From the mid-10th century ce, one of history’s great scientific eras began to flourish across Islamic lands.
Like the European Renaissance, it was marked as much by cultural exchange, synthesis and dialog as it was by individual discovery. Connections forged among scholars and scientists of Islamic lands with contemporaries and predecessors beyond their own borders led to an unprecedented pooling of knowledge over generations and continents. The Indus Valley and the wider Indian subcontinent proved to be deep wells of the scholarship that gradually came to be known westward via translation into Arabic as well as Persian. From the observations of philosophers to the calculations of mathematicians, from the models of astronomers to the treatises of physicians, these works helped shape the era that became known as “the golden age of Islamic science” and—much later—our own.
After the Muslim conquest of India, several rulers, including most notably the Mughal emperors of the 16th and early 17th centuries, beginning with Akbar the Great, facilitated translations of Indian literature into Persian and Arabic. Several well-known Indian books such as Mahabharata, parts of the Vedas, Yoga-Vasistha, Bhagavad-Gita and Bhagavata Purana were thus translated. The most fundamental views contained within these texts express the crux of natural philosophy: a universe in constant transformation, wherein elements are interconnected, sharing in absolute unity and having a sequence of creation. The Yoga-Vasistha, for example, a collection of stories and fables nearly 30,000 verses in length, was appreciated for its “realities, diverse morals, and remarkable advice.”
Under Dara Shukoh some 50 major Indian works were translated, among them the Upanishads, the pinnacle part of the Vedas script, which he considered imbued with the power to make people “imperishable, unsolicitous and eternally liberated.” His rendering was later translated into Latin in the 18th century by Anquetil Duperron of France. It was read in turn by the eminent 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who was so impressed by the universality of its message that he kept a copy open on a table near his bed.
Much of what Akbar and his successors learned to value, however, had already been observed centuries before. During his years in India in the 11th century, Abu al-Rayan al-Biruni, an all-around erudite from Kath in Central Asia, studied Sanskrit and researched the arts, literature and science. He analyzed meta-physics in Vedic texts and translated a number of them into Arabic, including selections from Patanjali’sYoga-Sutras, a philosophical compilation, and the 700-verse Bhagavad-Gita. In his own book, Kitab Ta’rikh al-Hind (Book of Indian History, popularly known as Alberuni’s India), he introduced Muslim readers to Indian scholarly culture. Al-Biruni admits in the introduction that despite cultural and linguistic barriers, his book is an attempt to offer “the essential facts for any Muslim who wanted to converse with Hindus and to discuss with them questions of religion, science, or literature.”
He also identiﬁes crossovers between Indian sci-ence and literature, notably Kalila wa Dimna (Kalila and Dimna), a celebrated book in the Middle East since the early medieval period. Based on an earlier Indian work, Panchatantra (Five Principles), it was written down from the oral tradition in the third century BCE, and it uses animal fables (Kalila and Dimna are jackals) to tell stories about human conduct and the arts of governance.
Julien de Casabianca ‘rescues’ the subjects of famous paintings from their frames and takes them for outings in the city.
When French and Corsican visual artist Julien de Casabianca visited The Louvre, a museum filled with the work of universally revered artists like Leonardo da Vinci, Caravaggio and Rembrandt, he was inspired by an obscure painting featuring a beautiful young female prisoner. “I had a Prince Charming compulsion to liberate her from the castle,” he confessed.
While the urge to swoop in and save the damsel was a primitive one, de Casabianca’s idea of rescue was unusual – he photographed the painting, printed an enlarged copy of it and pasted it on an old and decrepit wall in Paris.
One of the more enigmatic manuscripts now in the British Library (IO Islamic 1255) from the rich library of Tipu Sultan, ruler of Mysore (d. 1213/1799), is the untitled qiṣṣah or tale featuring a figure popular across the range of Persian literature, the Prophet Sulaymān (the biblical Solomon, son of David). In this tale, the prophet-king is confronted by the head of the ranks of birds, the Sīmurgh (Phoenix), expressing its disbelief in the doctrine of predestination (qaz̤āʾ va qadr). Having angered Allāh, Jibrāʾīl (the archangel Gabriel) is sent to inform Sulaymān of a prophecy foretelling the birth of the Prince of the East (Malikzādah-′i Mashriq) and the Princess of the West, daughter of the Malik-i Maghrib, who together bear a child out of wedlock. The Sīmurgh believes it can prevent this outcome. Sulaymān and the Sīmurgh conclude an agreement (qawl) to reassess the situation after fifteen years, by which time the accuracy of the prophecy would be apparent.
For many viewers, the subject of most Indian paintings is understandable even without a specialist’s knowledge of the identity and history of the figures portrayed. For example, images of a princely couple listening to music on a palace terrace can be appreciated without needing to know the historical or literary identity of the protagonists. Beyond this basic intelligibility, however, many works feature complex subject matter, symbolic nuances, and/or compositional substructures that require an in-depth explanation to understand their layers of meaning.
Inspired by the iconography and mythology of Western divinity and sovereignty featured in the European prints brought to India, the Mughals and other Islamic dynasties of India soon appropriated the visual attributes of the divine and the regal for their own glorification. Chief among these emulated personages were Solomon and David, kings of ancient Israel; Orpheus and the philosopher Plato, both legendary musicians and poets of ancient Greece; and Majnun, the famous Arabic poet and unconsummated paramour of his beloved Layla. The unifying thread in the stories of these influential personalities was that each was graced with the ability to tame and control animals by means of his musical ability and/or spiritual authority.
Love stories never go out of fashion, especially when they are narrated using songs and drama. The story of Laur and Chanda, is one such story. The folklore is performed till date in Uttar Pradesh, Chattisgarh and some parts of North India. Many moons ago, somewhere around 1377-78 AD (the Sultanate Period), a Sufi poet, Maulana Daud composed this narrative in Avadhi, giving birth to the first surviving Indian Sufi romance.
A reason why I am drawn to museums is because they are a storehouse of stories. I chanced upon the story of Laur and Chanda at the Government Museum & Art Gallery, Chandigarh. A delicate set of folios, the Museum has a great book on the collection.
THE STORY & ITS CHARACTERS
The narrative begins with the birth of a beautiful Chanda to King Sahadeva of Govar. While still very young, she is bound in wedlock to a blind and impotent Prince. The great beauty that brought her this lamentable fate also releases her from it, for the unhappy maiden catches the eye of a wandering ascetic, Bajir. Bajir sings her praises wherever he goes and sets the story in motion. His songs arouse the lust of King Rupchand so much so that he forcefully tries to forge an alliance with King Sahadev. This is when our hero, Laur is brought in by the King, to overcome and kill Rupchand; but he falls in love with Chanda, though not before achieving his goal. Chanda engages her confidante, Brihaspati in arranging secret meetings with Laur. But the story isn’t as simple because Laur is married to Maina – who comes to know about her husband’s illicit love and devises ways of winning him back when he elopes with Chanda. Chanda and Laur’s elopement itself is ridden with challenges – snakebites, thieves and the King Mahipat – who invites Laur to a game of dice and wins everything including Chanda. He is, however, outwitted by Chanda and they journey on. Maina on the other hand, entrusts Sirjan, a caravan leader with the task of locating her husband. Eventually, Laur and Chanda return but the lovers’ plight does not end with confrontation and Chanda ends up as Laur’s second wife.
THE CHANDIGARH MUSEUM FOLIOS
The folios of Laur-Chanda are rare and significant in artistic terms. A set of 24 folios has survived, of which 14 lie with the Lahore Museum in Pakistan, and 10 in India’s Chandigarh Museum. The poem by Maulana Daud testifies to his genius as a great storyteller. The artist pays tribute to this very genius by placing him in every folio – almost reminding the viewer of the origins of the story. You will notice him in white with a holy book in every frame.
The British Library holds over a thousand Jain manuscripts, most of which were collected in the 19thCentury, by Indologists and East India Company officials. In a recent blog, Pasquale Manzo, the British Library’s Sanskrit curator, gives an overview of these manuscripts, and news that 33 of them have been digitised.
One of the collectors mentioned in this previous blog is Colin Mackenzie, the first Surveyor General of India. There are 21 Jain manuscripts, 18 of which are palm leaf manuscripts from Karnataka’s Digambara tradition, in the British Library’s Mackenzie Collection.
American Magnum photographer Steve McCurry, best known for his 1984 photograph of an Afghan refugee with piercing green eyes (Sharbat Gula), is one of the most celebrated photojournalists of our time. His career started in 1978, after the work of Margaret Bourke-White and Henri Cartier-Bresson inspired him to take his first visit to India. This trip, on which McCurry used up 250 rolls of Kodachrome, would be the first of his more than 80 visits to the country.