Azar A.H. Khan, the newly appointed cultural counsellor at the Indian embassy and the director of the Maulana Azad Centre for Indian Culture arrived in Egypt in early October with the task of continuing to foster cultural dialogue between the two countries.
His appointment as the centre's director came after the role had been vacant for a year, following the departure of the previous director Suchitra Durai, a diplomat and wife of the former Indian ambassador to Egypt.
Khan, who speaks Arabic fluently, holds a master's degree in Arabic literature.
"Following my graduation, I served as a diplomat in Saudi Arabia and Libya," Khan told Ahram Online. "Wherever I find myself in the Arab world, I meet many Egyptians: doctors, engineers and so on. I have interacted with many Egyptians," he said.
Since its inauguration in 1982, the Maulana Azad Centre for Indian Culture in the heart of downtown Cairo has offered a wide range of cultural activities: film screenings, Hindi, Urdu and yoga classes, lectures, festivals and exhibitions.
One of the most recent exhibitions, which closed on Thursday, was titled "Faces and Features," and included caricatures and cartoons representing Indian and Egyptian personalities created by artists from the Egyptian Caricature Society.
The centre is also home to a large library with books on Indian arts, culture, history, economics, and politics in English, Arabic and Hindi.
"Cultural exchange is not new to Indian diplomacy in Egypt. Culture is a part of our ongoing bilateral interaction, an important component of cooperation between the two countries," says Khan. "We are always interested in using cultural programs as a tool to bring people together," he adds.
Khan notes that recent months have seen a particular increase in activity at the centre, which he credits to the current ambassador, Navdeep Suri, who "offers his full support and guidance."
One example is the first annual India by the Nile, a festival of performing and visual arts that took place in April and May 2013.
"We have already started working on next year's India by the Nile festival. It will take place in April 2014, and we expect to will be even bigger than this year's programme," Khan revealed to Ahram Online.
Though it is still too early for the event organizers – the Indian Embassy in Cairo, the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), and Team Work Productions India – to confirm the full programme for the upcoming festival, Khan shared some captivating highlights: a Bollywood dance workshop, a kathak dance troupe, a performance by Indian folk musician Rajasthan Josh; a panel featuring renowned Indian film personalities, and sari fashion show.
"'The sari, a traditional Indian women's garment, consists of a single six-yard piece of cloth," Khan explained. "We hope to create a captivating display of the sari, possibly worn by well-known Egyptian female figures."
Khan added that, as it did in 2013, the 2014 India by the Nile festival will be hosted by several venues throughout Egypt.
In parallel to these festival preparations, the Indian cultural sector in Egypt has also recently intensified its efforts to foster cultural exchange between Indians and Egyptians from all walks of life.
An exhibition titled "The Spirit of Gandhi in Egypt," was held between 2 and 10 October at the Maulana Azad Centre, displaying posters and caricatures of renowned Indian pacifist Gandhi.
Also in October, Egyptian students were invited to take part in "Glimpses of India," a drawing competition held in Cairo's Al-Azhar park.
On 27 and 28 October, Khan directed "India Days" at the Sadat University in Monofeya. The event aimed to honour the history of bilateral relations between India and Egypt through a display of old photographs of Nasser and Nehru, Indira Gandhi, and other leaders of the two countries. Crafts from India and Egypt were also on display.
"People all across Egypt are very receptive to Indian culture," Khan noted. While the Maulana Azad Centre operates in Cairo and the capital already enjoys a wide range of activities that testify to the vibrant cultural cooperation between the two countries, Khan also hopes to expand Indian cultural programmes to other Egyptian cities such as Alexandria, Luxor, Aswan, and Hurghada.
"Interest in Indian culture is also generated by some Egyptian students who train themselves in Bollywood dance. A number of girls connected to the centre study Indian dance styles," Khan said.
He also notes that, following a 25-year absence from Egyptian screens, Bollywood movies began to be screened in Egyptian cinemas again this year. 2 October saw the Egyptian premiere of Bollywood film Chennai Express, starring Deepika Padukone and Shah Rukh Khan. Krrish 3, from the Bollywood science fiction series Krrish, starring Hrithik Roshan, will be in Egyptian theatres soon.
"Though the centre screens Indian movies on a weekly basis, watching them in cinemas is a different experience. This initiative allows a larger segment of the Egyptian population to enjoy Indian movies," Khan explained.
Concluding, Khan also stressed the importance of educational cooperation between India and Egypt. "India offers several scholarships for Egyptian students interested in pursuing their education in English, in India, at a university of their choice. This scholarship programme is offered with the support of the Ministry of Culture."
Every year, the Indian Council for Cultural Relations awards 3 scholarships to Egyptian undergraduate students and 10 to Egyptian doctorate candidates. In addition, the Indian government offers 14 scholarships to Egyptians as part of its "Africa scholarship scheme." Scholarships are also offered to Egyptian students interested in studying Hindi or Urdu.
Maulana Azad Centre for Indian Culture. Entrance (left) and inside the centre (right). (Photo: Ati Metwaly)
Founded in 1982, the Maulana Azad Centre for Indian Culture took its name from Abul Kalam Ghulam Muhiyuddin (1888-1958), a scholar and leader of the Indian struggle for independence. Muhiyuddin was born in Mecca, Saudi Arabia to a daughter of Sheikh Mohammad Zaher Watri, a well-known Arab scholar from Medina, and Maulana Khairuddin, a Bengali Muslim of Afghan origin.
"My father was well-known throughout the Islamic world after his ten volume work was published in Egypt. He came to Bombay several times and once came to Calcutta... He also toured extensively in Iraq, Syria and Turkey," Maulana Azad wrote in his semi-autobiographical essay, India Wins Freedom.
Maulana Azad himself was profoundly interested in Muslim and Arab cultures. His extensive travels took him to Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, Syria, and Turkey. In Cairo, he met Egyptian revolutionary and statesman Saad Zaghloul and a number of other revolutionary figures.