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Literary festival bringing spirit of India to Belfast

The Jaipur Literature Festival has been dubbed the greatest literary show on Earth, attracting acclaimed speakers such as Ian McEwan and Margaret Atwood. Now Teamwork Arts, which runs the festival, is staging the first ever JLF Belfast at the Lyric Theatre this weekend. Linda Stewart talks to the organisers and speakers.

Clockwise from left: Sanjoy Roy, festival producer; Navtej
Sarna, writer; Noirin McKinney, Arts Council; Reba Som, writer; and Namita Gokhale, writer and festival co-director at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast
Clockwise from left: Sanjoy Roy, festival producer; Navtej Sarna, writer; Noirin McKinney, Arts Council; Reba Som, writer; and Namita Gokhale, writer and festival co-director at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast

Historian and writer Reba Som, originally from Calcutta, has travelled all over the world as the wife of a diplomat including Brazil, Canada, Laos and Italy. She will be taking part in a discussion about India's national poet Rabindranath Tagore and how he was inspired and influenced by the poetry of WB Yeats.

"History is my main discipline and I am a singer of the songs of Tagore," she says.

"He is probably the most iconic literary figure we have in India and he lived from 1861 to 1941. He was a man of versatility and when he met Yeats in 1912 he came with books of his own translation from Bengal, and Yeats was very touched with that.

"He became the first Asian to win a Nobel Prize in 1913 because of his collection of poems, Gitanjali, and he went on to become a prolific writer of poems, plays, novels and short stories. He lectured and travelled all over the world and set up his own university. He was really a renaissance man."

But Reba says she can't resist also talking about Sister Nivedita of Vivekananda, who was actually born Margaret Noble, a pastor's daughter, in Dungannon, Co Tyrone.

In her book Margot: Sister Nivedita Of Vivekananda, Reba explores how Margaret met Swami Vivekananda in London and travelled to India, where she converted to Hinduism and became a tireless worker for social activism, adopting India as her spiritual home.

"She has not been known enough, but she was phenomenal," Reba says.

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"As a writer, she comes to India, makes it her own and writes a book. Being a kindergarten teacher, she asks that you have to judge a society by its lived traditions and not impose your values from outside.

"She was able to interact with all the luminaries of the time, even though she was a single woman - she would barge her way through and make her views felt."

Reba says there was quite an incident when Sister Nivedita met Tagore for the first time, as he thought she was a missionary who might be able to teach his daughter English.

Ex-Diplomat: Navtej Sarna
Ex-Diplomat: Navtej Sarna

"She asked: 'Why would you want that? Why don't you teach your daughter your own language and your own heritage?'" Reba says.

Despite many ups and downs, Sister Nivedita had quite a close friendship with Tagore, and even persuaded him to change the ending of one of his books because she felt he was not treating women with the kind of feeling that he should.

"When she died in 1911 Tagore went full circle and gave the most fulsome tribute to her and called her the 'People's Mother'," Reba adds.

She says she's looking forward to the discussion about Tagore and to introducing Sister Nivedita to a wider audience.

She is also struck by how peaceful Belfast seems to be be, despite its history of violence.

"Yesterday I was on my own so I went to CastleCourt, bought some books, walked back and read my books and went to a restaurant. I've been sitting up on the sixth floor looking out and it's lovely," she says.

"I was able to see all the murals and learn about the whole story about the Williamites and the Jacobites. The whole story is fascinating and I didn't realise all this until I got here. You have to travel to a country and see it to understand it."

Festival organiser Sanjoy Roy is managing director of Teamwork Arts, which produces more than 25 highly acclaimed performing arts, visual arts and literary festivals across 40 cities around the world.

The birth of the Jaipur Literature Festival dates back to a discussion at the Edinburgh Festival, which inspired the launch of a heritage festival in Jaipur. "Within the festival, Namita (Gokhale) and William (Dalrymple) curated a wee literature segment within that festival," he says.

After the heritage festival "went pear-shaped", Teamwork Arts revived the literature segment.

"We took the literature segment and created what is now known as the Jaipur Literature Festival. It attracted 7,000 people in the first year, 15,000 in the second year, and in the last year half-a-million people came through our doors," Sanjoy adds.

"Eighty per cent of them are below the age of 35. In any society where there is inequity, we believe the only way to bring about social change is through knowledge and education and for us our whole focus was on how can we create a platform which will be exciting for young people to be able to access.

Organiser Namita Gokhale
Organiser Namita Gokhale

"In Teamwork Arts we run about 33 festival programmes in about 42 cities in about 17 countries across the world, of which JLF is one of our brands.

"People love to come - they love the colour, they love the food, they love the talks and the brilliant speakers from across the world. Not everybody necessarily comes for the literature. Sometimes it's the shopping! But our whole thing is how to make it sexy so that people want to come, and if they run into an idea accidentally, all the better."

Over the years JLF has attracted high-profile guests such as the Dalai Lama, numerous heads of state and US chat show queen Oprah Winfrey.

Sanroy wryly describes the email trail from Oprah's people ahead of her visit: "They wanted to shoot four episodes and they wanted us to provide an interpreter. So, I said there are more English-speaking people in India than in the whole of America."

Next they wanted to know how she would be received.

"At that point I lost the plot and asked: 'Camel or elephant?' And then I got another email back asking would she need to train to ride a camel or elephant!"

Over the last few years Teamwork Arts has run a series of JLF international editions to create platforms to promote free-thinking dialogue in London, New York, Houston, Colorado and now Belfast for the first time.

"This is Year Zero - every festival has to have a Year Zero," Sanjoy says.

He admits the Northern Ireland Arts Council badgered him for five years in an effort to persuade Teamwork Arts to come to Belfast, and he finally agreed after realising what an unusual place the city was, with its evolving history.

"When I got to understand the need for platforms where people could come to debate and discuss and share, I realised this would be a place where we should set up a festival," he adds.

"When I finally came here (Lyric Theatre) and looked at this place, I said it's perfect.

"It has a sense of colour and the outside that you can invite inside, it's a place of the arts and literature already and it welcomes in people across the demographic. It seems to be a perfect venue to host the festival."

Sanjoy is hoping that if the festival gains traction here, it will be able to grow year on year.

"This year's programme will be split between the Lyric Theatre and the Seamus Heaney HomePlace, and will try to look at local issues from a national and international perspective, sharing stories from both sides of the ocean.

"We also have a consciousness of all that is happening in this part of the world, so we've brought for our keynote address Mahatma Gandhi's granddaughter (Tara Gandhi Bhattacharjee) to speak at the Seamus Heaney centre on Gandhi and how he is relevant in a time of violence," he says.

"In this age of divisiveness and fear, literature and the arts can create a window into one's mind and allow you to examine other people's histories, other people's culture, other people's philosophies and ways of doing business.

"Basically, understanding the other, through which we hope that the fear that people have of the unknown may dissipate over a period of time."

Festival organiser Namita Gokhale is an author, publisher and festival director, who has written 18 books including nine works of fiction. She is one of the founder members of Yatra Books, a publishing house specialising in translation.

She was brought up in Nainital in the central Himalayas, a location that figures in many of her work, and she points out a major Irish connection to the region.

"The area is famous for its boarding schools and the Irish nuns were the ones who ran many of them, so a lot of us studied under Irish nuns," she explains.

Namita describes Ireland as the land of poetry which lives in the vowels and consonants of its writers and the imagination of the world.

"It is the culmination of a long-held dream to present JLF in Belfast, into the heart of an intense, passionate literary culture," she says. "In the past several years the Jaipur festival has had the pleasure of welcoming writers such as Colm Toibin, David Park, Anne Enright, Roddy Doyle, Glenn Patterson, Roy Foster, Jon O'Neill, Patricia Forde, Jan Carson and Paul McVeigh among others."

Namita works on the festival sessions backstage throughout the year and is often too busy to see many themselves. "But once in a while I sit down and hear a session unfold and give some meaningful insights. It's one of the greatest joys in life," she says. "The other great joy I get from the festival is the time I get to spend with some of the greatest writers from around the world - young writers, shy and struggling writers.

"There's a literary community from around the world in which I am a privileged participant. I am full of gratitude to be doing what I am doing."

Giving her first impressions of Belfast, she says: "I love the green, I love the energy, which is challenging. All the Irish people I've met and known are the ones I've really connected with because there is a spontaneity about them. They have a very, very witty culture."

Author and diplomat Navtej Sarna has served in Moscow, Warsaw, Thimphu, Geneva, Tehran and Washington DC. He was High Commissioner to the UK in 2016 and served as India's ambassador to the United States from November 2016 to December 2018 before retiring from the Indian Foreign Service.

Navtej has already taken part in the Jaipur Literature Festival at least six times, and will be participating in three sessions at JLF Belfast.

"I have a session on travel writing, one of my books was about India's connection to Jerusalem, which was historical travel writing," he says. "One of the sessions will focus on borders. I've done a translation of a series of short stories by my father on the partition of India.

"The third session will be with William Dalrymple on the Koh-i-Noor diamond. I have done a historical novel on Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the Indian prince who was exiled to England and the last person who had the diamond before it was taken from him and given to Queen Victoria."

The discussion of borders should also draw some interesting parallels.

"It's a very emotional issue in India and Pakistan, but it's a very different partition," he says.

"There was an exchange of populations, we had a violent conflict and now it's a hard border."

He says he had hoped to visit Northern Ireland during his posting in London but was moved to Washington as ambassador following the Trump election. "It was a dramatic change in Washington. It was a new power set that came to Washington and it was quite exciting to find your feet there and keep the US relationship with India on an even keel," he explains.

"It was a difficult job, but I am used to difficult jobs. I spent four years as India's ambassador to Israel and that was a huge conflict situation. Life in Jerusalem, I am sure, there would be some parallels because of the quarters in Jerusalem, and similarly here you have experience of different communities living in different places.

"I've just arrived in Belfast, but it looks like a very interesting, edgy and beautiful city. I'm hoping to take a tour of the peace wall and other areas and trying to understand a bit more of the historical and political context of the city."

Festival highlights

June 22

Lyric Theatre

1.05PM: Darjeeling Express: A Chef's Table

Asma Khan, in conversation with Joris Minne, the Belfast Telegraph restaurant critic, hit the spotlight with Chef's Table on Netflix and here discusses her cooking, community and life.

4.30pm: Writing From The Brink

Beirut hostage Brian Keenan talks to writer and human rights activist Salil Tripathi about the trauma of incarceration and the will to survive.

5.45pm: Autumn Light

Pico Iyer, British-born essayist and novelist of Indian origin, lives between a Benedictine hermitage in California, Nara in Japan and international airports around the world. He talks to author and playwright Glenn Patterson about his life, beliefs and writing.

June 23

Seamus Heaney HomePlace

2.15pm: Gandhi in Times of Violence

Tara Gandhi Bhatacharjee, in conversation with Navdeep Suri, is the granddaughter of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. She talks about his genius and his enduring legacy of non-violence.

3.30pm: Mystic and the Muse: Yeats and Tagore

The 1912 meeting between WB Yeats and Rabindranath Tagore created history. Reba Som, Bashabi Fraser and Ruth Padel, in conversation with Sudeep Sen, unravel their fascinating relationship.

To book tickets for JLF Belfast, visit

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