The spirit of give-and-take that this ancient route inspired among civilisations can transform today’s geopolitics

The samosa and seviyan were my first introduction to India being a part of something bigger. Stuffed ravioli and slippery spaghetti from Italy to the ubiquitous dumpling and noodles of a staple ‘Chinese’ take away, opened up a wider but familiar world. In my school in the sixties, based on intuitive visual response and little else, my first exhibit compared the rhythmically paced pirouettes of Kathak to flamenco. The ease with which we managed to collage fabulous Indian, Chinese and Persian flora and fauna into exotic trees of life helped us question the complex origins of iconographies.

Twenty years we shared in the new dialogues between parent civilisations (note: not countries) evoking shared cultural memories and religious moorings through Unesco, which had launched a brilliant but sadly unnoticed Silk Roads initiative.

In 1877, German explorer Baron Ferdinand von Richtofen used the name of a treasured cloth as a seductive metaphor to coin the term Silk Route for a conjunction of ancient, though not smooth, caravan routes scattered over Eurasia along the Far East, Central Asia, South Asia, reaching up to Africa. Probably inspired by wily tales of secrecy linked to the making and trade of silk— an ‘invention’ romantically ascribed to a Chinese princess fishing out a fibrous cocoon found floating in her tea cup — the route was active, offering a lot more.

The tangible and the intangible

The first millennium BC through the middle of the second millennium AD witnessed seminal give and take in the areas traversed by the Silk Route. Buddhism and Islam became world religions. Sufis and poets provided enlightenment, spices pickled foods. Pottery, glass, gold, tea, indigo, jade and textiles made merchants rich and crafts people prospered. The vocabularies of music, architecture, dance, drama and design morphed. Values became more universal as world views expanded. The flux was intense, effecting a profound movement, deeply impacting our thought, actions and deeds. The impact on both tangible and intangible heritage was profound.

The Silk Route in fact became humanity’s first global exchange — a precursor to the Internet — not just opening multiple ways but offering a web of choices, instrumental to great innovations that have directly impacted culture, science and commerce of today.

As a conduit of transmission of knowledge and wisdom and as a perennial source of adventure, discovery and power, its deep resonance still evokes fresh perspectives which are perhaps just as vital now for the future of our world: a world fast shrinking…Hollywood celebrities working with Asian teams and themes, IT with its cyber web of interdependencies, culinary arts tickling changing palates, material goods and games catering to emerging life styles, medicines and wellness industries integrating the ancient with the modern. New Routes? How does South Asia reach out to ride the waves?

The peripheries of our subcontinent can once again become vital links as dynamic and lucrative gateways to the rest of Asia. With strategic interventions to ease political tensions, fragile Kashmir, once a vital junction on a great crossroads and the troubled seven sisters along the volatile North Eastern Himalayas, could well have an indispensible stake in such a plan. Connectivity of areas that have become conflict-affected would symbolise relative prosperity for the whole region, stimulate migrations and exchange, stabilise fast disappearing skills and livelihoods, re-define securities and modernity with a purpose.

The efforts to re-establish ancient routes are tied up with the pragmatic needs of new nation states along the routes, such as in the former Soviet Union, for modern infrastructure and this millennium’s goals for development. Today, Unesco is perhaps less persuasive than the realpolitik of Uncad, UNDP, Unescap and ADB pooling their might to develop Trans Asian Highways and Trans continental Railways.

Talking about revival of Silk and spice Routes for intellectual or ideological cross fertilization of ancient culture will continue but if commercial, social and geopolitical justifications are found, a lot else follows without much ado.

In 2004 India became signatory with 30 countries for joint projects on Trans Asian transportation networks. China’s role was to promote a single axis linking Europe-Central Asia with its mainland. Bypassing most of South Asia with exception of a small opening into north-east Pakistan, China carries on with much else for purposes other than trade.

India, though, has done little, neglecting great economic and geopolitical dividends for north-west or north-east India. More than four decades ago, I crossed the picturesque Mughal route running through Rajouri, Poonch and Thanamandi on mule back. Lately revived for tourism, other areas such as Ladakh and north-east, remain barely accessible. The government’s new road building programmes are somewhat limited, focusing on mainland connectivity, giving negligible attention to border States. India’s unpreparedness to reach out to Central and East Asia has resulted in it confining itself to a South-South Asia box.

Reviving Kashmir

Independent cross cultural exchange within an emerging region, particularly for Kashmir will revive the State’s historic role as a veritable and dynamic crucible of major transformations witnessed over centuries. This rare alchemy between Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh has for too long remained static and uninspired. Hinged as the region is to the problematic borders of Pakistan and China, it is losing its critical role in a unique network of cross cutting identities.

What passed through this region went through a transformative rite of passage. Not even an institution like religion emerged untouched. As an important transit emporium in the trade between India and Central Asia, Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh represent an unusual co-existence of three great faiths tempered by living traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. The ‘Trika’ of the three continues to influence peoples’ lives, giving the call to human conscience in an increasingly polarised region. Kashmir embodies ‘Kashmiriyat’ — a quality the young holding guns can barely understand.

While in Kashmir recently to launch the unprecedented art programme conceived for the new Air terminal in Mumbai — it took place in an Intach-restored building on the River Jhelum — the much acclaimed Baroda based artists, Nilima Sheikh and B.V. Suresh collaborated with an interdisciplinary team of Kashmiri craftspeople on a huge mural entitled ‘conjoining lands’. Fayaz Ahmed Jan, the most reflective papiermache artist amongst them, has created evocative and unprecedented panels depicting life in Seher or Srinagar.

When asked by the press “Why Srinagar?” my reply may have resonated with the subconscious of young Fayaz, who I have known over three decades growing up in troubled times, “Stand anywhere in the old city or simply float on its lakes of paradise…one feels the fragrance of Bokhara, the streetscapes of Isfahan, the recurring motifs of Xian and the immeasurable presence of Sadashiva”. Srinagar permeates the senses, expanding ones notion of land or being.

I appeal to all right thinking politicians, adventurous entrepreneurs, hard nosed academics and imaginative stakeholders of creative and cultural industries to help bolster trans-national connectivity, by reinventing the idea of the Silk Route for the South Asian sub-continent. To begin with, a sublime riverine festival energising the decaying ghats and waterways of Srinagar will help. An international biennale positioning the best that Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh have to offer needs to follow — not as a mere mela of arts and crafts —but as a veritable stocktaking of the finest thinking and creativity the sub-continent has on offer.

(The writer is a leading designer who has tried over a decade to recreate locally, the much acclaimed Smithsonian’s Silk Route festival, scenographed by him on The Washington Mall. As Chairman of The Asian Heritage Foundation and principal Art Advisor to Mumbai’s New Airport he is active in the creation of art for public spaces.)

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