Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Silk Route and More

On Friday the 21st I had a rather new experience. The class eleven History students of our school were taken to the iLEAD auditorium to watch a documentary film on the Silk Route by director Goutam Ghosh, which was followed by an interactive session with the director and others. Such things are quite common in the schools of metropolitan cities, but since my previous school has always been a very determined frog in the well, we were never taken to such events in our entire school lives.

Students from at least ten schools in Kolkata had come together to watch the screening of the first two episodes of Goutam Ghosh’s five episode documentary movie ‘Beyond the Himalayas’. In 1994, the director along with a number of other people had made an expedition following the Silk Route through Central Asia all the way to China. The movie traces their journey and their findings in five successive episodes. Theirs was the first Indian expedition through China. Other than the director himself, two other team members of the expedition, writer-director-actor Mr. Jagannath Guha, and historian Mr. Phalguni Matilal were present for the interactive session that followed the screening of the movie.

I have not watched many documentary films, so I was a little skeptical about how the movies were going to turn out. But I was pleasantly surprised, and enjoyed myself over the next few hours. The first episode sketches the route taken by the explorers, starting from Delhi, from where they were airlifted to Samarkand in Uzbekistan. From there started their car ride, tracing the entire Silk Route. Samarkand and Bukhara are two of the oldest inhabited cities of the world, and are known for the important positions that they occupy on the trade route to China. The movie has successfully captured the dusty grandeur of these two ancient cities, alive as they are with the history of millennia. Both cities throng with historical monuments, which portray predominantly Islamic architectural styles.

From Bukhara they travelled on to Fergana, which is the old capital of Babur’s kingdom in present-day Uzbekistan. Fergana is also claimed to be the Zoroastrian homeland by Zoroastrian literature. It was from Fergana that the travellers left Uzbekistan behind and crossed Kyrgyzstan to enter the Xinjiang region of China through Kashgar, where the oldest Indian handwritten manuscripts have been retrieved, and Hotan, which is famous for its jades. This is where the first episode ended.

The second episode deviated a little from the main theme, and followed the route taken by Hiuen Tsang to and from India. The episode was called On the Search for the Buddha, and it spoke of Hiuen Tsang’s journey to the birth land of the Buddha, his studies in the great Nalanda University, and his return to China to develop his own school of Buddhism there. It was shown as a journey to India by London-based producer Mr. Michael Haggiag, who was member of the original expedition, and his wife, after the expedition itself had ended. Mr. Haggiag and his wife visited Bodh Gaya and Nalanda, and it was through their eyes that the episode has mainly been depicted.

The movies as a whole were enlightening. There were so many new things that I came to know from them. For example, Hiuen Tsang is actually pronounced as ‘Xuanzang’ in Chinese. Also, the best among jades are not the ones which are a lush green, but those which are the palest and nearly white. The monks in a certain Buddhist temple in Xinjiang chant the original Sanskrit verses brought back by Hiuen Tsang as a tribute to the great traveler scholar. It was from the Chan school of Mahayana Buddhism that Zen Buddhism of Japan has been derived. The Taklamakan desert, through which the expedition journeyed, is a Persian saying that means “He who comes in does not get out”.  That now, is a really ominous name for you!

The movies were no doubt interesting, but it was the interactive session with Mr. Jagannath Guha that I enjoyed the most. Mr. Ghosh arrived late and was too stiff, and Mr. Matilal was a reticent sort, so it was Mr. Guha who did most of the talking. He shared with us many small anecdotes that had made the expedition so memorable for him. Someone from the audience asked him about how he got over the language barrier during their travels. He just shook his head and said, “But I didn’t!” He went on to tell us how body language was often the only means of communication between the natives and the travelers, and how they had at times had to resort to base tricks like bribing the policemen with cigarettes to get themselves out of fixes! While answering the queries of another member of the audience, he talked to us about how little awareness there was about India among the population of China, her largest neighbour. Of course, here he spoke of their experience of 1994, before the era of the internet. I suppose the conditions are much better now. According to him, the travelers were gaped at like extra terrestrial creatures. Some of the children on the road used to pull the hair on his arms in wonder, as they had never seen such a hirsute person before. Some old ladies rubbed his skin to see if his dark skin was painted. The ‘smarter’ ones asked the travelers whether they were from Africa!

While I was enjoying myself hugely during the event, it was highly evident that most people were not. The girls sitting behind me continued to chat and giggle among themselves throughout the entire program. After the short lunch break, I changed my seat in the hope of finding a little quieter seat somewhere. But soon, the girls sitting in the row a little way apart started fiddling with their mobiles and talking loudly. In fact, at one point a teacher of their school came up and took away their cell phones after reminding them none too gently that they had come to watch the movie, not play around with their phones. Some of my own classmates, as soon as the second episode got over, started sighing deeply and loudly expressing their thankfulness at the ‘boring’ show being finally over. I wonder why these people had opted for History in the first place when they are so fundamentally apathetic to anything outside the syllabus.

I returned from the show feeling satisfied, but I know many of them were just glad that the show had come to an end. In this context, I would like to mention a very common complaint among students about the bland and mechanized manner in which classroom teaching is done. I completely agree, newer and more interesting methods should be employed to enrich the learning experience. Having said that, I must also say that the students themselves have to be more receptive to new experiments in order to make the innovative ideas work. The primarily uninterested attitude that I saw among most of the students in the show explains why teachers and school authorities often show no interest in providing such educative and entertaining experiences for the students. Our school is trying, and so are so many others. It now rests on us students to make the best of the opportunities that we are being provided with.