Reproductions of works from the Baysanghori Manuscript of Firdausi's Shahnameh on view at National Archives

Looking back doesn't always disappoint. It becomes a fruitful exercise particularly in the context of creative arts. History testifies to various civilisations reaching the creative zenith in different disciplines. We took it forward from where the masters left it. Ferdowsi was one who achieved the sublime in his pursuit. Resulting from a gigantic effort that lasted almost 30 years was the classic epic “Shahnameh” (The Book of Kings) that he wrote more than 1000 years ago and presented to Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni.

Firdausi wrote it in Persian when Arabic was the main scientific and literary language of Iran. The poetry narrating Iran's mythical and historical past came to be recognised at par with other great literary works of the world like Homer's “Iliad”, and Vyas' “Mahabharata” etc.

In 1430, Prince Bayasanghor, the grandson of the Central Asian leader Timur, ordered an illustrated manuscript of the text. What eventually came to be known as “Bayasanghori Shahnameh” is counted among the three copies of “Shahnameh” having universal value, the other two being “Demotte Shahnameh” made in the early 1300s and the 16th Century “Houghton Shahnameh”.

Interestingly only the “Bayasanghori Shahnameh” has survived and is kept under lock and key in the Imperial Library of the Golestan Palace in Tehran. It is included in UNESCO's Memory of the World Register of cultural heritage items.

Reminding us of this priceless heritage is ‘Shahnameh: The Everlasting Heritage of Persia', an exhibition highlighting selected folios of the Bayasonghori manuscripts of the “Shahnameh” which is on view at National Archives of India. The exhibition has been organised in collaboration with Iran Culture House.

“A combination of eight to ten artists worked on one painting makes it difficult to attribute it to any one artist. While one made the border, the other made the figure, the third one decorated it and so on,” explains Majid, In-charge of exhibitions and cultural events, Iran Culture House.

In accordance with Bayasonghar's wish, the artists expressed the lore written in “Shahnameh”, in a unique visual language. “In a way, it is also reflective of the society of Iran. The heroes of ordinary men who wouldn't be scared of anybody not even the king. Such tales found their way into the three sections of the book: the mythical age, the heroic age and the historical age, with maximum focus on the heroic age,” adds Majid pointing to the digital reproductions of the works portraying the heroic age stories like Zal and Rudaba, the Seven Stages (or Labors) of Rostam, Rostam and Sohrab, Siyavash and Sudaba and many others. Suggesting similarities with Indian culture, a work shows Siyavash, a well-known character in the book, having to prove his innocence by walking on fire, which is considered to be sacred in Indian tradition. The image of ‘Bahram making merry with Indian ruler Shanghol' again establishes the Indian connection.

Extensive use of blue and green, flat surfaces, elaborate details and ornate borders mark these works.

“Even Akbar got a manuscript of ‘Ramayana' made but it was only after he saw ‘Shahnameh',” says Majid.