Episode 06: Cultures and sub-cultures with Namita Gokhale

Sandeep Murthy
21st January 2022

Namita Gokhale, who is a writer, publisher, and festival director. She's authored many books and is the co-founder and co-director of the Jaipur Literature Festival. And we're going to talk a little bit about content, where it's going, culture, how it's evolving, and a little bit about how tech maybe playing a role in all of that through the lens that she's experienced.




Bibliophiles  read on:


Can you start by telling us how and why you got started with the Jaipur Literature Festival and what prompted it?

I like to think of myself first and foremost as a writer, an individual writer who writes and speaks only for herself. But I seem to have got caught up in so many other exciting and engrossing activities. I think we began with 40 people, 50 people in the audience in the first Premium Festival, and maybe a few thousand in 2008 when officially we became what is now the Jaipur Literature Festival and now numbers.


It began, as always, with the seed of a small idea. In 2002, I did a festival in collaboration with the ICCR, the Indian Council of Cultural Relations, and we called it “ At Home and the World” , and it was about Indian writers in India and diaspora writers outside India of Indian origin. That was a time when Indian writing was really making a Mark internationally, and we had victims it and Amitab Ghosh and so many writers. Now, of course, there are so many more in that space.

" It led in the beginning to a lot of anger and anger is often a very constructive emotion because you focus what you feel is wrong with something and then after anger comes action…and very few people I know are calmly able to handle something they don't like. If they do. I admire them all the more. "

Here, the anger rose between the Indian writers and the so called Indian English writers, and that led to my prime reason why I had entered that festival programming for the first season and the first time, which was that I wanted to make the Indian literary voices heard. India has 22 national languages.All these Indian languages have a rich repertory of writing. More people speak Bangla than they speak French. and arguably, we may have even greater writing in Bangladesh than in that great literary language, which is French. But why is it that Bangla literature is not known and recognized around the world and so on or Tamil, Kanada, Hindi, all the Indian languages?

So my attempt was to bring them together. That was a moment in time when Salman Khurshd had famously written in an introduction to a book that there was nothing of value in Indian literature, in the Indian languages, and the best was in Indian English. And Kushwan Singh had said the same.

He had said there is no vocabulary in Indian languages. And these were things which I didn't agree with then and which Singh would have agreed with me now had he been there. Salman Khurshid himself changed his position very, very soon afterwards. It was just a statement which was possibly taken out of context. So we had the great Indian writers like sunil gangopadhyayy, like U. R. AnanthamurthyI mean, writers I'm honoured to have known and met, and we had a lot of greats from around the rest of the world. And when they came together and they had those conversations, something very crucial happened. I knew always that there was a literary moment waiting to happen in India, but that it would happen only and only when all the Indian languages began speaking to each other. And we are now at that moment where literary translation from across the Indian languages happens all the time, happens confidently. And the reign of the Indian English or the Anglophile or the Western oriented writing alone is over. It's lots of wonderful writing happening from there, but there are other voices which resonate even more and more deeply.

“ I think this was the 2002 Nimrana Literature Festival and this is still remembered. And that laid the seeds for what was later the Jaipur Literature Festival. ”

And we became what we are because the energies which we share, that is the producer, Sanjoy Roy, and my co director William Dalrymple and me. Between us, we have perfect understanding. We also have conflicts which are important to stress what each of us is trying to envision. And between the three of us, I think the range of reading, of experience and of commitment and passion we bring to the Jaipur Literature Festival makes it a uniquely creative space that it is as you're telling this story.


Typically, when we've talked about the opportunity in India, we've underscored the fact that India is a country that's very much characterized by lots of fragmentation. There are large pockets that kind of come together, but there's tremendous amount of fragmentation across languages, across nuances and culture, across food. And a lot of that actually leads to, as well, a challenge in organizing, branding, scaling. Would you say that some of what happened here as a result of the coming together of people was just more organization, more methodology towards how to present the content in some way that actually brings it to light to a broader base of people? Was it really organization that changed the very nature of how these authors were and their content was perceived and understood?


“ In Indian literature in Indian literature, the more you seek the diversity, the more you get the unity. And the more you seek the unity, the more you get the diversity, because there is a core of something that is common. ”

You talked about food. We've come back to literature later, but there are some things that come back again and again in the food. There was this wonderful book that came out recently, Turmeric Nation, and I think Turmeric is one of the binding herbs of Indian food or the spices. It's just the interpretation is different. And even in food, very fine. Writer and journalist Dileep Padgaonkar used to say that actually there are many pan Indian foods, but they come across from the cast divides, that there is brahmin food of a certain kind across India, which is absteinous, there is Rajasthik food, there is sweet food.

So there are categories. So I don't think we ever thought of trying to reconcile any contradictions. We just took the contradictions as being the essential nature of what we were dealing with. So there was a glorious cacophony of voices. There were disagreements in every sentence, if not every corner. People used to think that we manufactured these controversies which seemed to erupt over small and big things in every festival. But no, we just said, let everybody say what they want in the language that they want, in the metaphor that they want. And magically the audiences came together, and this was the other comical thing about those early years of death or which now people have got used to that. It was perhaps the only space at that time. And since then, I don't know of any other space where you would have

“ I mean, we used to get these horrible adverse comments about the socialites who came to the Jaipur festival or the expensive handbags. And I said, there is no sort of reason why a socialite with an expensive handbag, can't come and listen in about books. And there were the jholawalas, and there were the Hindi walas, the academics. There was every category of person ”

And so we used to have and we still have at any given time, four or five different sessions. And as far as possible, these are balanced to different interest groups and they fill up and sometimes we are surprised that what we put in the front lawn expecting huge footfalls gets half the space full.

Not often, but sometimes and sometimes a small little venue might see a stampede. People make up their minds. But what I'm trying to say here is that all the Indians do live together. There is no conflict between them. A lot of conflict shows up on social media because it's easier for it to express itself in confrontation terms on social media. But there are many, many, many Indians, and at least in literature, they can coexist, they can each speak for themselves and they can speak to each other.

Changing trends


So over the course of the year, as it's evolved and as you've seen, the country evolve and change as well, is there any perceptible or noticeable trend around a shift that's taking place of any sort that you would say, okay, this is a clear, different direction that may be evolving a particular type of voice that's growing or particular type of content or approach that seems to be moving towards, as you've observed, the different types of people coming together?


That's a good question. But from the top of my head, what comes to mind is that in every language the younger writers write differently. They use the language more easily, they juxtapose it with other languages more fluently.

We were always multilingual and most people knew two or three languages in India always. And most people even now know English as well as their mother tongue. And the added dimension of social media makes it easier to interact around the world. So they use their language not so laboriously and not with such high literary intent. They use it more easily. There is an element of the spoken voice because there's always a crossover between spoken content, spoken poems, poetry, and there's always between the Indian languages and their respective cinemas. Also, there is always some degree of interaction. So I'd say younger people are using their mother tongues with a deeper love, in fact, because many of them have the option of writing in English or writing in other but they choose to come back to them other tongues and to use them with depth and inflection. But at the same time, without so much of a burden of being literary.

“ And I'd say the easy aspirational India is there and increasingly in the last two or three years in literature, there is a great amount of hurt, anger and angst that comes through, which is easier to express through literary means ”

There's a huge amount of selfcensorship in every aspect of expression in India at the moment, but not through literature, because you never say exactly what you're trying to say and you are always no hands. Nobody is saying it's not about any one, say, political party or any one person or anyone. It's about the human condition. Women have begun to write differently and much more confidently, and their stories have also changed.


Owning Indian-ness


Actually, I think that's another area I want to get into in a second on women as well and how that's evolved. But before I go there, I want to maybe talk a little bit about how do you find an increased sense of pride in being Indian and being an Indian author in that sense versus perhaps? And again, I tend to maybe talk a lot from a marketing perspective, because we tend to do a lot of investing in businesses that have to deal with marketing to consumers. But if I look historically, most of the brands that you tried to create in India would have Western names, Peter England or have Western images of Western models. And I think it's shifting, and I think you're starting to see more acceptance and desire to market the Indian name and the Indian person and the Indian product. Is that reflected also, or is that perceived also in the content that's coming out here with authors and their sense of owning India a lot more and owning their Indianness a lot more in the content?


Well, in the Indian languages, nobody ever lost it. They were always deeply rooted in their particular region and their own languages, very deeply and passionately. The Indian English writers were always had a different binary. They belonged to two, sometimes three worlds, and there's been two or three kinds of movements. One is those who have become even more international and cosmopolitan as well they should. So they don't write as Indians alone. They write and speak for their experiences, which often span many continents and many changes in identity. It could be their immigrant identities, which sometimes spans two or three countries. You have people who may have lived in Africa or in the UK and now live in Canada or in America, so shades of that have entered their appreciation of the world.

The other one, there are two other categories for international Indian writing and then one for English. Forgive me if I made these difficult categories. I may get confused as I unroll them because they've just come to the top of my head.

But there is a diasporic identity which writes about or discusses or addresses the dual identity of writers as being British and Asian, British and Indian or American, and from another primary identity. And there's always a lot of searching and questioning and finding and discarding happening in these writers, and it's very valuable because it is shared by many in the community who learn from it and grow themselves, and they're understanding their hyphenated identities and the conflicts that come from that. Then there is a great resurgence of the magnificent idea of India, which can be wonderful and which can also be a bit chauvinistic or overindulgent about the past, not keeping, but also wonderful because India has one of the richest histories anywhere in the world. And we have possibly the only continuous living culture because China is an ancient culture. But it had a break during the Cultural Revolution, and they returned after that break, but never to the original thing, whereas we have a river of identities and literature. So these are the sort of what I see, the broad strokes of the sort of writing we have.

As you point out, there's so many different groups to look at here. And I think one of the groups that I think you've spent quite a bit of time is looking at how women have been in the past and portrayed in the past and specifically Sita and how that story can be looked at in multiple ways.


Can we talk a little bit about perhaps what you've seen in looking at those in the past and what you see about where we are today and whether, in fact, there's enough movement it is progressing? There are lessons from what you've observed, from the research you must have done into the books you've written about how women's rules are changing. Are they changing enough? And is there something instructive that we should take from that as we look at new types of businesses, new types of opportunities that are getting created, and how they should be mindful of these lessons from the past?


I don't know where to begin, really, if you begin here. I'm just trying to untangle my own train of thought. But as of now, I think Indian women are strong. Maybe Indian women are among the strongest women in the world individually. And the reason is that they have to cope with so much. They have to cope with family and careers and all layers and layers of responsibility which are inculcated in their sanskar. And I think that makes them stronger, not weaker. The larger the burden, the stronger the head that carries it. But at the same time, they are socially very vulnerable.

Individually strong, but socially, the first lines around them make it very difficult for any woman except the most privileged and even the most privileged to be free to be what she feels like being. And that freedom to be oneself is the freedom that every man or woman or any other of the genders in between deserves. And that's why I'm not really only obsessed about women. I am a feminist in the sense that I feel strongly about the issues that hurt women and disable them. But as a writer, I write about men as well as women, and they are all part of the human experience for me. But at the same time, my novels are characterized by often very strong women characters. And the reason for this is perhaps that I grew up and have a very strong link with my home state of Uttarakhand and with Nanitar and Almura and the places where I grew up. And when I grew up, all the women around me were in fact stronger than the men around. And the quantity women are almost a metaphor for strength, but also they are socially as vulnerable as every woman in this country. And I grew up always doing whatever I felt like. And in my family situation, I mean, I was given the due cautions, and my father would often tell me – “Why don't you be a little discreet or whatever?” But I really intrinsic nature or the way I was brought up, I was pretty much free to do whatever I felt and to think whatever I wanted to think. And so were many of the friends and cousins and relatives around me. So when I examined the rest of the Indian world, I realized that there were many more inhibitions at work which had been inculcated very deep into the women. And these are the conflicts that often arise in my novels. But I'm also a very religious person. And my exploration of Indian myth, I'm not scholar, but it began quite by accident. I was asked to write The Mahabharat for young readers many years ago by Penguin, and it came out almost twelve years ago. And it has been, I'd say, the best thing I've ever written, because it's also the most useful, because I studied and tried to make the Mahabharat, this greatest of all epics, accessible to first time readers and to young readers. And in that I saw more strong women than I have ever encountered in real life. They say, Whatever is there in life is there in the Mahabharat, and whatever is not here is nowhere. And the sound of range of strong women there, from Amma, Ambika, Ambalika to Dhropadi, it's endless. And then even as a child, I was told, oh, women should not read the Mahabharat. And I realized then that the reason was that they set the wrong sort of examples of what strong women were like.

On Sita and women empowerment

Whereas the women in the Ramayan, Sita was actually stronger than Draupadi I'd say she was a very tough lady. But the stories had been positioned and nuanced in such a way that everybody ended up thinking of Sita as a weak woman, a victim almost. This was supplemented by the serials that spread another phase of Hindu identity. And then I got deeply interested in Sita because I was in Sri Lanka for some literary reason. And when I passed that area, I thought I saw Sita sitting there because that's where she had been taken to the Ashok one. And I saw her weeping. It's just a projection of a little image. And I thought for one month later I said, Why was she weeping? Of course we knew she was weeping because she'd been captured by Ravana But those Sita steers hit me somewhere. And so we decided to do a book. Me and Dr. Malasrilal called In Search of Sita. This is an anthology. And this book, In Search of Sita, which again came out over a decade ago, had a very important role to play in the way people began relooking their mythology. It's led to at least ten more books on Sita or looking at her as the strongest woman, the woman who left the Kingdom, though she was not asked to, and walked through the forest, the woman whose dignity and impermeable sense of strength made sure that even a very arrogant King like Ravana did not violate her, but said, if you are ready to give yourself to me, I am there. But he did not impose himself on her. And then what happens to her? She comes back and she is given a series of chastity tests and she returns to the Earth. After that, she rejects the world which took her back. And right now there is so much writing happening which is linked to Ecofeminism and Sita and do all these things. I did a book on Radha, that other mystery, because where, except in Hinduism, would you find a goddess?





I want to just take a second on Sita as well, if you don't mind. And actually, maybe it's even broader than Sita, the idea of there being such powerful stories in the mythology that exists within India. And you look at and again, forgive me if I'm going too far again in the direction of consumerism and marketing, but to some degree, I'm observing that today, if I look at the characters that are developed for screens and for movies and for comic books come from these western comics books, Iron Man, Thor, all of these characters from the west, and you actually look at the characters that we have within the stories that exist in India. And I don't know if you think it's right or if there's a right or wrong in this statement of is there an opportunity or is there a need or is there a chance of developing them as well into the superheroes and modernizing these stories to make them fit with the consumption patterns of content that we see today, whether it's things on video games or things within movie theatres that are animated or not, animated superhero films, is there a world where they get modernized in some way? And is that good or bad?


It's good and it must be done. But I find if you can excuse me from just wandering off the subject to be on the subject, but I think a lot would depend on the graphic presentation of these goddesses or feminine figures, because if you go back to the early sculptures, they are gloriously free. They can show their breasts, they can show their bodies, their abundant fertility, their femininity without shame.

Then with Victorian Mall and the great genius of Rajaraviwarma defined what Indian people think. We think of our gods and goddesses as coming from Raja Ravivarma's paintings and the school of art that followed from there. And that was what not in your generation, but in my generation, the different little toffee boxes and the little tin canisters always have those in every level of consumering, whether it was the consumerism or marketing that was the Raja Ravivarama image or images, whether by other artists, were in the same Indo Victorian style. Then when our friend Amish Tripathi wrote his letter of Maluha, he did something extremely intelligent, that the cover of that book did not come from conventional Indian mythology. It came straight from the superhero trope. They were sort of these six, whatever Abs and big chested glinting eyes.

There was a very different masculine interpretation of Ram in that and later of Shiva, first, of course, of Shiva in his Shiva trilogy, and then in Ram also, Ram had biceps worthy of carrying those huge arrows, which looked like some strange archery contest, high tech thing. And then he did the same thing with Sita. He did Sita, the warrior goddess, but it didn't work with Sita. I don't know why he showed Sita as a sort of superwoman in the cover. And to my knowledge, people didn't buy that. They liked their old Sita with the shy eyes. I may be wrong, but this is the impression I got. But if somebody was to do these stories again, a lot of the stories that come through in web series and all are not adequately researched, we don't pay enough attention to nuance and to research, so they look rather silly. In fact, if more research went into it and if a great number of two or three really talented illustrators and graphic visualizers could marry the elements of what people expect and what is unexpected into creating a modern yet with a continuum with the past version of these superheroes and superheroes. I think Indian people are longing to go back to their own stories and to learn from them. Absolutely.


And I think actually it brings me to another thought that you did some work in researching perfumes, I believe also for the market and trying to understand what sense people cared about..


The research on perfumes was done by my co director, William Dallas, who's very sensitive to the olfactory sensors. But what I did was something different. I was a consultant with Chanel. I mean, as a friend of mine said, they must have been considering brand suicide to involve you with Chanel. And when I told my friend, who was then the President, Chanel, she said, not at all. We chose you because we knew nobody would suspect you of trying to sell lipstick, which was a very good report. But they set up a beauty training course in something called Mirabai College, not in the Delhi University, but with Government of Delhi in their technical training program. And the first time I went there, we did this questionnaire to ask these girls about their concept of beauty. And one of the questions was, what is the perfume you love? And remember And this question is coming from Chanel, from Coco Chanel's Company, from number five, from all these things, number 19. And the replies made me weep. There were two, I remember, but there were many more which will come back to me.

“ One of them said, the perfume I love most is my grandmother's hair oil. And the other one said, Krishna Agarbati is the perfume I love most ”

And then these girls, that was a different moment in Indian sort of recent social history. They were made as a class to go to all the malls and to go to the beauty counters and to try out perfumes. And they were given little samples. But the olfactory senses also matter so much, and we have such a deep olfactory tradition here, but it shows up in these areas of perfume and beautification. All of this is pointing back to the fact that I think that in many regards, as we think about how to appeal to consumers as we go forward in India, how to connect with them, there's a lot of value in actually looking back rather than necessarily taping a lot of the things that have come about from the west, which tends to be the easier thing.

And especially now, let's just say with content being accessible on platforms from all over the world at your fingertips, it's very easy to think that, okay, I'm just going to market the same way they do elsewhere. I'm going to still put out the same type of content they do elsewhere. And that's going to be what's appealing versus the fact that there's a truly Indian approach and an Indian set of parameters, whether that is from the type of content that people may want to consume to the type of smells they may want to consume, to the way in which they may want their products to be positioned to the community that they're essentially bringing them into as a brand. And it seems like that's very much reflected in many of these areas that you're talking about. Well, I think we have to look at this post pandemic. And I think post pandemic, there's been a lot of reappraisal of one's own roots by younger people. Many of them are living with their families. They are appreciating their continuity with their families, which has helped them survive these hard times. Also, the charisma of the west and the Western style icons has faded because these things do follow the economy. A successful economy has a successful cultural economy. Every Indian is extremely materialistic. And I think many of us who are not from the so called world of economics, but just normal, everyday young men, women, professionals, they know and appreciate that a lot of the so called big economies are failed economies or failing economies. So they don't get the same respect they say India and our gods and goddesses, there is a sense of real outright when they go into socks, not through any malice, I think just through lack of understanding about cultural sensitivity. So we do respect those.

“ But I think that people want to go back to being themselves. But often what happens is that the Ayurvedic or whatever, the Indianness that is sold back to Indians is just a hyped up, high priced Indianness. I guess historically you make a great point that the pandemic will maybe shift some of these thoughts. ”

We've conjectured at least that over the course of the next couple of years, Providence of a product and Providence of a service and Providence of a brand will resonate more with consumers and will be more important for people to care about.


I think actually with that I want to talk a little bit about the Jaipur Lit Fest as a brand. And I think you said at the beginning you set out to kind of bring these voices together and try to get everyone to understand what's happening with this and you've been able to create a platform and a brand that's very strong and it's actually very global in nature as well. Is there anything that you take from that journey that you think is interesting to share about what it took to build that as a globally appealing brand? Were there challenges you faced being an Indian brand in the context of a global stage? Because you do bring global authors into the festival as well and you do have people come and participate from around the world. What was that like? And were there any learnings that you think are useful for us to know?


Well, let me try to articulate this. We are the largest and possibly one of the most loved literature festivals in the world. We've made our place in the digital space. We are now a very important literary platform which is more difficult to sustain at the moment because we are learning the new grammar of this of the digital identity which is also evolving all the time. William is very much an international person in the sense that he is a traveler and he has a deep love for India, but he is also very much a part of the Western world. Sanjoy is this experience. Roy and Teamworks has been curating events around the world for many, few decades now. Me, I'm perhaps more Indian than them, though I've also had the fortunate ability to work with other cultures. I've worked with many Japanese companies for a long time and what I've learnt there will be a part of my identity forever. And as I said, I've had an up and down life doing many different things, but I was never even thinking about the branding. I was just defiantly doing what I wanted to do. And I can tell you we've had a lot of history always had some controversy. The on other to make us on the defensive and then if we handle it with understanding because we are always ready to listen to every point of view, it sounds very much to me like you had extreme clarity of thought as to what you are trying to achieve.


I think that as we've looked at building businesses here and we've talked about how to connect with consumers on things, it starts with knowing what you're trying to do and being honest to it and straight with it. And I think that oftentimes companies get derailed by the fact that they aren't necessarily care about what they are not and they try to be too many things to try to find their identity too much. It flows too much and it moves too much and they don't stand for something and I think you very clearly stood for something and it's come across in terms of how you've been able to attract, retain and grow the brand over time. But this has truly been fantastic to learn about this journey and just to also hear you reaffirmed the belief that we have as well that there's so much to be unlocked from what is truly Indian in terms of how the next phase of growth takes place here. And I mean that more from the perspective of the companies and the type of consumption we're going to drive and I hope that we start with the portfolio companies that we have in our group here and start to bring them more focused on bringing out the Indian aspects of things and learning more about it and really learned a lot.