Friday, October 16, 2009

Legacy of Omar Khayyam

This was written originally as a curtain raiser article of the conference.

International Conference on the Legacy of Omar Khayyam.

A Rangarajan

With them the seed of Wisdom did I sow,
And with my own hands labour’d it to grow:
And this was all the Harvest that I reap’d---
‘I came like Water and like Wind I go’.

Magical quatrains such as these have become etched in the minds of men ever since Edward Fitzgerald rendered them into English from the original Persian. Rubaiyat is now seen as a treasure that belongs to all of mankind and people have found immense solace in its philosophy when pondering on the human condition. It was 150 years ago that the first edition of this translation was published in January 1859. Commemorating and celebrating that occasion an International Conference on the Legacy of Omar Khayyam is being jointly organised and hosted by the Leiden University in the Netherlands and the Cambridge University in the UK. The conference would take place in two parts. On the 6th and 7th of July at Leiden, the sessions would focus on Omar Khayyam, the Mathematician, Astronomer, Philosopher and Poet. From 8th and till 10th July the Cambridge session will focus on Fitzgerald. Scholars and academics from all over the world are slated to present papers and contribute to the ensuing discussions on this rich legacy. There papers are also expected to explore Omar Khayyam’s legacy from their respective cultural perspectives. For the Leiden part of the Conference four Scholars from Tehran University are expected to participate and other Iranian scholars are presenting papers at the Cambridge edition as well.

Omar was a mathematician who wrestled with square roots and cube roots, complex algebraic equations and conic sections. He spent delightful hours working in the observatory making keen astronomical observations and as a philosopher he wrote treatises on Avicena and Aristotelian contributions. The world remembers him best through his melancholic poetry that is so rich in meaning and metaphor. That is why it makes him a unique and enigmatic personality explains Dr.Asghar Seyed-Gohrab of the department of Persian Studies at the University of Leiden. Khayyam’s legacy is seen through various glasses and some call him a materialist philosopher- a non believer whilst others call him a hedonist. Yet others see him espousing strict predestination & determinism and many saw him as a figure of resistance challenging established order of the day. While admitting that it was Fitzgerald who helped Rubaiyyat to catch the world’s attention and imagination on such a scale and intensity as we know today, Omar Khayyam has been quoted and revered in Persia and Iran starting with the 13th Century work of Shirwani titled Nozhat al-Majales and others through the centuries adds Dr, Syed-Gohrab, one of the organisers of the conference. This said work dealing with love & separation has a chapter titled’ the essence of Khayyam’. While the quatrains of Rubaiyat lavish praise on the pleasures of life as perhaps is all that we have to hold on to in this brief sojourn, they have been interpreted as being deeply mystical and allegorical in the Sufi traditions and even in Indian spiritual contexts, adding yet another twist to the mystery that surrounds it.

Edward Fitzgerald, for his part, was born 31st March 1809 thus making this conference a bicentennial celebration in his honour as well. Fitzgerald went to Trinity College in Cambridge and that is where the second part of this Conference would take place. While Fitzgerald as a writer and poet lived in relative obscurity until his translation of Rubaiyat hit the scene. Even then it was slow to evince interest – it took nearly 29 years for the second edition to be printed but there after it took the world by storm with generations memorising these quatrains and reciting them. To date some 650 editions have been run including a 1862 Madras edition of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. The last paper at the Trinity College will talk about this specific edition. Over hundred artists have contributed to the various ornately illustrated editions of the Rubaiyat and about one hundred composers have set it to music and it has been widely translated into more than 50 languages all over the world. However, in modern day Iran, Omar Khayyam does not enjoy a place of pre-eminence that is accorded to other great poets. For instance, the mausoleum of Omar Khayyam was not given due attention and it went into neglect and it was President Khatami who changed that and accorded the attention that was accorded to other mausoleums like that of Hafiz and other great poets of Persia.

It is hoped that this conference will enrich our understanding further and help us appreciate better the significance of Rubaiyat as a great work of literature and philosophy to be cherished by all humanity.

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