A cultural agreement that was signed between India and Iran 60 years ago was renewed with vigour and panache through a series of programmes. There was a conference titled “India-Iran Two Great Civilisations: Retrospect-Prospects” as part of the festival organised by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) in collaboration with the Indian embassy in Tehran, Bonyad-e-Sadi, and Farhangistan-e-Zaban-o-Adab-e-Farsi. This conference consisted of scholars, experts in the Farsi language and script, a presentation of the influences of Persian craft on India’s creative practices, a dastangoi performance and a sitar recital in jugalbandi between sitar maestro Nishat Khan and an Iranian tar artiste. In this particular case, strategic and trade ties went hand in hand with India’s only partially tapped treasure—its cultural power. It was a masterstroke to combine the agreements on a trade route through Afghanistan and the assistance for the construction of the Chabahar Port that the cultural agreement was the third leg of the stool that brought India and Iran together so closely after centuries.
A major highlight of the festival’s inauguration was the release by PM Modi of a Persian manuscript called Kalila va Dimna, which is a translation of the Panchatantra Tales. ICCR president Lokesh Chandra, under whose charge the festival was organised, said, “The facsimile edition of the Kalila va Dimna is a tribute to the cultural interflow between India and Iran over millennia, attested by the nexus of the Rig Vedic hymns and Gathas of Zarathushtra, coming down to the reign of Akbar who introduced Persian as the language of administration in India, which continued till the middle of the 19th century under the East India Company.” Indians would be proud to know that various regimes in Iran vied to produce even better translations of these texts. It still stands out as a gem amongst the texts shared by Iran and India, and symbol of the cultural connect between both countries.
The links between the two countries go back to the pre-Islamic period and does not begin, as some like to believe, during the Mughal period. Iran is probably the primary country that engaged in a sharing of influences with India and goes back the longest. History books tell us, “In 532 BC, Iran’s greatest king, Cyrus took control of north-west India and his successor Darius extended the territory further to the east. The invaders brought with them their culture and ingredients like spinach, pistachio, almond, pomegranate, saffron and rosewater.” It is interesting to note that during this time they were introduced to rice, a grain indigenous to India, which soon became and still is an Iranian staple.
Sanskrit scholars in India had accounted linguistic similarities between the Indian Vedas and the Iranian Zend Avesta. In a recently published book by Audrey Truschke called Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court, the author studies the close engagement between the Mughal courts and India’s Brahmin and Jain scholars. The reasons the author finds are interesting. She says Mughal dynasties refined and advanced their sense of authority and power by engaging with Sanskrit texts, thinkers and ideas. In fact the Sanskrit scholars served as interlocutors for the imperial elite. Truschke says the Mughals understood power as “an aesthetic practice”, so instead of seamlessly merging with existing traditions offered by Muslims, e.g., Persian, Arabic and Turkish practices, they “wanted to think about themselves as an Indian Empire”.
Aesthetics and civilisational values in Iran go beyond regimes and reigns that may have been controversial and contentious. The common love for and pride in their built artistic heritage is what differentiates the Iranian from the radical fundamental Islamists, who have set themselves upon a spree of destruction of monuments and museums that do not adhere to the rigid and austere tenets of the Caliphate. Art at Ladakh monasteries show textiles of the Sassanian period of Iran. Blue turquoise stone colours for dress and decoration of mosques is shared with Buddhist traditions. The common Indian gamchha, used by Indian men as a towel or head-cloth has a counterpart in Iran called the dhoti, which men use in hamams while bathing. A hand-made stringed instrument created by Iranian’s decades ago is called, like its more elaborate Indian counterpart, a sitar. Many other areas of engagement and harmonious outcomes have emerged from the meeting of two ancient civilisations like Sufism, coinage, religious practices and rituals. It is perhaps the best example of how religion can be a meeting point rather than a divisive force amongst peoples.
Unfortunately, often government programmes are announced with great fanfare at their initiation, when the highest dignitaries are involved, but the follow up is always uncertain, often unnoticed and sometimes more in the nature of a formality to be completed for its own sake rather than a continuing, developing exercise involving more people from both countries. Scholars are at universities and performers are on stages. There is a distance from the common people. Multi-dimensional engagements need to be created.
4 January 2017 will see another layer of this cultural engagement unfolding amongst the creative crafts persons of Iran and India at Dilli Haat in New Delhi, when India’s Minister of Textiles, Smriti Irani (yes, the surname is significant) and the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Ambassador Gholamreza Ansari will inaugurate an exhibition and crafts and cultural exchange workshop during the Dastkari Haat Samiti’s annual crafts bazaar. Ties will be renewed in textile printing, calligraphy, fine art, metal work, wood marquetry and other skills to understand a shared past and a new future. The Prime Minister had recalled in Iran that Persian calligraphers used to write texts, while Indian artists illustrated them. Artists and calligraphers will create a small book telling the story of this renewed journey by the end of the Dilli Haat interaction.