Tamada, the toastmaster. (Photo credit: Sridhar Balan)
There is a saying in Tbilisi in the republic of Georgia that the month of March is quite unpredictable in terms of weather. The weather can change very drastically in a short span of time from warm and sunny to cold, blustery and wet. Sure enough, the city had snows in March making people scurrying for woollens and for shelter. As for April, it was said it borrowed two weeks from March! We wondered if our hosts had the weather in mind when we visited Tbilisi in mid-April this year. The visit was the formal closing of Tbilisi as Unesco’s world book capital for the year 2021-22.
The world book capital was an initiative started by Unesco in 2001 after the idea was mooted first in Madrid in 1995. The idea was to designate one city every year with an innovative programme which supported creativity, education and knowledge through books and reading. The world book capital designation was won through competitive bidding by cities that supported the "free flow of ideas by word and image" among different sections of the community with a special emphasis on children. Fittingly, Madrid was designated the first world book capital in 2001 followed by Alexandria in 2002 and New Delhi in 2003. We were in Tbilisi not only to bid it farewell but also to welcome Guadalajara as world book capital in 2022-23 followed by Accra (Ghana) in 2023. The world book capital initiates its programme on 23 April of the designated year and continues till 22 April of the following year. 23 April was a special day for books and for reading. Unesco marked it as world book and copyright day and all over the world the book was celebrated through special literary and reading programmes. The day was chosen as it marked the birth anniversary of Shakespeare and Cervantes the creator of the classic "Don Quixote".
For Tbilisi, April 23, 2021, was even more special as it marked St George’s Day as St George was the patron saint of the state and a statue of the saint in gold slaying the dragon holds pride of place in its Freedom Square. The year long programme initiated on this day was to introduce the Georgian literary legacy not only to its citizens but also to the world. In the process, Georgia also introduced its historical legacy situated as it was at one end of eastern Europe bordered by Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia. Our meeting in Tbilisi was important for another reason. It marked the formal launch of the world book capital network, interlinking of cities in the world book capital movement, sharing our past experiences and seeking ways to secure the future for books and for reading.
We realised how much Tbilisi values books at the time of our check-in at the two designated hotels. It was hard to spot the check-in counter for the entire lobby was festooned with books on shelves from floor to ceiling. The books covered a range of subjects from fiction to non-fiction and many of them were in English given the international traffic in the hotels. Georgia had celebrated the year with over ten book fairs, authors and writers’ literary exchanges, strengthening the library network in schools, a book flea market that ran for three months thronged by bargain hunters, an international literary festival, residency programmes for international authors, reading programmes and an international conference for publishers. Above all were the innumerable storytelling sessions incorporating both urban and rural traditions and fairy tales based on mythology, fantasy and legend.
Georgia had indeed a rich tapestry of such stories and Georgians are proud of their legacy. Music is very much a part of the Georgian tradition. Scratch a Georgian and he can burst into song. Scratch a little harder and he or she can burst into a story. We saw ample evidence of this when our guide Mariam told us stories during our excursion trip to Kakheti the wine growing region and on our walking tour to old Tbilisi. St George a soldier in the early Crusades was from Cappadocia but had never visited Georgia. Christianity was introduced in the region by his relative a woman monk named Ninia. George was the most popular name for boys and Ninia for girls. It’s common to assume the name Georgia is derived from St. George but is actually Persian in origin. We were told stories of King David the Builder (1073-1125) one of Georgia’s greatest rulers who did much to consolidate and unify Georgia. Queen Tamar of Georgia (1160-1213) was David’s great-grand-daughter) ruled over the golden age of Georgia and exhibited such leadership that she was called "King" Tamar. Shota Rustaveli (1160-1220) was the greatest poet of the golden age and his poem "The Knight in the Panther Skin" is a national epic.
During our walk, we saw the picture of Tamada, the toastmaster who is the master of toasts at all wedding ceremonies and feasts. Each toast no doubt comprised a story about the happy couple. While Prometheus was chained in the Caucasian mountains for giving the gift of fire, we were told of Jason and the Argonauts sailing up the river to the Kolkheti region in search of the Golden Fleece. It was at the Svaneti Museum of History and Ethnography that we saw the depiction of extracting gold washed down to the bottom of the river using sheepskin fleece known to Jason as the "golden fleece". The museum among other valuable artifacts also housed mediaeval handwritten manuscripts of both the Old and New Testaments. The local people had preserved these against invaders. Numerous watch-towers from the ninth century dot the area. These towers could well sound the alarm should there be a future threat to books, reading and the word.