforts of psychotherapist and life coach Jessie Friedman and translator and former Naropa University professor Jules Levinson, a Boulder couple. This weekend, the city will be filled with exceptional writers and thinkers, who will share ideas and innovation with audiences—all for free. Roy talked to 5280 on the phone from Delhi, India about what attendees can expect from JLF Boulder (and why it’s here to stay).
5280: Why did you choose Boulder to be the first U.S. location for the festival?
Sanjoy Roy: We looked at New York, Chicago, New Orleans, San Francisco, and Seattle, and we had offers from each of these cities. But one of the ingredients to make a festival successful is location. You need a festival city. Avignon is a festival city and Paris will never be one; Edinburgh is a festival city and London will never be one. I wasn’t convinced that the great cities of America had a space for this festival.
Jules [Levinson] and Jessie [Friedman] stumbled upon the festival in their travels. They were completely bowled over. They went back to Boulder and nudged each other and said, “We have to do it here.” One day I got an email from them. I had no idea where Boulder was, but I was on my way to San Francisco and I said, “OK, I will drop by Boulder.”
Driving to Boulder, I instantly got that breathtaking view of the Front Range and the Flatirons. Two prairie dogs ran into the road, [my driver] swerved, and the car jackknifed on the highway and nearly turned over, but we survived. Survival is always a good sign.
When I arrived in Boulder, they said, “We must take you to our mall.” I rolled my eyes and thought this must be an American tradition, to take a visitor to the mall. But the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder is an incredibly lovely place with independent stores and great character.
Each time I went back to Boulder, everybody I met was enthusiastic, well-read, and aware of the world and its politics. Our experiences in America, especially in the Midwest, haven’t necessarily shown that.
How did people react to the selection of Boulder?
The funny thing is, when we started sending word out, booking writers from all over the U.S., everybody instantly said, “Perfect place! How did you come across it?” It was accidental. Like most wonderful things, it was the magic of the moment. The stars conspire with the rivers and the mountains.
Why do you think it’s important that the festival be free?
In any place where there is inequity—whether it’s India or America—one way to bring about some kind of equity is to allow knowledge to be democratically accessed. Three or four years into the festival, I was standing at the entrance to Diggi Palace early in the morning when we’d just opened the gates. A man and a young lad walked through the entrance. I asked, “What brings you here?” The man said, “I sleep on the footpath in front of the SMS Hospital down the road from your venue. I know I’ll never be able to afford to send my son to school nor buy him a book, but I thought if he came and heard a story, it would change his life. I heard you tell stories here.”
In India, especially in places like Jaipur, for somebody like that to walk into the entrance of this palace is incredible. It proved stories do change people and can affect change and bring about equity. The only way to tackle inequity is to ensure everyone has the same kind of opportunities.
We’re keen to make this Boulder festival not a replica of the Jaipur Festival, but one we’re creating from scratch. We’re very aware of the environment there, of the sensitivities we need to look at and the different communities we need to interest.
Will JLF come to Boulder again, or will it rotate to different spots in the U.S.?
We are very keen, once we set roots, to continue. What we’re not sure about is the economics of the festival. Outside of the wonderful support we received from the Boulder Public Library Foundation and the City of Boulder, we haven’t been able to raise one dollar from corporate Colorado. It’s a new product and we’re new people landing like a spaceship, so nobody quite knows what all this is about.
If we can’t eventually attract corporate sponsorship and support, we’ll have no option but to move. But as of now, we are here to stay and hopefully we will learn from our mistakes and make it bigger and brighter each year.
The Jaipur Literature Festival hits the Boulder Public Library and other venues from September 18 to 20, with events from 9:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. It’s free and open to the public. Check out the full schedule here.
Jenny Shank’s first novel, The Ringer, won the High Plains Book Award. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The Guardian and McSweeney’s.