The Jaipur Literature Festival was supposed to focus on Buddhism in literature. But, shaken over the fatal December rape of a student, the perception of women in society had everyone talking right up to the last day.
"Don't only tell urban stories. Talk about our stories from the country as well."
A thin woman stands on stage wearing an orange sari to present South Asia's leading prize in literature. She is from a small village and has her own dark past. In the year 1992, Bhanwari Devi survived a gang-rape by five men and had enough courage to turn the men in to the police - despite resistance from her family and within society. Her case made headlines, which later turned into a film. But the woman the film depicted has been forgotten over the years.
Power of principles
Her appearance at Asia's largest literature festival as a presenter reflects the current climate; violence against women was the central topic in many discussions over the course of the five-day festival in Jaipur. The Dalai Lama had traveled to the event to discuss Buddhism in literature. But he was soon confronted with the question whether rapists deserved the death penalty.
"I do not like the death penalty. Love, compassion, tolerance, forgiveness, self-discipline, these things are important. Education about principles, if we rely on religious faith, cannot be universal. So more teaching of ethics must be secular-based. That's the only way."
Shortly thereafter, some big names in Bollywood started a discussion over how strong the Indian film industry's influence is in the societal perception of women. One well-known actress Shabana Azmi was of the opinion that "voyeuristic camera angles and vulgar lyrics do not celebrate a woman's body, they make her a commodity."
She called on young actresses to think twice before accepting such objectifying roles.
Azmi is to Bollywood what Meryl Streep is to Hollywood. She said Bollywood played an exceptionally large role in shaping the image of women in society and that actors did not give enough thought to the kinds of images they projected in their films.
"We are all culpable and we have to do something."
She called on all parts of society to "reflect, analyze and soul-search to see what we can do to change what is obviously a very patriarchal mindset that defines our understanding of what a woman is."
Power of family
Sharmila Tagore, the second largest female name in Bollywood, did not concur. For many years, she headed the Indian Central Board of Film Certification, also known as the "censor board." She was of the opinion that cinema should not be blamed for how women are seen in society. Referring to the fatal gang-rape of the young student in a chartered bus last month in New Delhi, Tagore said: "I don't think anybody is unaffected by what happened, but please don't look at Bollywood as a scapegoat."
Instead, people should look at society as a whole and at the family unit. "Bring up your sons and daughters equally. If you begin with that, then we would have achieved something. The family has far greater influence on the members of the family than cinema has, or ought to have, and if not, then the family is not doing its job."
Now's the time
All of the festival's discussion rounds, seminars and workshops, ranging from Bollywood scripts and autobiographies from conflict-torn Kashmir, to the future of the novel, sooner or later focused on the relationship between men and women in Indian society and the fatal gang-rape that has been hotly debated throughout the country since mid-December. For female authors in India, now was a good time to speak out, according to renowned writer Jaishree Misra:
"Women writers generally are getting more of a platform and that is because what is being debated at the moment in this country are women's issues. Men, of course, are allowed to comment and we need them in this debate. But women are getting more of a space, more of a platform." She added that the debate should be carried out in a way that was not "an us-and-them finger pointing exercise. That's so pointless."
The participation of Bollywood stars at the international literature festival gave the discussion a much wider reach in Indian society than it would have had otherwise. In India, when Bollywood stars speak, the nation tends to listen.