I went to the State Library of Victoria to see a free exhibition called
Love and devotion, from Persia and beyond. On show was the beauty of Persian manuscripts with their illustrations and stories of love. The manuscripts date back from the 13th to 18th centuries and are on loan from the Bodleian Libraries of the University of Oxford. This is the first exhibition of Persian manuscripts on show in Australia and it is showing until 1 July.
The love depicted on the manuscripts is human and divine but not religious. The Persian poets wrote of another approach to life and living. This was a different culture to that elsewhere in the world at the time. It was mystical and spiritual. Concepts of living in the moment date back to that time.
Colours and curves
The exhibition starts with recording Persian oral history and ends with Persia's influence on European literature. There are manuscripts in glass cases, framed loose pages, posters of photocopies, videos and music. There are poems, stories, songs and paintings. The writing is curved and looped calligraphy.
This artwork depicts people, palaces, gardens, flowers, birds, food, wine and musical instruments. They are all doing and saying something. The colours are amazing. They are a vibrant gold, blue, green, orange and red. They are made with real gold, precious stones and natural materials such as pomegranate skin. The artwork was painted using cat hairs and horsehair to achieve fine detail. Astoundingly nature's colours actually improve with age.
There are the names from history such as Alexander the Great (Iskandar in Persian) and Genghis Khan. There are also princes, princesses and ordinary people. The stories are by writers and poets that include Omar Khayyam and Rumi and Sadi. Works by Chaucer and Shakespeare feature too.
The influence continues
These manuscripts continue to influence people in the modern era. The inspiration behind Eric Clapton's 1970s song Layla was influenced by the thwarted love story of Layla and Majnun. It is said the poet Rumi is a popular poet in the United States. The stories and ideas are universal. Sitting with your loved one, in a garden, under a tree, with some wine, listening to music and stories still sounds idyllic.
I went on one of the daily tours. A young Iranian family was also on my tour. The little girl knew the stories and could pronounce the names. I realised how little I knew of that part of the world. The visit makes me want to learn and understand more of Persian culture.
Something will touch you
The State Library entrance is accessible from a ramp on the Lonsdale Street side. There are also aids for people with a hearing or vision impairment. There is plenty of room inside and an accessible toilet. A café with good coffee is accessible from inside the library.
You can visit the exhibition simply to look at the beautiful pictures. Alternatively, you can read or hear the stories. On the other hand, you can listen to some Persian music and read the poetry on a video presentation. Whatever you choose to do, I think you will leave with something that touches and enriches you.
The State Library of Victoria is at 328 Swanston Street, Melbourne.
Image: The marriage of Yusuf and Zulaykha (detail), from Jami, Yusuf u Zulaykha, 1595. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford