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Musings

Gliding down the Silk Road

By Ratnottama Sengupta

These contemplations have come out of Ruhaniyat-e-Aam, an online festival of migrating music. Hosted by Indus Band, its focal theme was ‘Reconstructing the Silk Route’.  A webinar was the finale of the concept that was put into practice long before ‘COVID’ entered the Oxford dictionary – in 2018 when Somali Panda, founding head of the Kolkata-based Band came up with the novel concept of connecting online with performers in Greece. They played their music, we joined them with my reading, Tamal Goswami’s painting, and Somali’s songs.

Subsequently, during the pandemic, “when the world was compelled to stay indoors, the importance of connecting with the rest of humanity forcefully struck us,” says Somali. She then went on to host this series of interactions with musicians, artists, filmmakers and academicians from Greece, Czech Republic, Egypt, Iran, Kazakhstan and India — all participating in a celebration of the Human Migration that established bonding amongst nations, cultures, civilizations, and created a global community long before the term had come into existence.

The prime purpose of reconstructing the Silk Route — philosophically, ideologically, conceptually – was to forge a measure of friendship. Friends they became – Labros Kantos, singer from Greece; Saimir Bajo from the Czech Republic; Mesbah Kamal, academician from Dhaka; Sharofat Ara Bova, filmmaker from Tajikistan; Arqavaneh Folklore Ensemble from Isfahan, Iran; Mohamed Abu Zid from Cairo, Egypt; Sarower Reza Jimi, playwright from Lisbon, Portugal… Because music connects people most readily since it overrides the barrier of language, “and it gives inner peace and solace,” Somali adds.

 By the time it ended, Ruhaniyat-e-Aam had traced the cultural exchange from the time of Alexander and helped to understand how Hellenic Culture became Hellenistic through synthesis. Most of us know that after Alexander conquered the Persians, he established the city of Alexandria (339 BC). A little more detail: this was in the Fergana Valley of Neb – around modern-day Tajikistan. Leaving the wounded warriors behind Alexander moved on, and in time the Macedonians intermarried with the indigenous populace creating the Greco Bactrian culture that flourished in the Seleucid Empire after his death.

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This festival of Migrant Music set me on a virtual journey down the Silk Road, the 6,400 km caravan tract that was actually an ancient network of trade routes. Formally established during the Han Dynasty of China, it linked in commerce the regions from China to Mesopotamia – should I say modern day Iran? – through India, Asia Minor, Egypt, the African continent, Greece, Rome and Britain too — between 130 BC and 1453 AD. Originating in Xian – now famed for its Terracotta Army – it followed the Great Wall of China to its northwest, bypassed the Takla Makan Desert, climbed the Pamirs, crossed Afghanistan, went on to the Levant region from where merchandise was shipped across the Mediterranean Sea.

What many of us don’t realize is that the Silk Route was not one single road. There were some that were longer and safer; some were shorter and more difficult. Some had been journeyed on much longer and thereby had witnessed more exchange than some of the shorter, more precarious roads and pockets like, say, Bhutan. And few travelled the entire length of the road: goods were handled in a staggered progression by middlemen.

The greatest value of the road lies in the exchange of culture it effected. Art, religion, technology, language, science, architecture — indeed, every other element of civilization was exchanged on these roads, along with the commercial goods that merchants traded from country to country

Marco Polo: Creative Copmmons

With the loss of Roman superiority and rise of Arabian power, the Silk Road became more and more unsafe. However, during the rule of the Mongols/ Mughals, Venetian explorer Marco Polo (1254-1324) travelled right up to China along the road that is now supposed to have been the main artery along which travelled the bubonic plague bacteria responsible for the pandemic of Black Death that decimated the Byzantine capital of Constantinople.

The network was used regularly till about 1453 when the Ottoman Empire boycotted trade with the west and closed the routes. By this time Europeans had become used to goods from the east, and so merchants set out to find new trade routes – over the oceans. That, as we know, led to the discovery of the New World and of new civilizations and forging of new cultures. In sum, we may say that laid the groundwork for the modern world.

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What many of us don’t know: Part of the Silk Road still exists as a paved highway connecting Pakistan and the Uygur, an autonomous region of Xinjiang in China. It had given UN the impetus to plan a trans-Asian highway, and a railway counterpart of the road too had been proposed. The road had inspired cellist Yo-Yo Ma to found the Silk Road Project in 1999 in order to explore cultural traditions along its route and beyond, as a means for connecting arts worldwide, across cultures.

But why look back on the Road that has little to do with how it existed 2000 years ago? Forget the zeros – it is probably not like it was even two and half years ago! So what is its importance?

To my mind, the importance lies in the layers of history lining it. Glancing backward we realize that we stand on the shoulder of giants. Every visit into the past unearths stories of human civilization. And whenever I have done that – as I did in Kazakhstan as part of an ICCR effort in 2009 – I have got answers to questions like:

 A) Where was the Road going and why?

B) Why was it such a life transforming journey?

C) The road traversed through remote parts of the world, especially a huge part was ice covered desert. Then, why did the horse become such an important part of the journey on this road?

D) Horse was only one of the animals that were traded on the route. So, who named it Silk Road and why?

Arabian Nights

 It was so named by Ferdinand von Richthofen in 1877 CE because silk was a treasured part of the trade – indeed it was the primary attraction that started off the trade but few travellers walked the entire length of the road. They came to different posts on the route, exchanged goods, food, plants, and ideas along with spices and tea. Stories of The Arabian Nights give us an idea about the exchanges that were taking place in city like Baghdad. And we realise that the flying carpet was not a mere figment of imagination, it became a metaphor for journeying from one world to another.

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Enough of history? Well then, let’s take note of the cultural exchanges closer to our life and times. Since Ruhaniyat-e-Aam was about Migrating Music, what we naturally traced was the commonality of instruments like sarod, santoor and violin… How come the last named string instrument most associated with Western Classical music gained such acceptance and became inseparable part of music in Iran and in South India’s Carnatic music? Was rabab, the folk accompaniment most widely associated with Afghanistan, the precursor of India’s sarod, internationalized by Ustads such as Ali Akbar Khan and Amjad Ali Khan? Indeed, it was from them that I learnt there have been several versions of the rustic musical instrument that was honed, refined, perfected and sophisticated until it became the sonorous voice of Indian classical music.

Again, our santoor has a close affinity with instruments in China, Persia, Greece, and so many other places. I remember my visit to China for the Festival of India under the aegis of the Ministry of Human Resources, then headed by Arjun Singh. As part of that government-to-government initiative, I visited some music schools and was amazed to see how much our santoor — once called shatatantri or hundred stringed veena — had in common with the Chinese hammered dulcimer, yangqin. There have been many versions of it – in Iran, Iraq, Greece, Armenia. I noticed that the music played on the Chinese instruments were a bit more staccato; in India I learnt from maestros closely identified with santoor — primarily Shiv Kumar Sharma and Bhajan Sopori – that strings have been added to get the murchhana or greater resonance so that the notes linger on…

If we go on to visual arts, the first name that comes to my mind is of Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947). The Russian lawyer-painter-archaeologist-philosopher born in St Petersberg had developed an abiding interest in Eastern religions, in Theosophy and Buddhism as much as Ramakrishna and Vivekananda, Tagore, Vedanta and Bhagavad Gita. His spiritual leanings took him across the Himalayas and make his home in the Himachal town of Naggar where he breathed his last.

Of greater consequence to Ruhaniyat-e-Aam was the fact that in mid-1920s the Roerichs together with their son and six friends went on a five-year-long Asian Expedition that started – in Roerich’s words – “from Sikkim and went through Punjab, Kashmir, Ladah, the Karakoram Mountains, Khotan, Kashgar, Qarashar, Urumchi, Irtysh, the Altai Mountains, Oyrot regions of Mongolia, the Central Gobi, Kansu, Tsaidam and Tibet…” A decade later he was to return to Mongolia and Manchuria to collect seeds of plants that prevent soil erosion.

In plainer words, because of these travels Roerich intimately knew not only the Himalayan range but a lot more of the Silk Road. This armed him with a scintillating palette of colours that painted mesmerizing mountains that are bold yet lyrical, rather mystical, even spiritual. I was absorbed by the tranquility that imbues the hypnotic series of 36 immersive images of the Himalayas preserved in the Roerich Gallery at the Chitrakala Parishath in Bangalore.

Roerich’s journeys along the Road had also prompted him to talk of preventing the destruction of art and architecture and work toward preserving the cultural wealth of the world. This had led to his nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1929.

Deb Mukharji, a retired member of India’s Foreign Services, has also travelled through its hardy folds – and extensively photographed the Abode of Snow. The keen photographer who has authored Kailash and Mansarovar and exhibited Tall Tales of the Himalayas — among many others — is concerned about the ecosystem of the rugged and culturally rich Himalayas. “It is threatened by the highways that are being built through the mountains, either to promote religious tourism or for other purposes, he says after treks that took him from Garhwal to Nepal and Kailash to Manas.”

Cinematographer-director Goutam Ghose has journeyed through the Silk Route to make the ten-part documentary, Beyond the Himalayas. His project had started in 1994 and initially he had travelled with only 5-6 members who drove in a jeep and through the countries. “Our purpose was to look back from here and now in order to connect all the yesterdays that have transformed life and made us what we are today,” the celebrated filmmaker had said to me then.

So many stories of the exchanges enrich our literature too. Saradindu Bandopadhyay, author of many Bengali classics, had penned a story titled Maru O Sangha – The Monastery in the Desert. This was turned into a film, Trishagni/ Sandstorm (1989) by Nabendu Ghosh, another celebrated Bengali writer who became a legend as screenwriter of Hindi films. His film revolved around a monastery in Central Asia, somewhere on the Silk Route.  It showed traders who came to the monastery with a ration of food, clothes and other essentials. Those were days when people could not fly in in a helicopter and drop supplies… it took months for these traders travelling in groups to reach from one stupa to another. There was a focus on the lifestyle of the times. Buddhism was the first organized religion, and monastery being the centre of Buddhism was thus the centre of such exchanges 2000 and more years ago. These monasteries subsequently became the prototype for Islamic Madrasas and before that, of Christian universities: they were built along the lines of the monasteries which dotted Central Asia. And it is believed that the Stupa also gave the concept of the gumbad, the round top of so many masjids and forts too.

Another important exchange that was happening came to light when Trishagni was screened in many international film festivals outside India – in Tehran, Cairo, Thailand… One of the questions that cropped up was this: “You are talking about Buddhism but why are the men (and women) dressed like they dress in Islamic countries? Islam wasn’t there then!” It had to be pointed out that philosophy – and religion is a part of that – and ideas travel but Geography moulds what we wear. Because of the weather, when there was no air conditioner or even fans around, people in some parts of Africa wore no garments and in some parts of the Asian desert men wore long robes to cover the body from head to toe from the hot flying sand particles. They started covering their heads and ears and part of the face, and that wisdom became a convention and then a tradition.

Thus, geographical reality moulded why people in certain parts of the world dress in certain ways. And with the journey of religion, these dress codes also journeyed. The Romans did not wear silk because they admired the style in which the Chinese wore it but because of the inherent quality of silk. Cotton was also much in demand on this route since it was hot in the desert. So was indigo – native to India, primarily, and sought in Mediterranean countries as pigment for dyeing, medicinal and cosmetic use.

These exchanges which are now history happened largely because of geography. Why? I got the answer in the course of a seminar where artistes and academics had come from Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkey. I started realizing that people were travelling from China down to Northern tip of Africa or the Mediterranean country, certain lifestyle changes were taking place. These landlocked pockets that had no access to the sea, had little green and only animals to live off. Naturally, many turned their attention to what was going on the Silk Road. Two very interesting things happened:

1) Many became bandits who would rob these caravans.

2) Many did the opposite: they offered themselves as guards to protect the goods in the caravans from bandits.

So, the same problem generated two different approaches to life, two different lifestyles. Those who became guards would travel with the caravans and they became warriors. They became warriors because they were living in very tough terrains, and they became skilled warriors because they were fighting off bandits to protect the caravans. Before long these men turned aggressive. Wars between tribes became endemic – and many of the lands strived to find stability and prosperity for their people by going into the lands of other people. (Once again, geography and history came together to define lifestyle and culture.)

We find versions of this later when people set out from Europe and landed up in America, and a new culture and civilizational evolved. Another such change took place when people were forced to travel from the Queen’s England to Australia. All these migrations and journeys have influenced the arts, ideas, religion, food habit… Why is it that in India’s Northwest – Afghanistan, to be specific — people cook meat and roti in tandoor ovens while in Bengal well-being is synonymous with ‘maachh-bhaat’ – fish curry and rice? Once again the answer lies in the history of geography – that is, geography moulding tradition and shaping history.

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In 1892 Rabindranath Tagore wrote Kabuliwala, a story that touches the heart of humans everywhere in the world even today. It pivots on a peddler from Kabul who comes to Calcutta each year to sell dry fruits, and befriends a child, Mini. Circumstances force him to go to prison on charges of stabbing a debtor. On his release he goes to meet Mini and finds she is getting married. Rahman realizes that his daughter, now grown up, will also not have any recollection of her father – and he starts on his return journey, towards home.

This story has been filmed in India in Bengali by Tapan Sinha (1957), in Hindi by Hemen Gupta (1961), by Kazi Hayat of Bangladesh (2006), by Anurag Basu for a television channel (2015), by Deb Medhekar in 2018. It has been reimagined in totally different contexts.  Bioscopewala, set in 1990s, had Minnie going to Afghanistan where her father has died in a plane crash. In another script French Afghan writer Atiq Rahimi sets the story after the destruction of the Balmiyan Buddhas. This man from Kabul spells another exchange of ideas: he comes because this part of the world believes in reincarnation — and he is seeking his little girl who died during the destruction of the Buddhas!

Taking her cue from this same story, Sharofat Imam Arabova of Tajikistan made a lilting film where an Indian vendor selling things in that land strikes a friendship with a little girl. Desirous of paying a tribute to the author, the FTII-trained director approached Somali Panda to incorporate Tagore’s music in the script. “And when we did that using a santoor, it was so strikingly in sync!” says the music-maker from Kolkata who extensively used Raag Bhairavi. “That is the power of music – and also the bonding of migrant music,” she adds. And even as she spoke, I was reminded of Mrinal Sen’s Neel Akasher Neechey/ Under the Blue Sky (1959) wherein a Chinese hawker, Wang Lu, sold silk on the streets of Calcutta of 1930s, when India was under British rule. His life changed forever when he met Basanti, a housewife who gets arrested for her involvement in politics.

So what’s common between these stories? What connects the diverse players? Human situation where a man has travelled for work and struck friendship, an equation with a child – the most basic, most innocent form of humanity.

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This is the importance of revisiting the Silk Route and renewing acquaintance with migrant music: that human beings everywhere in the world have been migrating. Individually too we have migrated. My grandfather migrated from East Bengal – Dhaka – to Patna, then a part of Bengal Presidency. Now Dhaka is a different country, and Patna is part of Bihar, a different state from West Bengal. My father ‘migrated’ from Patna to Calcutta to Bombay Presidency which became two states – Maharashtra and Gujarat. I was born in Bombay, which has become Mumbai, lived in Delhi which was earlier a Union Territory and now has become a state. At present, I live in West Bengal. My brother who was born in Patna studied in Pune, graduated in Medicine from Calcutta, lived in UK and worked in Germany, Brunei, Cyprus, Bosnia… So many migrations!

Today technology has opened new highways, new vistas of connecting with the world. And even as we speak (or read, as in this case) we are crossing boundaries almost every minute of our day. Within families to, a child goes out to study in London or New York, makes Singapore or Sidney his workplace, his family perhaps lives in Delhi, and he travels to Johannesburg to  Rio, Texas to Tokyo, Moscow to Hong Kong, Sweden to Israel. So many outposts of civilization – just as people on the Silk Road once did, for their trade.

The crux of it? Stories that tell us about human lives and human emotions highlight one simple thing: Humans are the same everywhere. They are all born of their soil – geography. And geography moulds our history. Because we are creatures of these two forces, periodically we need to look back and trace our commonalities in order to transcend the schisms in society.

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Ratnottama Senguptaformerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. 

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Musings

The Magic Spell of Scheherazade’s Nights

Reflections of Sandhya Sinha (1928-2016), translated by Ratnottama Sengupta

Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. Courtesy: Wikicommons

Chiching Phank! “Open Sesame!” Two cock-n-bull words. But the spell of these two magical words released the rocky gates of a secret cave hidden by thorny bushes in the folds of a mountain, in front of Alibaba’s dazed eyes… 

The hideout was as mysterious as it was cavernous. With a pounding heart the impoverished woodcutter entered the cave — and froze. Diamonds and rubies, gold and silver filled every corner of the cave; silk and velvet and Persian carpets and God knows what else were stored there! He had never set eyes on so much glitter nor had he heard about such riches. This was the secret locker for the goods ill-begotten by the forty dacoits who had just galloped away on horseback.

By this time even the youngest reader of 1001 Arabian Nights would be wonderstruck by the astounding description of diamonds, rubies and gold coins. “Will Alibaba succeed in loading all these riches on the back of his three donkeys he has left hidden in the bushes and safely take off for his home?”  the reader would wonder, afraid to even imagine the consequences in case Alibaba failed.

If he was captured alive by those dacoits, they would bury Alibaba alive in that very cave and not even a crow would get to know of it. Such anxious moments! Each moment would weigh down the breath of the reader, until Alibaba emerged out of that zone of enchantment — all goods intact — and reached his shelter at sundown.

The spell binding excitement about ‘What Happens Next?’ in the Arabian Nights was planted in us readers by unknown storytellers — and the unreal harvest of curiosity has continued to cast its magic over centuries and across continents. The identity of the original creator of these stories is lost in the womb of time. What lived on were the characters which the author fleshed with dexterous imagination. It has been only three hundred years since the West got a taste of these adventures and became curious about the romance that is the Orient. Truth is these tales come out of the Arabian Nights but why ‘Nights’? The adventures are happening in broad daylight too. Ask, and the answer will lead you to a chatur nari — a very clever woman — and her hoshiyari — her quick thinking, alert mind. 

Scheherazade, painted in the 19th century by Sophie Andersen: Courtesy: Wiki

So, there was this very powerful Persian Badshah who found out that his Begum was carrying on an illicit affair. He not only snuffed out her life, he developed such immense hatred for the gender that every night he would procure a beauty to warm his bed and send her off to be beheaded at the break of daylight.

This went on for a while. The ministers were at their wit’s end: Who knew when their daughters would be sent for? One night, of her own free will, the prime minister’s daughter, the clever Scheherazade stepped forward and entered the Badshah’s bedroom, despite being well aware that the night ends in the certainty of death. The trusted matronly nurse of ample years was entrusted with the job of waking her up in the wee hours of the night. Thus, in the fading darkness, Scheherazade started narrating a bewitching story to the Badshah. Spellbound he listened, until the first ray of the sun interrupted the action at such a critical point in the story that the curiosity to know what happens next compelled the Badshah to postpone the beheading by one night.

By the sheer genius of her sharp wit, that young lady with the sword of death hanging over her head, went on with her storytelling for one thousand and one nights. So what if he was a brutal devil? The pulsating heart of a flesh and blood human entrapped him too:  after birthing three adorable babies Scheherazade became his Begum. And her head stayed firmly between her shoulders.

Centuries have passed since thirst-driven caravans on sandy roads immersed themselves in these stories as they sat around shallow wells to gather their breath or to warm themselves around fires under chilly starlit skies. By word of mouth, from one caravan to another, from one town to another, from a port to another land, these literary gems counted centuries before they were stilled in sentences and paragraphs.  Some parts of this literature, penned down in Arabic script during the 1st century after Christ, have been unearthed in Cairo as recently as the 20th century. These appear to be attempts to recount and record those captivating tales.

Many interpolations must have happened in the process of their journey from one narrator to another. Doubtless these are ancient treasures of the East that were presented to the world at the onset of the 19th century by French archaeologist Antoine Galland. He translated the stories from the Arabic manuscript unearthed in Aleppo and from the stories recounted to him by a Syrian. Not one or two but in twelve volumes he published his version of the tales and stormed the bastion of literary West between 1704 and 1717. Subsequently, it is believed that his work exerted significant influence on later European literature and attitudes towards the Islamic world. 

Since French was widespread then, England and the rest of Europe too could savour the romance embedded in these tales of adventure. But more than another hundred years passed before they were transcreated in English. It was Edward William Lane’s English version, Arabian Nights Entertainment, that amazed English readers globally.

It is logical to ask, from where were such captivating tales strung together? These tales do not belong to any particular tribe, nor are they rooted in any one soil. They have grown out of multifarious dialects and a multitude of emotions. They have been watered by inventiveness and mysticism. Man’s creative soul springs from them like an unchequered waterfall. The essence of India, Persia, Israel and Greece enrich this lexicon of mankind. Hence they unhesitatingly bear the robustness of an archaic tongue and of obscenity too. To ease the pain of a long day’s journey through unrelenting desert, or the rigours of relentless chores, the wayfarers would let loose the fertility of their mind in unimagined colours. Their panache would sketch even impossibly enchanted worlds. Perhaps it did not happen exactly so — but surely it could too! And if by chance or deus ex machina it did? Oh, what thrill that would spell!

Thus the tales crossed the boundaries of nature and politics. Thus they were nourished by the traditions of alien lands. Thus they came to flow as one river, fed by streams brown and blue and white. Since its origin, the human mind has seen little change in its dreams and desires, hopes and heartbreaks, greed and ambition, jealousy and suspicion, envy and enmity, doubts and fears. These make him oscillate from peaks of delight to the depths of despondency. Consequently, these stories have not faced wear and tear.

Magic lamp from Aladdin

The worthless, good-for-nothing son of a poverty stricken tailor, Aladdin spends his days imagining the impossible. It so happens that a magician takes a shine to him, and he arrives at a garden where trees are laden with rubies and emeralds. There he picks up a rusty little lamp. He rubs it, and a genie materialises out of thin air to fulfill every command of his. With his services and generosity, Aladdin gets the world in his fist. Soon as he becomes wealthy, he finds the Sultan’s daughter to be his wife. Then one day, through the machinations of the evil magician, womanly wisdom prompts her to trade off the rusty old lamp for the radiance of a brand new brass lamp. And in a jiffy his luxurious world evaporates before his very eyes. His wife is imprisoned by the trickster and he is tossed into the throes of endless suffering – until the clever Aladdin uses his wit, destroys the magician and retrieves his magic lamp. And when his father-in-law passes away, Aladdin wears the crown of the Sultan! How many minds and men are inspired by this little story to dream of the impossible coming true in their lives!

At the other end, simpleton Alibaba reaches home with the three donkeys laden with sacks full of gold coins. But how will he quieten his hyper-excited wife, Hasina Bibi? The destitute family did not own even a weighing scale. There was no other way but to borrow one from the haughty wife of his brother Cassem living on the other side of their partition wall.

“The family scrapes together barely two meals a day – now what has he brought home that compels him to borrow a scale at midnight?” – Cassem’s wife is not only curious, she is quick witted enough to paste some soft dough on the underside of the scale. A shining gold coin sticks to that and arrives in Cassem’s house, to declare what Alibaba and Hasina had come to own.

Spurred by greed, Cassem discreetly follows his brother at daybreak and unravels the mystery of the cave. And as soon as Alibaba exits the cave, Cassem utters “Open Sesame!” and enters the treasure trove. Things go wrong once he sees the riches stored inside. He goes berserk stuffing sack after sack and in the process totally forgets the two magic words. When he senses that he ought to leave, he realises the enormity of that one little mistake. He tears his hair in despair and keeps uttering “Open Potatoes!” “Open Brinjal!” “Open Cinnamon!” “Open World!”  Alas! The stone wall does not sway a hair’s breadth.

Fear of losing one’s life is so overwhelming that Cassem lost all desire for an iota of the wealth he had so lustily filled in his bags. How desperate he was to see the stone wall budge! And when it actually creaked open, Cassem’s eyes shone at the thought that now he could live to see the world outside. But the shine in his eyes lasted a mere second: the very next moment he was lying in a heap, his body chopped to pieces by the dacoit’s sword. They hung the severed body parts outside the cave and set off again.

Is there a moral lesson to be learnt from this story? The non-confronting, peaceable Alibaba could leave the cave in good time as he did not lose his equanimity, while the wily Cassem was so overcome by greed that he forgot the two magic words ‘Open Sesame’, lost his sense of time and consequently, his life too.

The thrill plays on in the heart and mind of those who watched Alibaba (1937), directed by Modhu Bose and featuring his danseuse wife Sadhana Bose. One of the songs went thus:

Aay bandi tui Begum hobi khwaab dekhechhi

(Hey slave girl! You’ll be a queen, I know that from my dreams)

Aami Badshah banechhi

(I have become the Badshah)

Ami begum banechhi

(I have become your Begum)

Badshah Begum jham jhama jham bajiye chalechhi

(Badshah Begum creating the jingle of coins wherever we go)

Oh, who can forget that fun sequence of song and dance!

Herding camels and goats was the culture of Bedouins, the nomadic Arab tribes who historically inhabited the desert regions of North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Upper Mesopotamia and Levant. They were neither burdened by heritage, nor did they boast a wealth of literature. Generation after generation, these startling stories became their oral co-travellers. That nomadic lot of humanity with behaviour and actions peculiar to their regions, their atheism and agnosticism, their songs and liturgy became one single flow. Almost 1250 years ago, when the cornerstone of Arab civilization was laid, gathering strength from the various languages, strifes and skills, these incomparable tales became a bulk of Arab literature — and effortlessly got dyed in the Islamic colours of the devotees of Allah. Friendship and affection, wisdom and respect for seniority, belief in destiny, surrender to Allah regardless of personal wealth or poverty — these are the keynotes of all the stories. The action could well be taking place in China or Persia, but the characters are all bound by the discipline of Prophet Muhammad. It is an astonishing harvest of Islam’s golden age.

However, Haroun Al Rashid, who is the protagonist of quite a few novellas, is not an imaginary character. Renowned in history as the fifth Abbasid Caliph who was the sole lord of every life and property in sweeping Mesopotamia — and owner of consequential wealth and splendid palaces, stately homes, chateaux and alquazar (al-qasr) – his rule between 786 and 809 AD saw Baghdad become Asia’s most chronicled trading post. 

The city would bustle with transactions in the most exquisite crafts. Gifted artistes and intuitive minds assembled here at a time when European civilization had yet to scale heights.  Haroun’s Baghdad can then verily be described as the poetic nursery of Arabian literature, a champion of architectural beauty, love, and other emotions of the human heart.

1001 Arabian Nights have gained recognition by learned critics as a truthful record of Islamic civilization at the turn of the 8th century. And not just that: Even today adventurers are amazed to find the wealth of traders being transported through the difficult terrain of the desert on the back of slow-moving camels — exactly as described in the Arabian Nights. It appears to be a breathtaking oral history whose contribution to the social science of the lettered world is immense.

It is impossible to classify this piece of literature as the product of sheer fantasy. The story of ace seafarer Sindbad is a hair-raising description of a new world that can be tallied with reality. None can doubt it as drug-induced hallucination.

During the glorious days of the Caliph, Arab seamen set out on courageous courses across the waters. The lush foliage and dense forests of the Far East repeatedly drew the desert dwellers — and they did not return empty handed. The heady fragrance of the tasty spices, the silk at South Indian ports, pearls — pink and purple, grey and milky; emeralds of the Lankan island and rubies of Burma along India’s east coast — they filled their bags with all this, and their memories with experiences galore. Had they not witnessed these with their very own eyes, the actions and gestures of cannibalistic tribes; the extraction of pearls from the shells wrested from the bottom of the ocean, and the enticing iridescence of gems– it would not be possible for sheer artistry to measure up to all these tasks.

Personable and prudent Sindbad had gone around the ocean full seven times. Then comes the mishap: monstrous roc birds attack and destroy his ship. When she sinks, Sindbad stays afloat by hanging on to a plank of wood and using it like a raft, he arrives at an island. Here, an emaciated old man perches on his shoulder and with his dangling skinny legs he grasps his neck in a pincer-like hold.  The exhausted Sindbad has no choice but to eat and sleep carrying on his back the old man (perhaps like the men who followed the African custom of riding on slaves).

This makes me think of the Indian Panchatantra Tales, which in 550 AD, are said to have been extremely popular in Persian translations. Did the Arabian storyteller adorn the Betaal Panchavimsati tales with further fictional details to create this particular old man of the sea?

A flying carpet

Metaphorically speaking, endless greed and lust can get the better of man and ride him, slave like. Men in those days had to walk for days to their destinations. The Arabian tales are woven from a zillion life situations, narratives and religious beliefs — an effortless journey undertaken on a daily basis. In the garb of fantasy many a historical fact has been jotted down by the fanciful chronicler — a timeless tapestry of fact and fiction. The experiences and realisations of everyman have orally arrived at the horizons of many an imaginary land and have been disbursed to untrod shores. Who on earth can suppress the desire to scour the globe and the heavens too, astride an Uran Khatola — a flying carpet? In practical terms it may not be possible but where is the harm in dreaming of the impossible?

Sir Richard Burton had visited Mecca to witness for himself the glory of the Haj. On this journey full of hardships, he heard the thousand and one incredible stories spun out by Scheherazade, just before dawn. He translated the tales word for word, and published them in English in the first half of Queen Victoria’s rule. The recording of experiences of human head and heart, unadulterated by any critical or moral judgment, opened possibilities of altering the prudish values then prevailing in England. That a vision stretching out into the horizon, the romance of adventure and the thrill of luxuriating in untold wealth can captivate all, is best exemplified by Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels — tales of adventure that have immortalised Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift.

Literature of no land can ever become popular unless it correlates the head with the heart. Unbeknownst to himself Shahryar, that wrathful Sultan who hated every woman, has enshrined his Scheherazade. He may have got a scribe to put into script the tales he had heard in the melting darkness of his bedroom. It added a glorious chapter to the literature of the world. The opportunity to dive deep into the ocean of fantasy, and experience unadulterated joy and thrill became everlasting for generations of readers all over the world.

Sandhya Sinha (1928-2016) resumed studies 17 years after marriage, completed her Masters in English, embarked on a teaching career and retired as a senior English teacher from a women’s college.Many of her articles were published in the magazine of the Bangiya Sahitya Samaj in Lucknow, of which Sucheta Kripalani was a founder member. At the age of 75, she embarked on a career of authorship, having successfully played the roles of a mother, a social worker, mentor, community leader and spiritual aspirant.

Ratnottama Senguptaformerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. 

(Published with permission of family)

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