The Jaipur Literature Festival, held every winter in the capital of Rajasthan, is the world’s largest free literary festival, and perhaps the most freewheeling. In 2015, a quarter of a million people came to hear some 300 writers speak. At a time when free expression in India is under pressure from many directions—heavy-handed governments, thin-skinned communities of caste and religion, offendables of all sorts—the podiums and shamiana tents of the Jaipur festival have become pop-up shops for thinkers with contrarian positions.
To judge by how often he’s invoked, the festival’s guiding spirit is the 15th century poet Kabir—a man venerated across northern India as a saint, almost a god. It’s a rare being who manages to be claimed by conservative religious sects and the liberal literati both. But the broad-spectrum adulation might have made him uneasy: Kabir was an aggressive critic of institutions and orthodoxies in pretty much any form, a debunker of humbug in an unadorned poetic style. There is no other voice from the Indian past quite like his: