Tagore & Iran: Forging Ties Through a Shared Identity
As a writer and a philosopher, Rabindranath Tagore had a great impact not just on India, but around the world. Much has been written about Tagore’s connection with the West and how it influenced his work but one aspect of his life that is not well known is his connection to Iran, a country whose cultural ties with India go back more than 2,500 years.
Persian Influence on Tagore
Rabindranath Tagore was greatly influenced by Persian culture. His father and philosopher Debendranath Tagore was fluent in Persian and had a deep love for Iran. During his daily prayers, along with recitations from the Upanishads, Debendranath used to recite ghazals from Persian poet Hafez. Rabindranath thus had become familiar with the Persian poet in his teenage years, even though he didn’t speak the language. He was aware of Hafez’s poems through translations, and he admired him deeply.
Tagore also held Zoroastrianism in high regard. He praised Zoroaster as “the greatest of all the pioneer prophets”. He pointed out similarities between the religious ethos of Zoroastrianism and Hinduism with respect to rituals, devotion and sacrifice.
In his book The Religion of Man (1931), Tagore writes, “The ideal of Zoroastrian Persia is distinctly ethical. It sends its call to men to work together with the Eternal Spirit of Good in spreading and maintaining Kshathra, the kingdom of righteousness, against all attacks of evil. This ideal gives us our place as collaborators with God in distributing his blessings over the world.”
In a chapter titled Dr Rabindranath Tagore and Iran, in the book Studies in the Foreign Relations of India (1975) by H K Sherwani, Dr Muhammad Taqi Moqtaderi writes an interesting point. He mentions that a distant relative of Rabindranath from the extended Tagore family named Sumar Kumar Tagore was the honourary Iranian Consul in Calcutta during the reign of Mozaffar ad-Din Shah Qajar. This shows the closeness of the Tagore family to Iran.
Tagore’s Rise to Fame in Iran
Rabindranath Tagore was not well known in Iran before he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. Only a selected group of Iranian literati was familiar with him and his work, thanks mainly to French, German and English translations, not his native Bengali.
Since Tagore was the first person from the East to win this award, Iranian elites became aware of him. Colonel Muhammad Taqi Khan Pessian was a great Iranian reformer and renowned officer. He translated Tagore’s poetry into Persian between 1918 and 1920 when he was living in Berlin.
In 1931, Iranian newspapers began to publish articles on Tagore, widening the reach of the poet and the scope of his work. His work was also publicized in the press by his Iranian hosts, who tried to place him in the ideological framework of Iran’s ‘Pahlavi’ nationalism.
Shah of Iran’s Invitation to Tagore
Reza Shah Pahlavi was the founder of the Pahlavi dynasty and he became the Emperor of Iran after overthrowing the last Qajar king, Ahmad Shah, in 1925. Iran under the rule of the Qajar dynasty had become a puppet of the British and the Russians. Now this new order wanted to make Iran a world power, and modernizing the country was a step in this direction.
This was a time when the spirit of nationalism was rising globally and nations were trying to trace their origins to a historical period, one that would lend them a national identity. Against this backdrop, the idea of an ‘Aryan identity’ was growing in popularity and it was important for the Shah’s political narrative to link his nation to an ‘Aryan’ civilization. In doing so, he would re-connect Persia with the Pre-Islamic Zoroastrian civilization.
On the other hand, Tagore was a supporter of India’s Independence movement and looked to other Asian nations for inspiration. He had interests in other Asian cultures like the Chinese, Japanese and Indonesian along with Iranian. Reza Shah of Iran was trying to move his foreign policy away from the United Kingdom.
Both Tagore and Reza Shah believed in the pan-Aryan identity that linked the civilizations of India and Iran. Their common interest in Zoroastrianism brought them even closer. On one hand, Reza Shah was trying to reconnect Iran with its Pre-Islamic past, while Tagore was looking at a model for India as an independent Asian nation.
In 1931, when India was celebrating Tagore’s 70th birthday, Iran’s Minister for External Affairs, Muhammad Ali Foroughi, sent a message to the Consulate of Bombay on behalf of Reza Shah, which read as follows:
“On this occasion that the great and erudite scholar has reached the 70th stage of his life and has enlightened his admirers and the world in general with his magnificent works, I convey the appreciation of Shahenshah Pahlavi and send heart-felt prayers for a bright and glorious future to the great man, on my own behalf, and on behalf of my country.”
Iran’s Ministry for External Affairs extended an invitation to Tagore, and he accepted it. This invitation was also an indication of Iran’s disregard for British sentiments as Britain was ruling India at the time.
First Trip to Iran in 1932
Tagore's first trip to Iran took place in April 1932. He was accompanied by his daughter-in-law, Pratima Devi, and by Dinshah Irani, an eminent Zoroastrian and Chairman of the Association of Zoroastrians in India. Dinshah Irani was an old-time supporter of strengthening political, economic, and cultural ties between India and Iran.
Tagore’s journey was unusual because it was the first time he was travelling by air after winning the Nobel Prize. The 70-year-old poet’s previous travels to various countries had been either via sea or rail. Sponsored by the Iranian government, his journey started in Calcutta and covered Allahabad, Jodhpur, Karachi and Jask (in Iran) before it finally ended in the Iranian port city of Bushehr. It took him two days to cover the distance.
After staying in Bushehr, Tagore’s delegation travelled to Shiraz, where he visited the tombs of Persian poets Sa’di and Hafez. He also visited the archaeological site of Persepolis.
He then travelled to Isfahan and Tehran. At every stop, he met intellectuals, religious leaders, political figures and ordinary people. Tagore, in his conversations with local dignitaries, consistently emphasized the cultural and historic links between India and Iran.
Tagore arrived in Tehran on his 70th birthday. To welcome him in Tehran, Malek o’Shoara Bahar (10 December 1886 – 22 April 1951), a renowned Iranian poet, recited a long poem he had composed and dedicated to Tagore. The poet also met some of the most notable Iranian scholars of the time, like Ali Dashti, Rashid Yasemi, Abbas Eqbal, Saeed Nafisi and Nasrollah Falsafi. Tagore also delivered lectures, first in the Hall of the Masoudieh Palace, and then in the Iranian Literary Society.
In the capital, Tagore and his delegation were given a royal audience in the imperial palace. The Emperor of Iran, Reza Shah Pahlavi, expressed his love and affection towards Tagore and used inspiring words for the Zoroastrian representatives from India. Tagore even presented a self-painted painting to the Emperor, of a blazing torch, which has been preserved in the imperial palace.
After Tehran, Tagore’s delegation travelled to Qazvin, Hamadan and Kermanshah, and returned to India via Baghdad after staying in Iran for 34 days.
Second Trip to Iran in 1934
Tagore travelled to Iran a second time, just two years later. This time, he was part of Persian poet Ferdowsi’s Millennium Anniversary, when Ferdowsi’s tomb was opened. The event overshadowed his visit to Iran and it barely received any attention in the media.
Strengthening Indo-Iranian Ties
In order to strengthen ties between India and Iran, during his visit to Iran, Tagore had requested the Emperor of Iran to appoint a Professor to teach Persian literature in Santiniketan, writes Elham Malekzadeh in his research paper Iran and Rabindranath Tagore: Information From Files of the National Archives of Iran (2019). This request was accepted gladly by the Emperor, and Iran’s Ministry of Education.
Ebrahim Pourdavoud, an Iranian scholar, was sent to India, where he studied and taught on ancient Iranian literature. He also translated many of Tagore’s poems from Bengali to Persian with the help of Zia-ud-deen, a local teacher, and published the collection in Calcutta in 1935. The collection was titled Sad Band-e-Tagore, meaning ‘Hundred Reflections of Tagore’.
Tagore organized a grand function at Santiniketan to celebrate Navroz, in the presence of Pourdavoud. He gave a handwritten letter of greeting to Pourdavoud on the occasion, in which he expressed his admiration for Iranian culture, Iranian civilization, the Iranian people and their hospitality. He stressed the spiritual bonds between the two countries, and the two civilizations.
Tagore’s Centennial Birth Anniversary
To celebrate Tagore’s birth centennial in 1961, 20 years after his death, a committee was convened by Ministry of Culture at Calcutta. The Iranian Ambassador in India, Moshfegh Kazemi asked the Iranian authorities to provide the committee with all the treatises and articles about Tagore. Rezazadeh Shafagh was chosen to represent Iran at the ceremony because of his familiarity with Indian culture and civilization. The centenary was first celebrated in Bombay on 1st January 1960. It was inaugurated by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and was followed by a celebration in Delhi in November 1961.
As part of the centennial celebrations in Iran, the state-controlled Shirin High School was to be renamed ‘Tagore High School’. Also, the Behjat Abad Street in Shiraz was to be named after Tagore. But these proposals coincided with a national crisis in the Iranian Parliament. The elections to the 20th National Parliament took place with a massive electoral fraud in August 1960, leading to massive protests. This forced Mohammad Reza Shah, son of Reza Shah and the second Pahlavi Emperor, to nullify the election. But the turmoil continued, leading to major political upheaval. Eventually, Shirin High School was renamed ‘Tagore High School’ in January 1962.
The ties established between the two countries remained strong. Iran continued to have friendly relations with India after her independence in 1947, balancing it with Pakistan, India’s new neighbour created as a result of the partition of the subcontinent.
India, too, continued to have good relations with Iran despite the Revolution of 1979, which overthrew the Pahlavi dynasty. In 2011, when former Lok Sabha Speaker, Meira Kumar visited Iran, she unveiled the Persian version of Rabindranath Tagore's poem Paroshye Janmodine, meaning A birthday in Persia.
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