Kazan, A Slice of Kancheepuram and Kalakshetra

Kazan, A Slice of Kancheepuram and Kalakshetra

Kazan, a day’s drive from Moscow, is a delightfully different Russian town with a distinct Tatar flavour. Tatars come from diverse ethnic backgrounds, but trace their origins to the Bulgars an ethnic group that inhabited this part of the Volga in the 9th century. The Bulgars were subsequently over-run by the Golden Horde from the western Mongol Empire of Chenghis Khan. Tatars were converted to Islam in 922 AD and now Muslim Tatars comprise 60 per cent of the population in the Republic of Tatarstan.

The city though, formed the capital of an independent Khanate when the Golden Hordes over-ran parts of Russia. The Khanate fell to Christians under Ivan, The Terrible. The grand Kremlin (fortress) at Kazan on the banks of the Volga contains a 16th Century Asuncion Cathedral alongside a contemporary mosque whose construction was completed last year, a testimony to the religious harmony that is the hallmark of Russia today.

A pleasant surprise awaited the expedition at the House of Euro-Asian Friendship in Kazan when a dozen Tatar girls rendered a Bharatanatyam recital choreographed by Janna, a Ukrainian woman who had trained in Kalakshetra for four years and went on to set up a dance school in Kazan. Rustling Kancheepuram silk and the sound of `salangai’ brought a slice of home away from home to the weary expeditioners. Until some years ago, local cinema halls used to screen Hindi films, but now they are available only on CDs and DVDs. The Tatar Culture Ministry had swung into action, setting up press conferences, assembling Indologists and India lovers and treating everyone to Indian delicacies. This was followed by a visit to the Tatar theatre to acquaint the team with Tatari culture. Incidentally, Kazan and Hyderabad are sister cities although that doTes not seem to have accomplished much in terms of cultural exchanges. Kazan University has 17,000 students in 17 departments and boasts Vladimir Ulyanovich Lenin and Leo Tolstoy among its alumni.

Travails and glitches are an integral part of journeying through today’s Russia in the throes of infant capitalism. The transition to market economy is reluctant and slow and systems don’t work as well as they could. Simple things like telephones and Internet connections are extremely difficult to find and even more difficult to configure. In this part of Russia, few Russians speak or understand English. Finding vegetarian food for two members of the team and balancing between beef and pork for the rest could drive the savviest caterer to tears, but was ably handled by Hari Vasudevan and Ramakant Dwivedi, the two Russian speaking members of the team. Had it not been for the goodwill of the local administration and the constant support of the Indian embassy’s good offices throughout the route, many glitches could have derailed the expedition.

It was a stroke of good fortune that Valentine Efremov, a Russian explorer who had sailed in a hot air balloon to the North Pole decided to join the expedition from Tver. Being a local and an explorer at that, his expertise and knowledge of local conditions was an invaluable asset to the expedition. He accompanied the expedition from Tver to Kazan, but had to turn back, leaving us to our own devices since then.