In today’s world, countries are generally recognized by their economic might and not their cultural heritage. One such country that falls in this category is Saudi Arabia. Known for its oil reserves and its military might, it’s easy to forget that the country also has a very strong cultural fabric that binds its society. It has a rich history of literature, theatre and dance. Interestingly, some of the influences in language have even come from India.
The interactions between the two countries began in the third millennium BC as trading partners. The exchange of goods soon evolved to exchange of ideas, culture and language. Indian goods which entered the Arab world were named after their place of origin, al-Hind, Arabic name for India. Indian swords were very famous in the Arab world and were known by names such as Hindi, Hindawani and Muhannad. Pre-Islamic Arab poetry has many references to Indian swords and several other Indian goods that were popular among Arabs.
As time progressed, inter-civilizational exchanges in the fields of science, mathematics and literature led to their advance. Saudi Arabia had an important role to play in this. The Abbasid caliphs set up and nurtured an academy called ‘Bait-ul-Hikmah’ or House of Wisdom, where scholars translated ideas and scientific knowledge from all across the world into Arabic. This academy undertook the translation of many Indian works, especially in the fields of medicine, mathematics and astronomy. One of the Indian literary works that was translated into Arabic and gained immense popularity was the ‘Panchatantra’ – a collection of ancient Indian fables replete with wise sayings. It was originally written in Sanskrit, but the original text was lost after being translated into Persian. The Arabs translated it from Persian under the title ‘Kalila wa Dimnah’.
Unfortunately, in our current times the chatter around Saudi Arabia remains restricted to its economy and the cultural aspects of its society like art, music, and theatre remain largely ignored. Age-old Saudi Arabian cultural practices are not known of beyond its borders such as the traditional performance of ‘Alardah’ on auspicious occasions, which includes dance, drumming and the chanting of poetry. One of Saudi Arabia’s most compelling folk rituals is the ‘Al Ardha’, the country’s national dance. This sword dance is based on ancient Bedouin traditions: drummers beat out a rhythm and a poet chants verses while sword-carrying men dance shoulder to shoulder. This was recently performed during President Trump’s visit to the country in May 2017.
Over the years, India and Saudi Arabia have played host to eminent artistes from each other’s countries. Recently, ‘Urdu Gulban’, a Jeddah-based literary group, organized a poetry session to honor Indian poet Nafeesa Sultana, who was in Saudi to perform Umrah. Similarly, in 2016, a number of Urdu poets performed for 2,000 non-resident Indians (NRIs) at a poetry evening (mushaira) organized by the Indian Embassy in Riyadh. In 2015, in an event organized by India Islamic Cultural Centre, top Urdu poets from India performed in Riyadh.
Ebrahim Al-Kazi, the Indian theatre personality has his roots in Saudi Arabia. His contribution to the fields of theatre, fine arts and culture has been extraordinary. He is acknowledged for innovating Indian theatre, staging more than 50 plays in his lifetime, and mentoring some of the finest actors and directors. His Al-Kazi Foundation of the Arts is making an immense contributing to the preservation of Indian cultural history. The son of a Saudi Arabian trader, Ebrahim Al-Kazi is now the director of the National School of Drama in Delhi and the Asian Theatre Institute.
Recently, Saudi Arabia held the ‘Al-Janadriyah’ festival that included an ensemble of activities – display of folklore arts, horse racing, poetry and music. The festival spectacularly captured the diversity of Saudi Arabia and her people. Camel racing – a heritage sport – was a showstopper at the festival, with camel owners from Saudi Arabia and Gulf Cooperation Council countries (GCC) competing against each other.
There is more to Saudi Arabia than just oil. It is home to a rich civilization with a resplendent history of exchanges with other cultures of the world. Yet, it remains deeply committed to preserving and upholding its ancient heritage.