“In intellectual and political discussions, we cannot always be looking at walls, we have to look through windows at thoughts, ideas,” says Homi K Bhabha, Anne F Rothenberg Professor of English and American Literature and director of the Harvard University’s Mahindra Humanities Centre.
The Mumbai-born author who developed the idea of “hybridisation” to explain the cultural forms that multi-ethnic societies take today, said this when it was pointed out that there are limits to the freedom that public forums such as JLF allow — given the ugly controversy that broke out over sociologist Ashis Nandy’s comments last year.
He has now brought together Zee Jaipur Literature Festival and the prestigious Humanities Centre with a tie-up between the two, giving the fest a sheen of respectability in the academic world.
The tie-up happened after Bhabha, who was invited to the JLF last year, went back impressed with how the lit fest had become a “gathering place for people to talk about literature, books and culture. It was a remarkable opportunity for us and a chance to really contribute”.
“The central motif that I have always use in my writings, and in my thinking about the (Humanities) Centre is not so much as a centre but as a crossroad, an attempt to bridge conversations across different disciplines and different points of view,” says Bhabha, and adds, “It is this that brings to any cultural practice a democracy outside itself.”
And in this “back and forth of conversation” that JLF offers, Bhabha sees a similarity between the fest and the Centre.
Since 2011, when Bhabha took over as director of the Humanities Centre and industrialist Anand Mahindra made a $10 million donation to it, it has emerged as an important institution for inter-disciplinary scholarship in the humanities — bringing together seminal thinkers in the areas of literature, history and art history, economics, musicology, science writing, feminist theory, architecture and even law. Among the names associated with the Centre are Amartya Sen, Yo-yo Ma and Rita Hauser.
For the past two years, the Centre has been hosting the prestigious Norton and Tanner lecture series. “We’ve had William Kentridge [South African artist] and Orhan Pamuk deliver the Norton lectures and this year Herbie Hancock [the jazz legend] will be speaking the day I get back,” Bhabha says.
The association with JLF, Bhabha says, entails bringing to the festival a curated set of talks strung along a single theme, which people will come to listen to and follow for the multiplicity of perspectives it brings.
This year, the Centre will host a series of sessions on the theme, Crime and Punishment, which draws not just from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s classic novel of the name, but also the reason why the Indian subcontinent has not produced any great crime fiction and the cultural practices around crime and how it is dealt with.
On Friday, the first session began with ‘The Bangla Whodunnit’, a celebration of Bangla crime writing featuring Gautam Chakrabarti in conversation with Rupleena Bose.