Song of a people

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Set far away from Georgia, a 12th-century epic poem about an Indian prince and a brawny Arab remains the consummate Georgian saga (Cosmopolis column, published in The Hindu BLINK, 21 May, 2016) (Click here for the PDF)

“Raising the red and black banner, the royal standard of India…the Indian armies assembled, countless as stars in the heavens,” recounts Tariel, one of the two heroes of the medieval epic ‘The Knight in the Panther’s Skin.’ Tariel, an Indian prince, leads this force to attack ‘Khataeti’ or Cathay, what we would call China. In keeping with the prowess of heroic warriors, Tariel single-handedly pummels the Chinese army. “Man after man was smitten to earth by the force of my onslaught.” Triumphant, he returns to India with the captured Chinese king and many camel-loads and bullock-carts of booty.

So goes an episode of a celebrated epic poem composed in the 12th century. It was written far away from India, China, and Arabia (the other arena of its action), in what is now the nation-state of Georgia, a small country of about four million people on the eastern rim of the Black Sea.

At no point do the events of ‘The Knight in the Panther’s Skin’ come anywhere close to the hills and plains that make up modern-day Georgia. Nor do they involve Georgian characters. And yet the epic is the consummate Georgian saga, so knitted into the fabric of society that well into the 20th century every wedding dowry included a copy of ‘The Knight in the Panther’s Skin.’ Shota Rustaveli, the poem’s author, is memorialised in the names of streets, plazas, and academic institutions. Growing up in the Georgian town of Gori, a young Stalin memorised ‘The Knight in the Panther’s Skin’ by heart.

Most ‘national epics’ achieve that status by representing the nation in some way. Though the Mahabharata and the Ramayana evoke ancient times, the events of the stories take place largely on familiar soil, a mythical geography that Indian readers can map onto the real world. Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’ endowed Rome with a glorious pre-history. The Persian ‘Shahnameh’ connects its readers to the legendary heroes of their land. Composed at a time when the kingdoms of France and Spain were taking shape, the French ‘The Song of Roland’ and Spanish ‘The Song of My Cid’ depict warriors defending their homeland from rapacious enemies. The 16th century Portuguese poem ‘The Lusiads’ chronicled the conquests that made Portugal a maritime empire.

Unlike these famous tales, ‘The Knight in the Panther’s Skin’ has nothing overtly to do with the country where it was written. Its titular hero Tariel, who drapes himself in the spotted skin of a panther, is an Indian noble. Avtandil, the other brawny and gallant protagonist, is Arab. The main drama of the plot centres about their quest to rescue Tariel’s beloved, an Indian princess called Nestan-Darejan, from the captivity of demons.

How did a fable of Indo-Arab bravery and chivalric love become the iconic text of Georgian literature? Part of the reason for the poem’s abiding popularity is Rustaveli’s rich language and metrical innovations (which have yet to be well translated into English). But beyond aesthetics, the poem reminds Georgians of the era of its composition, the supposed ‘Golden Age’ of Georgia. Rustaveli was a courtier to Georgia’s powerful female ruler, Queen Tamar, who presided for nearly 40 years over a confident and expansive Christian kingdom in the late 12th century.

More than most places, Rustaveli’s Georgia was a crossroads. His poem demonstrates the breadth of his erudition and the wide frame of reference that Georgians inhabited at the time. He invokes classical Greek and Christian Neo-Platonist ideas coming out of Byzantium to the west just as he evinces knowledge of chivalric Arabic poetry. There was no clean line here between East and West, Asia and Europe, or even Christendom and Islam. We often associate ancient texts with a particular religious outlook, but ‘The Knight in the Panther’s Skin’ omnivorously refers to the holiness of the Koran, the Christian god, and the pantheon of planetary deities like Venus and Mercury.

The influence of Persian looms large over ‘The Knight in the Panther’s Skin’ and all of medieval Georgian literature. Rustaveli was schooled in Persian classics like Ferdousi’s ‘Shahnameh’ and Gorgani’s ‘Vis and Ramin’ (he was also a contemporary of the great Nizami Ganjavi, whose famous ‘Khamsa’ would be rewritten in Delhi by the 13th century poet Amir Khusrau.)

Like their Persian counterparts, the heroes of the Georgian epic compare beauty to the slender form of the cypress tree, they love metaphors about lions and goats, they faint at the merest mention of the name of their beloved, and they cry so often that the reader is drowned in descriptions of tears.

Rustaveli and his Georgian contemporaries probably never travelled to India, but India held meaning for them in this broad cultural landscape. Along with classical Athens and the deserts of Arabia, India was an integral part of their imaginative world.

And why not? Amitav Ghosh in In An Antique Land observes how in our modernity of nation-states, our vision of the world can shrink and older connections (between India and the Arab world, in the case of his book) be forgotten. ‘The Knight in the Panther’s Skin’ is a paradoxical reminder of how supra-national supposedly national epics can be.

It only became an emblem of Georgia in the 18th and 19th century, when peoples everywhere began turning to nationalism and searching for an authentic vision of themselves in the past. Since Georgia emerged as an independent state from the ruin of the Soviet Union, the epic has begun to shoulder even more of the symbolic weight of the nation. A boutique luxury hotel themed after the poem is scheduled to open in the capital Tblisi later this year.

‘The Knight in the Panther’s Skin’ can be read as an example of medieval Georgian accomplishment. But the poem’s real power lies in its openness to the wider world to which it belongs.

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