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Celebrating Words, Ideas And Dialogue At The ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival

22/01/2016 8:23 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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Aga Khan Foundation India

I am in Rajasthan this week for the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), on an annual pilgrimage I have made ever since arriving in India. I first came three years ago, not long after I had become the CEO of the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF) in Delhi. Right away, I knew AKF had a place here: excited throngs of people, mostly Indian, many in their teens and twenties, joining together for five days to celebrate words, ideas, and dialogue. What better emblem of India's tremendous diversity, pluralism, and intellectual energy?

The Aga Khan Foundation began working in India in 1978, building on a century of development activities by other Aga Khan institutions. Our mandate is to empower and transform marginalised communities and improve quality of life. Since establishment, we have forged long-term partnerships with over 2,500 villages and urban settlements in six states. Annually, we work with some three million people to build community institutions; support women's empowerment through savings and self-help groups; improve agriculture, land and water conservation; and promote health, hygiene, and sanitation.

[W]hen I attended JLF for the first time, I felt compelled to join together with this national symbol of India's literacy and learning.

Overarching everything we do is education. At the core of our work is reading - the fundamental building block of self-discovery, access to opportunity, and cultural understanding. In the past decade alone, AKF and its partners have helped over 1.2 million children learn to read and have improved learning levels in more than 3,300 government schools. In the next five years, we have plans to more than double that number, educating over 1.5 million new readers in 750 preschools and 4,000 schools. So when I attended JLF for the first time, I felt compelled to join together with this national symbol of India's literacy and learning.

Last year, we helped JLF bring authors and musicians to Jaipur from around the world, underscoring our common commitment to India's cosmopolitanism: Azerbaijan's Alim Qasimov Ensemble, representing the Aga Khan Music Initiative; sessions on the Bamiyan buddhas and cultural heritage; and a conversation with children's authors Saker Mistri and Mamta Mangaldas, who draw on illustrated manuscripts of ancient Hindu and Indo-Persian stories. The highlight was a session we supported with former President Dr APJ Kalam, who electrified a standing-room-only crowd of Indian youth with his stirring call for education and self-improvement.

This year, we have helped JLF feature one of the world's most important economists, Thomas Piketty. His provocative work on inequality has concentrated minds on one of the fundamental challenges of our era: how to ensure that the poorest among us benefit from the extraordinary growth of global wealth and capital in the last 50 years. The topic is of vital concern to AKF and the communities we serve. In 20 countries, the Aga Khan Foundation is addressing the needs of those who have been left behind and are still striving to feed their families, educate their children, and improve their lives.

AKF is supporting a session with the country's Chief Economic Advisor, Arvind Subramanian. He will talk about what economists can learn from literature...

Nowhere is this topic of more urgency than Asia, where incomes and living standards have been transformed for hundreds of millions of people in less than two generations. More people have been lifted out of poverty than at any other time in history. Yet worldwide, 2.1 billion people still live on just over $3 a day. Of the almost 900 million living in extreme poverty, 78% are in South Asia. That is why India's efforts to promote growth and development are so critical - and why private organisations like ours partner with government at all levels to advance these priorities. So this week, AKF is supporting a session with the country's Chief Economic Advisor, Arvind Subramanian. He will talk about what economists can learn from literature and how it can help all of us understand and address the human dimensions of macro-industrial change.

Events like this remind us of how intellectually vibrant contemporary India is - and how that diversity contributes to India's development and its future.

Three other sessions align with AKF's dedication to pluralism, the value of cultural heritage, and the urgency of social inclusion. Peter Frankopan will talk about his new book on the Silk Road, reminding us that at its apex, India, through its links to near and far neighborswas open, confident, and cosmopolitan. Sunil Khilnani will discuss his masterful work, The Idea of India, and a range of the country's most important figures. While the Indian writers Nandana Dev Sen, Jerry Pinto and Paro Anand will discuss children's literature and the themes that interest India's new generation.

As I arrive in Jaipur for the third time, I am struck again by what this festival symbolises and why AKF supports it. Along with thousands of others, we come to Rajasthan this weekendfor a celebration of reading and ideas that exemplifies the best virtues of pluralist societies accepting difference and pursuing dialogue. The Jaipur Literature Festival participates in a rich Indian tradition of diversity, inquiry, and spirited debate. Events like this remind us of how intellectually vibrant contemporary India is - and how that diversity contributes to India's development and its future.

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