History festivals are cropping up all over the place: BBC History Magazine holds its own very popular weekends, at Malmesbury and York in the autumn and in Bristol in a few weeks’ time. The Chalke Valley History Festival is a firmly established fixture in June these days. A new history festival is set to launch in July this year in Cambridge, while Canterbury is hosting a medieval weekend in April.
All these events are to an extent born out of the long tradition of literary festivals, which have always tended to attract historians as speakers and history enthusiasts as attendees. That doesn’t apply simply in Britain; BBC History Magazine recently attended India’s largest literary festival in Jaipur.
This long weekend is nothing like anything you will find in the UK, but then nothing in the UK is held in the grounds of a 200-year-old royal palace in the heart of a hot and historic Rajasthani city, the famous fortified pink city of Jaipur.
The festival, which has just concluded (it ran from 21–25 January), is now nine years old. It’s a calendar event for literary lovers and it gets fiercely busy with delegates coming from Jaipur, across India, and many from further afield; British, American and Australian accents are common. The festival is able to attract major luminaries, both Indian and international, to come and talk (this year’s keynote speakers included the novelist Margaret Atwood and the comedian Stephen Fry).
Noted and feted historians are also thick on the ground, no doubt in part because one of the festival’s co-directors is the historian and travel writer William Dalrymple. This year’s history speaker list included the First World War expert Margaret MacMillan, Labour MP and Victorian specialist Tristram Hunt, Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro, and Radio 4’s recent chronicler of India Sunil Khilnani.
The talk sessions, of which there are some 200 spread over the five days, tend to be in the form of conversations or debates rather than lectures, and difficult topics are regularly broached: the Partition of 1947 and the consequences of British imperialism in India were both subjected to forensic examination in front of very engaged audiences at this year’s festival.
One of the most energetically debated events centred around Oxford Byzantine historian Peter Frankopan’s analysis of the global nature of the Silk Roads. One of his points was to dwell on the difficulties people have, here in the UK, as well as in India, and indeed across the world, in grasping the global perspective on historical stories. It was interesting to see him endeavouring to demonstrate how both the British and the Indian approach to the past allow for a parochial understanding that fails to take account of the pivotal role played by the Middle East and Central Asia in long parts of global history.
The sessions outlined above relate to work by historians who will be familiar to the British audience, but speakers at Jaipur also include many scholars based in India and the sub-continent who are not such household names here, tackling topics that are not regularly discussed in the UK. Sixteenth-century Indian epic poetry, the histories of the Himalayan lands of Sikkim and Nepal, and little-known religions of the Middle East were all considered, to take just a few examples.
This blend of familiar and unfamiliar histories, an extraordinary setting and a phenomenal speaker line-up combine to make the Jaipur Literary Festival as thought-provoking and relevant for British history enthusiasts as anything you’ll find here in the UK. It’s feasible to get there for a long weekend from the UK, but of course, there is much to see and enjoy around the area for those who can afford a longer break in Rajasthan.
Dave Musgrove is the publisher, and former editor, of BBC History Magazine.
To find out more about Jaipur Literature Festival, click here.