Jaipur, 23 January 2016
The historic pink city of India, Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, has pushed a new frontier in festival tourism. As the city decked up to host the Zee- Jaipur Literature Festival 2016, an annual jamboree of fine print and culture often described as the mecca of east-meets-west literary ethos, the city’s cultural intelligentsia is already mapping the blueprint for another festival — “Beyond Borders, The Silk and Spice Road Arts Festival”.
“The Silk Road was a global market before emergence of the global markets, a world spanning network before the invention of the telecommunication, a cultural melting pot before the advent of transitional media. It was in short the way the world discovered itself. And despite all the commerce — and all the connectivity and the cultural homogenisation, “Beyond Borders”, by returning to the beginning makes it all the more valuable again,” Peter BG Shoemaker, Co-Founder of Beyond Borders, The Silk and Spice Road Arts Festival, said.
The festival that is reminiscent of the Virasat Foundation’s pioneering culture initiative instituted nearly two decades ago — to bring to the world the rich legacies of the desert state of Rajasthan — pledges to resurrect the lost arts of Thar and the medieval cultures which flourished along the Silk Road.
The culture, according to historians, is more than a millennium old, having entrenched its colours as early as in the 6-7th century CE. The manifests drew their sustenance from the ethnic crafts and arts that symbolised the way of life and the histories of the warring clans of the Rajput, a sturdy race of fighters who inhabited the vast sandy swathes stretching from the Aravalli ridges — up from the Yamuna “doab” plains of Delhi — to the frontier regions across to modern day Pakistan and Afghanistan — opening out to the central Asia.
Culture on these roads of the caravan trade was forged in a union of three great faiths — early Hinduism, a nascent Islam and Buddhism, the lineage of the living god Gautama who contoured the arts and sensibilities of people along the length and the breadth of Asia.
Carpets, textiles, spices, artifacts, metalware, stoneware, jewellery and the Gandhara arts carried the aromas of the Orient right up to the gates of the western world through Constantinople and Tripoli in modern Turkey and beyond — across the Himalayas, the Urals, Euphrates and the Tigris to the Mediterranean Sea.
Rajasthan is positioned in an unique way on the Silk Route — fusing the cultures of the Orient, Persia with the greater Hindu royal legacies of Rajputana. Hence, the venue of the new festival is the Amer Palace, the piece de resistance on the — Silk Road which peters down to a dusty back-of-beyond track connecting the palace to the Delhi-Jaipur highway in the outskirts of the pink city.
The old Silk Bazar along the Silk Road to Amer Fort is no longer the grand “Mina Bazar” of the 15th and the 16th century CE when the Silk Road bustled with commerce.
The festival proposes to breathe life back on to this road — barely a kilometer’s stretch to the Amer Fort 1 with 100 artists representing the best of the Silk Road traditions from across the continent.
Business wise, a Silk Road festival makes perfect money sense now that China is spearheading a cultural and economic resurgence — in an attempt at an Asian conglomeration both on land and sea.
The proposed Maritime Economic Silk Road — an ambitious project — linking China, with Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Seychelles and Africa through a string of pearls ocean board halts is an example of this emerging cultural-economic synergy that professes to revive ancient trade routes to cater to contemporary multi-lateral business needs. The estimated 140-bn USD project, as pundits point out, is in tandem with the overland routes that the caravaners had used in the early years of the spread of Buddhism that coincided with trade and the explosion of cultures — assimilations – driven by religion and movements of people from one geography to another.
The sea-lane aims to add heft to the land road, redefining trade and cultural links in the 21st century, jumping across time and history. A new cultural festival assumes relevance in the transforming Asian realpolitik and cultural diplomacy.
American art historian Mitchell Karim Crites, who has spent much of his productive career encouraging traditional artists in Jaipur, says, “Artisans don’t want a handout. They want an international market to display their talents and to pass on their traditional skills to the next generation.”
Beyond Borders as a result is is star-studded to create new linkages between the grassroots and those of girth at the global level. The roster rolls off names like Judith Espinar — founder of Santa Fe International Folk Art Market, Peter BG Shoemaker, award winning writer, poet and advisor, textile designer and visionary architect Edric Ong, Vice president for Central Asia on the World Crafts Council Dinara Chochunbaeva, Manjari Nirula, coordinating member and juror for the UNESCO award of excellence for central and south Asia and international exhibition director Nataliya Musina —among those do the international circuits. It is “a step further than the Jaipur Literature Festival and the big names it ropes in every year,” suggest insiders. The idea is to combine the salt-of-the-earth with the best from the around the world to a specific geo-cultural buzz.
International cultural expositions are precursors to greater bilateral synchronicity and engagements that ensues from interactions — people-to-people contacts and networking to boost ties between disparate geographies and encourage survival of living cultural practises and livelihoods.
In the last two decades — Rajasthan has been in the spotlight for mega cultural interfaces at the international level drawing participation from across the continental divides. Its strategic heritage location, busy tourism loop as one of the state’s economic mainstays, a trade friendly government, hospitable ambience and a proactive approach to development have helped the state carve a leg-space for itself as a trigger for diplomatic initiatives that engender at the national level and on the Asian canvas.
The Virasat Foundation — a cultural platform set up in 2002 to engage with the traditional arts and crafts of Jaipur as a catalyst of global exchanges — has set an example in how the culture of an ethnic typecast — as Rajasthan personifies with its arts, performances, music, mores and historic lifestyles— can be a cross-road of seamless overlaps and “track three” for a larger synergy between India, the rest of the SAARC bloc, ASEAN regions and the greater west Asian and Gulf terrain.
The Jaipur Literature Festival and the Rajasthan International Folk Festival which have been born out of the Virasat Foundation intiative — have spread the red carpet for even bigger displays of indigenous cultures that have found connectivity along the major Asian nodal civilisations.
The hype over the revival of the Silk Route — and China’s overdrive in promoting its maritime parallel is rooted in this need to converge on an economic plenum, where culture translates into business and often doubles as solutions to bilateral lean stretches between nations in dispute.
The riven relationship between India and Pakistan — with threads tying Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar into the mosaic of conflicts — breathes afresh with people-to-people cultural understanding which are sporadic but broodingly intense in their objective to mitigate.
Silk Road is an apt political metaphor for diplomatic bondage between the ideologically divergent power blocs like the SAARC and the ASEAN that are at odds over leverage space, sea boards, maritime securities and trade spin-offs. Analysts say cultural exchanges and jamborees — bear a balmy overtone on terrorism-related dislocations in the socio-cultural matrix as well promoting understanding, resuscitation, removal of misconceptions and rehabilitation at deeper psycho-diplomatic level.
Beyond Borders, one can hope, will live to paper the deep chasms along the 21st century Silk Road. And put Rajasthan — the diamond in India’s incredible history durbar — on a consolidated plane in the geo-space of global cultural diplomacy.
Foreign Affairs Incharge/Senior Writer