Frontlist | Sanjoy Roy hoping to having some version of a physical festival

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With just three months to go to the dates on which the 2021 edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival is slated to be held, the big question in India’s literary circles is: Will the lifest go ahead as planned? Is it feasible? The showpiece of litfests in India and around the world, JLF is a bellwether event in the pandemic-hit world of literature and festival. If the show goes on, there’s hope all round. JLF is organised by Teamwork Arts, whose managing director Sanjoy Roy spoke to Scroll.in about the festival’s pivot to a digital format in the lockdown, the future of litfests, and more. Excerpts from the interview:

Could you bring us up to speed on all that has been happening since the pandemic broke out and how things have changed for JLF in these past months?
As you know, 23 March was when the first lockdown started, and by early April every condominium and gated community in India was acting like a republic of its own. In such a scenario, how do you continue the free flow of information and knowledge? At this time, more than anything else, what we needed was to share information and knowledge across the world. So we set up our digital literature series, JLF Brave New World, and our first session was broadcast on 4 April.

That was quick!
It was one of those things that just clicked. In the first month, we were doing about six sessions a week, and I pushed my colleague for numbers, not realising that the world as we know it has changed and with it the concept of numbers has changed. At the end of the first month, when we got the data analysis from YouTube and Facebook, we were astonished to see what the series had achieved.

At the physical festival at Jaipur, the maximum number of people we can squeeze into the front lawns on a good day is 12-13,000, perhaps 15,000 with Rana Daggubati. In the digital edition, an average session in season one got 32,000 views – and these are actual numbers, not vague visual impressions. Further, the average viewing time was about 18 to 20 minutes, far higher than the average on OTT platforms, which is about 7.5 to 8 minutes.

Were the sessions online similar to the ones you would do at the physical festival?
Well, we realised that the whole experience is very different. And I don’t mean just because of the shift from physical to digital – the conversations were different. And it occurred to us that when you come to speak at Jaipur and you see the sea of humanity out there, you go up on stage and “entertain”, for lack of a better word, with knowledge. Here, the conversations have been so in-depth and reflective, whether it was Orhan Pamuk or Margaret Atwood or Peter Carey, they have all been very introspective, quiet, and empathetic both to their inner voice, which is their writing voice, as well as to their readers.

We have also had a very interesting and relevant series of conversations around Covid with figures, like with Ajit Lalvani, Director of Infectious Disease Centre at Imperial College London, Roger Highfield, Director of the Science Museum, skin expert Sharad Paul from New Zealand, and doctor and writer Siddharth Mukherjee. In a fascinating session right at the beginning of the lockdown, each offered their own perspective on the pandemic.

I remember Siddharth saying that the real killer is the clot, they have been seeing this in all the autopsies. And then Dr Lalvani spoke about his personal experience of recovering from Covid. A few weeks ago he came back to JLF to look at how certain issues have progressed in the course of the pandemic, such as geopolitics, science and technology.

An interconnected world has been affected by this pandemic in the same way and at the same time, and this very connectivity that we have always taken for granted has come to an end. So there are no flights, no travelling, etc. It is fascinating to track how the mantra of globalisation has been transformed into one of regionalisation. This is something that has happened in the past, with the trade wars, with the rise of ideas like “make America great”, “make India great” and so on. But this pandemic has put into perspective the need for the local to become the new global.

Could you tell us what went into the creation of JLF Words Are Bridges, which followed Brave New World?
There’s always been this idea that at JLF we only get “fancy” writers, and this may be true to an extent, but nobody has ever focused on the fact that typically every year we cover writers in 16 to 18 languages, and each of their sessions is fairy full. I am told after every JLF that I didn’t do anything for local writing or for Indian language writing, but it’s really the press that didn’t cover those sessions. We started Words Are Bridges to look at languages more closely, to study the nuances of translation. While at the Indian languages sessions in the Mughal Tent or the Baithak or Durbar Hall we had a few thousand people, online Words Are Bridges caught on even faster than Brave New World.

Is it just that the people who would attend these sessions physically are now watching them online, or have you been able to reach newer audiences?
One thing I have realised in these last months is that the world we are living in is both geographically and time agnostic, so it doesn’t matter whether you attend a session live or not (unless, of course, you want to ask a question). In the past we used to record JLF sessions and used Facebook Live, but it was more for the sake of recording and archiving, our aim was not to create a unique digital experience.

Last month’s analysis showed that our third largest viewing segment of international viewers is from Germany. Can you imagine? Germany never registered as even 0.05% at JLF in terms of audiences. Even Saudi Arabia registered this year as 0.9 %, but never Germany. We have never spent money in promoting JLF in non-English speaking countries, yet now we have this new audience that continues to grow and we are focusing more and more on brining on board European authors.

Over 4.5 million people have viewed JLF Brave New World, but we don’t know who exactly our audience is. Who are we catering to and how do you programme blind? Even if you perform dipstick surveys, like other OTT platforms, you still don’t know who exactly you are going to attract as an audience. This is a puzzle we still haven’t cracked.

When we were doing JLF London, which was our first geographically specific project, we weren’t sure how to formulate the programme. It worked out very well though – whereas at the physical festival in London we would get maybe 1,200 people at our three venues, in the digital edition, in an average session we got more people than we have had in the last seven years combined in London. And of course the sessions could be viewed anywhere in the world, although when we broadcast them we followed British Standard Time.

Usually, with all our programming, Namita [Gokhale], William [Dalrymple] and we tend to focus on issues that are current to that place, and try to see these issues from a local, national and international perspective. We didn’t necessarily focus on getting authors from London. That has sort of always been our USP at the Jaipur Lit Fest.

So you’ve reinvented JLF in a way, at least the international versions. But what of the business side?
When we started this online project, we were all at home, my colleagues didn’t have access to their office computers and design software, so it took us a while to build our identity, but I believe that Brand JLF has now found its wings through our innovative way of reaching out. The million-dollar question that every online platform asks is: does this translate into resources? And there the jury is out – like it’s still out with Amazon or Flipkart or any digital product – is it making money?

And can it make money? A startup would show this as proof of its ability to gather audiences, proof of a successful concept, and use this to get funding. But an established company needs revenues from day one.
Absolutely. That’s always a challenge. I am not saying we haven’t been able to get money, we have been getting small amounts of money, but at the end of the day we are 100 people here at Teamwork.

Do your funds come mainly through sponsorship?
Ideally, we would like one-third of our funds to come from sponsorship, a third from ticketing and a third from merchandising and food-beverage sales. But it’s actually been 60% from sponsorship and 40% from ticketing in the festivals outside India (like Singapore, Hong Kong, New York) and from delegates in India.

I assume you aren’t considering ticketing the online sessions yet.
We haven’t been able to figure out how to crack this one. Once the session is out there do we get people to register to be able to listen? And what does this do to the basic fundamental belief that in countries like ours where you don’t always have access, it’s important to allow for the free flow of knowledge and information? Eventually, we may ask for a contribution fee, which is what most online platforms do, to help us stay afloat.

Your costs must be much lower now though with no expenses for travel and hospitality.
Yes, but the people cost remains the same. We have taken cuts in salary, but still have all our employees, and then we have designing and technology costs. So I would say that our costs are very different now, but not necessarily much lower.

The attraction of Jaipur and the huge audiences must be a big draw for participating authors. What has it been like in terms of getting authors to participate now?
JLF has a lot of goodwill, for having looked after people when they have come to Jaipur in the past, and has revolutionised the way a speaker experiences a festival – it is very different from most UK festivals, where a speaker gets a sandwich and a beer if they are lucky. After Jaipur, other festivals were under pressure to offer buffets, pickups, hotels, etc.

In any case, because there is no travelling involved, it has been easier to get people to agree. Margaret Atwood, for example, had always been reluctant to travel to Jaipur but she agreed at once to the online session. I don’t think any of the writers we have asked have said no. That’s thirteen years of investment paying off! But the festival experience is not the same, I admit, and if this were to continue I’m sure there will be the law of diminishing returns.

What happens next – in the short, medium and long run? And the real question, what’s the flagship JLF in Jaipur looking like?
Well, after London we have Boulder, New York, and then Toronto coming up. We just finished recording the sessions in Adelaide yesterday. Which will bring us full circle back to Jaipur in January 2021 where we are hoping – and this is not something we are 100% sure of – that we can have some version of a physical festival, restricted to a small number of people, in the open air venues, and then broadcast it digitally for the rest of the world.

Doing it at the festival captures the essence of what it is to be on the ground, although it cannot entirely be translated to the internet. We’d like to provide links to our new merchandising portal where artisans can sell their products. For instance, in Boulder and Houston we have linked up with a local restaurant to do a little package of Indian goodies. But all of this is really crystal-ball gazing, we don’t actually know what’s going to happen in January.

What about international speakers though?
There will be no international travel in the foreseeable future. As far as international participation goes, we will use technology to beam them in and have some Indian speakers physically present. The Ministry of Culture will be issuing a protocol for outdoor spaces and they have already done so for indoor spaces.

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