This Is Big

270,000 people attended the Jaipur Literature Festival in India last January. A version of the event travels to Boulder in September. (photo: indiaroots.com)

Jaipur Literature Festival hits Boulder

Heads up:  The world’s preeminent literature festival has made Boulder its one and only U.S. outpost, with plans to transform downtown into a magnet for ideas and conversation over two days in September, and you are invited.

The Jaipur Literature Festival is the largest free literary event on Earth; an annual gathering of authors and others who bask in readings, discussions and debates on basically every idea under the sun.  It is a massive annual event – drawing some 270,000 attendees from around the world each January to the 1,000-year-old city of Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan in India.

The event has been described as both a serious salon and a circus, featuring Nobel laureates, Man Booker prize winners, debut novelists, celebrities (Oprah goes), local authors and a mass of attendees, who flock to listen, laugh, engage and contribute to big ideas.

Text Box (4)Boulderites can think of it as a kind of Conference on World Affairs, with authors serving as the panelists who get the conversations going.

“The ideas emanate from the authors and their writings, but over the course of the festival these conversations take on a life of their own,” explains Sanjoy Roy, managing director of Teamwork, the festival’s producer. “It’s everything – the arts, the environment, politics, mysteries, LGBTQ issues, sci-fi, philosophy, photography, dance, and music – literally anything that can be contemplated.”

As the festival’s renown has grown exponentially since its 2006 founding, the inevitability of a U.S. charter became clear, with municipalities like the San Francisco Bay Area, New York, Chicago, Seattle and others vying hard for the opportunity to host it.

How Boulder was ultimately chosen is a lesson in both determination and serendipity, as Roy describes in the video below:

Boulder power couple (in the best sense) Jesse Friedman, a psychotherapist, and Jules Levinson, a professor at Naropa University, were attending a translation conference in the city of Sarnath when a friend recommended they traverse to Jaipur for the literature festival, which happened to be underway.

“We had no idea what to expect – we simply went on a whim,” Ms. Friedman says. “When we arrived we were stunned and absolutely enchanted.”

Deeply moved by the “mad and buzzy mass of humanity” sharing in the love of literature, the two felt Boulder would be the festival’s perfect U.S. home. Upon their return in Boulder, Ms. Friedman sent an impassioned e-mail to Mr. Roy.

Sanjoy Roy

Sanjoy Roy

“My first thought when I received the e-mail was, where is Boulder?” Mr. Roy says. “I was heading to the U.S. to talk with other cities about the festival and I thought, why not? I’ll go and see for myself.”

As Mr. Roy was heading to Boulder from Denver International Airport, his driver swerved to avoid two rogue prairie dogs on the highway, and went off the road. By a stroke of luck, everyone was unhurt, including the prairie dogs.

“It was a good sign,” Mr. Roy says with a wry smile.

What ultimately moved Mr. Roy to say yes to Boulder was the energy and enthusiasm of the people he met with, and the assets of the town itself.

“Some of the larger cities we considered would have been easier from a resources perspective,” Mr. Roy says. “But Boulder had all the untouchable makings of a festival city. It’s walkable, with accessible hotels, an airport nearby, very special outdoor features, and of course the Flatirons. These are some of the qualities that draw people in and allow them to immerse themselves in the festival experience.”

Mr. Roy was worried when his hosts kept urging him to tour the Pearl Street Mall.

“I thought, oh, these Americans and their malls, but of course I was surprised and enchanted,” Mr. Roy said.

The organizers considered staging the festival on the mall and on the campus of CU, but ultimately settled on the Boulder Public Library as the main festival venue.

“This location is a draw for everyone, without exclusion,” Mr. Roy says. “Inclusivity is the essence of what makes this event what it is.”

Will Boulder’s annual event eventually blossom into what takes place in India every year?

“When we created the Jaipur festival we didn’t set out for it to become the world’s largest literary festival, it’s just that it did,” Mr. Roy explains. “Our goal for Boulder is to create a festival that is unique to this part of the world, and our authors reflect that. The magic of any gathering of this kind is that a spectator can attend, sit in one seat, and travel the world without moving an inch.”

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