Dr Jan Filipsky and the deep Czech bond with India

This week we look at India and the Czech Republic, in particular a new history of India, which was co-authored by our guest today, Dr Jan Filipsky. We'll open the programme with some words by the Czech Indologist Professor Vincenc Lesny, on the occasion of an exhibition on India in 1948.

"I have often asked myself what, indeed, attracts us to India so much. Above all, there is Ancient Indian culture. Possibly some people are enchanted by that opaque veil of mystery and wonder, in which Europe long ago, but especially during the Age of Romanticism, shrouded India. But for us, Czechs, this ancient cultural country has yet another lure and attraction. It seems to me that a third link is constituted by the affinity between the soul of our people and that of a people who are linguistically and ethnically nearer to us, Slavs, than, say, to the Romance or Anglo-Saxon races, and whose thought is closer to ours, too.

"From this affinity has grown our interest in India, her culture and literature, religions, morals and customs, economic and political life, city and village life, and, last but not least, her fight for freedom."

Could you tell us something about the historic connection between the Czech people and India?

"Czechs have been fascinated by things Indian since the Middle Ages and especially since the age of the National Revival in the 19th century. At the time they were fascinated by the affinity - or the supposed affinity - of the Slav languages and Sanskrit, which was at that time considered the mother of all languages. The national revivalists were thrilled by the fact that the Czech language, which at that time was rather relegated to the background by German, was on a par with such an ancient language as Sanskrit!"

I'd like to follow through from the 19th century into the 20th century interest. I was particularly interested to read in a book - which is in English but unfortunately out of print now I think - 'Looking Towards India' by Miloslav Krasa, and in it he mentions the visit of the very great Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore in the 1920s and his influence in Prague and Czechoslovakia.

"You mentioned Professor Lesny, who was one of the founding fathers of the Czech school of Indology. Prof. Lesny was, incidentally, a good friend of Rabindranath Tagore and his first translator, the first who translated some of Tagore's poems and novels from Bengali into Czech. On the invitation of Prof. Lesny he visited the then Czechoslovakia in 1921 and 1926."

I'd like to read an account by Leos Janacek. One of the interesting facts for me about his visit is the impact he had on this great Czech composer. This is the account he wrote for the Brno paper Lidove noviny about Tagore:

"The poet entered the hall silently. It seemed to me as if a white sacred flame flashed high above the heads of the many thousands present. He said: 'You should know how to read my poems - therefore I am speaking to you.' It was not a speech - it sounded like a song of a nightingale, smooth, simple, void of any harshness of the diphthongs. It occurred to me to fall in with a gay chord with the initial sounds of the poem he read out I heard soft harmonious voices or sounds, but it was incoherent to me. The melody kept on falling down in a torrent of tones. And the voice was permeated by the soft sorrow of his song: 'It is time to go, Mother.' Or by emotion: 'Here he comes, here he comes!' And by the strong faith of his prayer: 'Will you, Father, let my country rise again to freedom?' ..., He spoke to us in his language which we could not understand but from the sound alone we were able to recognise the bitter pain in his soul. I saw and heard the prophet of his people."

Come, young nations,

Proclaim the right for freedom,

Raise up the banner of invincible faith.

Build bridges with your life across the gaping earth

Blasted by hatred,

And march forward.

Do not submit yourself to carry the burden of insult upon

your head,

Kicked by terror,

And dig not a trench with falsehood and cunning

To build a shelter for your dishonoured manhood;

Offer not the weak as sacrifices to the strong

To save yourself.

I'd like to turn now to your "History of India". You're one of the four authors of this work and this year it won the prestigious Hlavka award. Can you say something about how the volume initially came about? I believe it's one of a series about various states in the world.

"We had the ambition to present a completely new synthesis for Czech readers who are fascinated by India, but for whom we tried to write it as if they knew practically nothing. So our approach was not only description but explanation, and we also tried to give as comprehensive a view of India as possible, that is including the south, which is unfortunately neglected in many regional histories of India."

"Well yes, there is. There are many types of people who are interested in India. Some of them are attracted to India because of its spiritual heritage, because of Yoga, because of Bhagavadgita and other sacred texts. Some of them go to India just as tourists, wishing to relish the natural beauties and the works of art, architecture and naturally the many statues of gods and goddesses, which proliferate throughout India."

And have you had any feedback from members of the Indian community who live in the Czech Republic about any of your books, or in particular "The History of India".

"The Indian community in the Czech Republic is growing quite fast. There are entrepreneurs, there are importers, there are businessmen, who come here and settle down here. Some of them even practice healing methods and some of them are very famous at that. Some come to deliver lectures, to meditate, to teach the Czech public how to escape the bustle of modern life and how to delve in the inner recesses of the human soul."

And what first sparked your own interest in India?

"I was lucky that I had a secondary school teacher who incited my interest by lending me books on Indian history, and I imbibed all the mysteries of ancient India, and that incited my interest in studying India's languages, namely Sanskrit and Tamil, two classical languages of India."

Do you have any specific plans for your next book on India?

"Well, I intend to compile a gazetteer or encyclopedia of historical places, historical regions and so on. So it will be entitled "Indie v promenach staleti" - India changing through the ages - and it should be published in the foreseeable future."