Jaipur Literature Festival comes to Belfast: celebrating each other’s stories

The festival celebrates diversity, sharing South Asia’s literary heritage while focusing on ideas and issues that matter locally

The Jaipur Literature Festival, a flagship event of Teamwork Arts, evolved into a standalone literature gathering in 2008. What began with a handful of authors, has transformed into a global literary phenomenon in the last decade, having hosted over 2,000 speakers and welcomed over a million book-lovers from across India and the world.

Described as the “greatest literary show on Earth” by Tina Brown, the festival is a sumptuous feast of ideas which celebrates the word, both written and spoken, and stories which build cultures, communities and individuals, setting stimulating conversations against a colourful, festive backdrop.

To spread this celebration of “stories” of one and all, Teamwork Arts has created a platform for free-thinking dialogue from across the world with JLF international editions – in London, New York, Houston, Colorado, Adelaide and this year at Toronto and Belfast. Each of these festivals is a celebration of diversity, sharing South Asia’s unique literary heritage, while focusing on ideas and issues that matter locally. They are, most importantly, platforms to share and discover each other’s stories.

Supported by British Council Northern Ireland and the Arts Council, JLF Belfast will explore a common legacy of post-conflict literature, cultural and political impact. The festival will showcase ideas and voices outside of Anglo-centric cultural expectations and will be a celebration of poetry, music and the written word. The programming reflects the core idea in each of our international festivals: to bring together some vigorous literary dialogue onto one stage.


Ireland has a long history of a rich, intense and vibrant literary culture. The Jaipur Literature Festival in India, over the years, has featured a range of writing by Irish authors such as Colm Tóibín, David Park, Anne Enright, Roddy Doyle, Glenn Patterson, Roy Foster, Jon Halliday, Joseph O’Neill, Patricia Forde, Jan Carson and Paul McVeigh, among others.

The opportunity to present JLF Belfast is exciting and we are looking forward to our debut in Northern Ireland and the possibility of exploring and discovering new writing. Our political identities have evolved from the searing tales of partition, borders, conflict, migration and crossing over, issues which continue to plague and affect the shape of both our current socio-political narratives. We also share a common love for language, folk literature and drama, exciting contemporary narratives as well as strong literary legacies.

Acclaimed writers and festival co-directors Namita Gokhale and William Dalrymple have curated a thought-provoking programme for JLF Belfast and a host of enlightening sessions await, including themes as varied as the poetry of Yeats and Tagore, Gandhi and his philosophy of non-violence, shared and shadowed histories, science and its intersectionality with the arts, gender and identity and even food.

Rabindranath Tagore, one of India’s most celebrated poets, the writer of our national anthem, was at one time a close ally WB Yeats, who wrote the introduction to his Nobel-winning work, Gitanjali (Song Offerings), in 1912. Gitanjali wove its own destiny, winning Tagore the Nobel on November 13th, 1913, and running into many editions. Mystic and the Muse: Yeats and Tagore will explore the different shades of the Tagore-Yeats relationship at JLF Belfast.

Mahatma Gandhi remains an enduring symbol of peace and an uncompromising commitment to truth and non-violence. In Gandhi in Times of Violence, we have Tara Gandhi Bhattacharjee, the Mahatma’s distinguished granddaughter, who has dedicated her life to working for public welfare with the Gandhi Smriti, the Darshan Samiti and for women and children in India’s villages with the Kasturba Gandhi National Memorial Trust set up by Mahatma Gandhi himself, talking about his teachings against the backdrop of a contemporary world.

We have historian William Dalrymple, co-director of the festival, transport us to the past in Koh-i-Noor: The World’s Most Infamous Diamond, presenting the riveting story of the world’s most powerful and controversial diamond, which travelled across eras and empires. He will be joined by former Indian diplomat and High Commissioner of India to the UK Navtej Sarna whose passionate biography, The Exile, is a moving novel about Maharaja Duleep Singh, the younger son of the great Maharaja Ranjeet Singh of Punjab, who signed away the Kohinoor to Queen Victoria when he was only 11.

As artificial intelligence takes over human narratives, British mathematician Marcus du Sautoy questions the shape of our future and his new book The Creativity Code: How AI is Learning to Write, Paint and Think explores how algorithms work, the nature of creativity and how engineers are tracking our emotional responses to art. In a riveting session The Creativity Code: AI and the Arts, du Sautoy, the Charles Simonyi professor for public understanding of science at Oxford University, will discuss intuition, the creative process and its correlation with mathematics.

Foremothers: Women and Freedom invokes the foremothers and female ancestors who laid the ground for fiercely contested and precariously won freedoms. Journalist and writer Bee Rowlatt’s In Search of Mary celebrates the life and legacy of the remarkable feminist Mary Wollstoneraft. Prize-winning Belfast novelist and playwright Lucy Caldwell evokes the rites of passage in women’s lives through her work. Writer and festival co-director Namita Gokhale has written about the women of her native region Kumaon through fiction and biography. In conversation with writer Vayu Naidu, they will speak of the inspiration and learnings they have received from their foremothers in their quest for freedom.

Most residents of Northern Ireland claim a multiplicity of co-existing identities. The construction of self, always fluid, has become even more complex with Brexit. In the session Being Both: Puzzles of Identity foreign correspondent and editor Salil Tripathi, novelist and playwright Paul McVeigh, award-winning playwright and producer Shannon Yee and playwright and novelist Lucy Caldwell, in conversation with Michael Patrick MacDonald, speak of their struggle with belonging and identity and how it impacts their work.

Writer Brian Keenan became headline news when he was kidnapped by Shi’ite militiamen in 1985 and held hostage in Beirut for four and a half years. The intensity and horror of that traumatic encounter is recounted in An Evil Cradling. His next book I’ll Tell Me Ma is a memoir about growing up in Belfast. In the session Writing From the Brink he will be in conversation with writer, journalist and human rights activist Salil Tripathi and will speak of the trauma of incarceration and the will to survive.

In the first of his Glanmore Sonnets, Nobel-winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney introduced us to the ghosts and voices hidden in the ‘earth’ of one’s self, one’s own history and home landscape. In Vowels Ploughed into Other, poets Eric Ngalle Charles, Francis Jones and Sudeep Sen will discuss their responses to these Heaney themes with the award-winning poet Ruth Padel, each reading one poem they love by Heaney and one poem of their own.

Irish-American author Michael Patrick MacDonald is the author of All Souls, a wrenching account of the violence of inner-city Boston. Journalist and broadcaster Malachi O’Doherty has written extensively on Northern Ireland’s political and cultural conflicts. Author and playwright Glenn Patterson addresses the theatre of conflict and Ireland’s troubled past. Writer and diplomat Navdeep Suri has translated his grandfather’s emblematic poem Khooni Vaisakhi, which was banned by the British in the aftermath of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Across cultures and continents, they will discuss writing about conflict, its roots and consequences, with author, journalist and broadcaster Susan McKay in Faultlines: Writing Conflict.

Celebrity chef Asma Khan hit the spotlight with Chef’s Table on Netflix, which redefines gourmet food featuring a chef of excellence and expertise in each of its episodes. Asma’s book Indian Kitchen reveals the secrets to her success, her immigrant’s story and how food brought her back to the roots she had left behind. Her London restaurant, Darjeeling Express, fuses her Mughal ancestry with the piquant flavours of Calcutta’s street food. In conversation with Joris Minne, the Belfast Telegraph’s restaurant critic, at Darjeeling Express: A Chef’s Table, the restaurateur will shed light on her cooking, community and life.

As Belfast awaits this soon-to-happen marathon of ideas and dialogue coming all the way from the Indian subcontinent, to be held fittingly at iconic Northern Ireland venues such The Lyric Theatre and Seamus Heaney HomePlace, most of us, who have produced and curated it, are looking forward to it with an intense feeling of excitement.

JLF Belfast runs from June 21st-23rd