Last week, we lost Ebrahim Alkazi, a legend of Indian theatre with Saudi Arabian roots. I fondly remember my first experience of meeting him in the spring of 2014 at his house in New Delhi. I was touched by his unique character and his passion for the arts. He greeted me with a few words spoken in the distinct Qassimi dialect. Alkazi was also a noted art connoisseur and collector, credited for fundamentally transforming Indian theatre and having etched a name for Indian theatre worldwide. His legacy will forever remain a testament to the rich intellectual and cultural links between Saudi Arabia and India.
Alkazi’s father, Hamad, was a trader from Unaiza in Saudi Arabia’s Qassim region, who subsequently settled in Pune where Ebrahim was born in 1925. Despite his early immersion in theatre, he gradually pursued his love for visual arts. He showcased the avant-garde artist in him throughout India, the US and Europe through his path-breaking work before becoming the director of the National School of Drama in Delhi and the Asian Theatre Institute in 1962. He will always be remembered for his contributions in the field of arts that resonate with our cultural bonds. The strings that bind Saudi Arabia and India are many and have become stronger and more diverse over time. However, the cultural ties that the two countries share are perhaps the deepest. Pre-Islamic Arab poetry has many references to Indian swords and several other Indian goods.
The two countries have a fascinating history of intellectual exchanges. Science, arts, literature, and languages – the mutual influence has indeed been profound. For instance, many Indian texts in the field of medicine, mathematics and astronomy were translated over the centuries into Arabic. The father of Indology is none other than the Arab scholar Al-Biruni. His monumental work Ta’rikh al-Hind is undoubtedly the most comprehensive pre-modern encyclopaedic work on India.
Another notable text, the Panchatantra, was translated by the Arabs who took it to Europe and the rest of the world, as were Hitopadesha and Chanakya’s Arthashastra. India’s famous medical treatises such as Charaka and Susruta were translated into Arabic as well.
The Arab travellers were also prolific writers and wrote extensively on India, its people and diverse cultures. Writers such as Sulaiman, Ibn-ul-Faquih, Al-Masudi and Al-Idrisi documented in great detail their impressions of south India, its people, customs and traditions. The world-famous Arabian Nights also called Alf Laila in Arabic and Adventures of Sindbad the Sailor too describe southern India. According to Ibn Nadeem, a 16th-century Arab writer, Sindbad was written in India.
These deeply-rooted cultural ties have continued to grow. For instance, Yoga has become an increasingly popular sport in Saudi Arabia. Since November 2017, the International Yoga Day is celebrated in an open area in the centre of Riyadh. In 2018, India was a guest of honour at our annual cultural festival of Al Janadriyah. The theme of the Indian pavilion at the festival was “Saudi ka Dost Bharat” (India is a friend of Saudi Arabia). This last decade has been seminal in expanding our friendship into a strategic partnership.
A most significant milestone in our ties with India was the visit of His Royal Highness Crown Prince to India in February 2019, which re-affirmed the deep commitment of the two nations to strengthen their strategic engagement.
Our shared cultural bonds are also deepened by the religious ties between our peoples. The annual pilgrimage to Makkah has facilitated the exchange of cultures and traditions as well. But above all, our ties have been strengthened by pioneers like Ebrahim Alkazi. He will continue to live in the hearts of Saudis and Indians who are on the quest to deepen the friendship and cultural heritage they share.
This article first appeared in the print edition on August 12 under the title “A symbol of friendship”. The writer is the ambassador of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to India
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