Early Modern Persianate Identity Between Iran & India


A review of Contours of Persianate Community, 1722–1835, by Mana Kia.

This dissertation argues for a Persianate culture between Iran and Hindustan based on a shared literary tradition and education which fostered specific notions of belonging, origin and sociability within this community. By doing so, this study challenges proto-nationalist assumptions about the pre-modern period and associated interpretive distortions of Persianate historical texts. The era under consideration is framed by two decisive events: the fall of the Safavids in 1722 and the abolition of Persian as the language of power in India in 1835. Mana Kia draws in her study on an extensive number of primary sources that can be classified as commemorative texts (poetic tazkirahs, travelogues, memoirs and histories) by authors who represent three generations spanning the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Chapter 1 provides the theoretical and contextual basis of the dissertation, introducing the main questions, motives and foci of this study. Kia makes a case for a fresh analysis of the history of Iran and Hindustan in the early modern period through the lens of a shared Persianate culture just before the rise of nationalism in the modern era. While both regions have commonly been treated as separate entities in European Orientalist works, Kia convincingly criticizes the anachronistic approach and premises of these narratives: the stranglehold of modern nationalist notions affected the interpretation of the history of both Iran and India in such a way as to elide significant similarities and shared cultural understandings of community, ethics and origin based on education, literature and language among (former) Safavid and Mughal elites. With the collapse of both dynasties in the eighteenth century, this period is commonly associated with notions of decline in anticipation of a modern nation-state and twentieth century developments. This chapter critically reviews the academic literature on nationalism and the anachronisms commonly associated with the topic, and challenges the idea of an “unchanging sense of Iran and Iranian-ness” (p. 20). After problematizing the proto-nationalism that has strongly informed the historiography on Iran and India, Kia proceeds to lay out the themes and arguments of her following chapters. She also carefully discusses the issues implicit in an analytical use of the term “Persianate” and emphasizes that, despite compelling similarities, differences of context regarding the politics, social strata and culture of certain regions must also be considered in order to understand developments in the given region. The chapter concludes by proposing a key theme to keep in mind when examining if and how a shared Persianate culture and society existed: mobility. The different modes and waves of migration from one part of the larger region to the other also led to a manifestation of a Persian literary culture throughout the centuries, one patronized by different ruling elites. During the time period under discussion, there were two types of Iranian immigrants in Hindustan: those whose families had voluntarily migrated at some point and those who had fled invasions of Iran by different powers after 1722. The perception of the latter of their home in ruins strongly affected their notions of “exile, community and self-figuring” (p. 39), a context relevant to the subsequent chapters of the dissertation. Kia also questions the assumption that contact and mobility between Hindustan and Iran came to a halt with the end of Safavid rule and argues that migration continued in both directions throughout the nineteenth century.

Chapter 2, entitled “Persianate Place and the History of the Present,” is divided into three sections dealing with the notions of home, origin, rule and geographical meanings in the Persianate world. The first section focuses mainly on two iconic texts from the eighteenth century and challenges their dominant scholarly readings: the memoirs Tazkirat al-aḥvāl by Muḥammad ‘Alī “Ḥazīn” Lāhījī (d. 1766) and Bayān-i vāqi‘ by ‘Abd al-Karīm Kashmīrī (d. 1784). The commonly held view that Ḥazīn represents the typical Iranian attitude towards Hindustan whereas Kashmīrī stands for the Indian perspective is questioned in this chapter by comparing both texts and examining shared paradigms and differences in the meanings of home and exile. Kia argues that ‘home’ is “a series of concepts, multiple, shifting and only sometimes geographically rooted” (p. 56); it is also morally rooted. She convincingly shows how Ḥazīn’s text, long held as a literary expression of Iranian chauvinist views on Hindustan, is actually the story of a lonely stranger in exile who never came to terms with his new home. In fact, Ḥazīn’s views can be compared to other cases of exiles who share his feelings of discomfort, regardless of the place in question. Upon closer inspection, Ḥazīn and Kashmīrī may be seen to share certain perceptions of historical events and evaluations of the current state of their respective homelands, and they both employ the same literary tropes and figures. At the same time, they disagree on other points. However, these differences are not to be understood as being rooted in dissimilar cultures but as differences over meaning within the same Persianate culture. The points of reference when speaking about home were complex. Home was not necessarily the place of birth but could be any village, town or region were one put down roots over the course of a lifetime; it could also be multiple places. This means that ghurbat (exile) and vaṭan (home) may well have existed within the same kingdom and are not necessarily related to ‘foreign’ dominions. Kia then adds a third text to the discussion, in a section named “Geocultural landscapes”: the Ātashkadah of Luṭf ‘Alī “Āzar” Baygdilī, a source which has often been read as one of the earliest expressions of literary nationalism insofar as it has been perceived as exclusively linking “Persian culture to the land of Iran by omitting the centrality of poets originating in Central and South Asia” (p. 101). Kia, however, challenges this view by contextualizing the work within the emerging literary trends of its own time. She argues that rather than expressing nationalistic notions, the Ātashkadah attempts to do two things: it advocates a new ‘neoclassical’ poetic style (bāzgasht) over against the preceding tāzah gū’ī or sabk-i hindī style of many post-Timurid poets from Iran, Hindustan and Turan. Secondly, it positions Iran at the center of this development because it was the region where this new style came into vogue during the decline of the post-Safavid era. Kia thus states that “this impulse to recenter Persian in Iran must be understood in a context where the greatest centers of poetic patronage had been in Mughal domains … for the past century and a half” (pp. 101-102). In conclusion, Kia’s reassessment of various Persianate texts of the eighteenth century in this chapter displays how preoccupations of the modern (or post-modern) readership shaped and limited their understanding of them. Ḥazīn’s memoirs and Āzar’s Ātashkadah should thus rather be read as “texts of contest” (p. 121) that challenge the meanings of Iran within the Persianate world. More importantly, all sources reviewed in this chapter deploy the same structural concepts of place (i.e., notions of home, exile, kingdom) and suggest that differences between Iran and Hindustan were not perceived as absolute but as relative.

Chapter 3, on the “Importance of Origin,” explores the meaning of origin, its complex relationship with place and its function in shaping identity, both individually and collectively. Specifically, Kia challenges proto-nationalist understandings of origin which highlight place as a formative factor. In doing so, she argues that place was only one way of identifying origin and was in fact often among the less significant determinants of identity. Even in cases where place played a prominent role as a constituent of origin, it was hardly ever a matter of a stable or singular place but rather of several important places over the course of a lifetime. Kia demonstrates how consanguineous and non-consanguineous lineages, sometimes interwoven (e.g., a teacher could be a relative), were formative aspects of origin, whereas place often functioned merely as a disambiguating factor in a person’s identity. A multitude of places could be linked to a person’s origin: ancestral roots, birthplace, places where one settled, studied or traveled. Even in a work like Āzar’s Ātashkadah which has commonly been regarded as expressing proto-nationalist views there is an oft-neglected chapter where belonging to the Persianate world was not necessarily tied to place, thereby exceeding its “Irano-centric concerns” (p. 144). Instead, the origin of the kings, princes and nobles Āzar writes about are primarily described in terms of lineage, tribe, position and service. Kia then addresses the genre of poetic tazkirahs and shows that poetic lineage was a significant aspect of origin relating the person to certain poetic circles, styles and traditions. She further suggests that such genealogical representations undergo shifts in meaning over time and context such that some links may be emphasized while others are ignored. Using the example of the Ātashkadah, Kia illustrates how gender was a defining feature of poets’ identities in this work, which devotes a separate section to women who are further specified by marriage, whereas place does not play a decisive role. The chapter concludes by turning to the issue of descriptive names and how to read them as an indicator of origin. By using the example of the names “Qizilbash” and “Moghul,” Kia shows the complex dynamics of their shifting meanings with respect to context and time and how authors within the Persianate realm were aware of this fact. In doing so, she challenges scholarly readings of placenames as indicators of a person’s origin or birthplace. She argues for understanding them as monikers, since this approach alone “allows us to account for their contextual and relational nature” (p. 172).

Chapter 4, “Loyalty as an Ethics of Sociability,” focuses on expressions of adab (ethics of sociability), or cultured friendship, in Persianate culture by examining a broad range of commemorative texts of the mid-eighteenth and early nineteenth century in order to identify meanings of friendship and the ways the language of adab “played an enabling role in defining, justifying and negotiating social and political conflicts” (pp. 184-185) The moral stature of an author was crucial to his social or political position and had implications for expressions of loyalty in different kinds of relationships, each of them coming with a certain set of expectations and obligations. Any behavior (whether one’s own or one’s friends’) which could be viewed as improper according to shared values of adab had to be justified. This chapter traces “textual representations of these practices and expressions” which “allow glimpses of specific tensions and the particular ways in which the language of adab was marshaled to smooth them over” (p. 186). Kia argues for the continuity of a shared Persianate sociability throughout the politically unstable and turbulent times of the eighteenth century and well into the early nineteenth century. In order to do so, she begins her analysis by focusing on a specific conflict, a poetic debate, which unfolded among the social circles of literati in post-Nādir Shāh Delhi when political factions became more entrenched and renegotiations of loyalty were required. This conflict centers on the scornful judgment against anything Hindustani by the Irani immigrant Muḥammad ‘Alī “Ḥazīn” Lāhījī and on his inaccurate poetical claims. Whereas this debate has commonly been read as an expression of national partisanship and the beginning of the end of a shared Persianate literacy soon followed by the rise of national languages, Kia demonstrates how the participants themselves, for all their differences, were very much devoted to the continuation of Persian literary culture. Again, she reveals how anachronistic historical approaches that assume proto-nationalist views misinterpret pre-modern episodes and ignore social and political ties which are based on shared values within the Persianate community. This chapter consists of three parts in which she first identifies the terms of social conflict behind this local debate, then traces the ways in which adab was used to negotiate ruptures, and finally addresses examples of “forgotten” friendships among Irani and Hindustani Persians, Hindus and Muslims. Kia’s thorough analysis of many sources from various places and periods along with numerous citations make this lengthy chapter an engrossing read. It identifies the multiple strategic ways in which the language of adab was deployed in order to express friendship, love, loyalty or enmity and how the social practice of these relationships functioned. It is important to note here that ethnicity and origin served to help differentiate individuals but were hardly the only lines along which friendships and loyalties were determined. Kia thus suggests that we rethink the use of “Turani” and “Irani” in identifying contesting political factions. Finally, this chapter demonstrates how “friendships linked Persianate community into a set of overlapping social circles defined by a shared cultural notion of proper comportment in fulfilling obligations and claiming privileges” (p. 255).

Chapter 5, “Commemorating Persianate Self and Community,” is concerned with the way eighteenth -century tazkirahs formulated larger notions of community and self, thereby demonstrating the heterogeneity of Persianate society — which, as Kia argues, is a result of interregional mobility. In approaching tazkirahs in such a nuanced manner, this chapter illustrates the limitations of previous historians’ scholarly use of tazkirahs, which they typically (mis-)read simply as biographical dictionaries and proceeded to judge the reliability of their entries on this basis. This chapter provides new ways of understanding the functions of this genre.  Kia frames tazkirahs as literature which commemorates a selection of figures and ancestors from the past and which communicates with contemporaries as peers by including them in the texts. This means that each tazkirah has primarily to do with the author’s self-representation, as well as the way he views his community and the way he relates to his social context. With the decline of centralized power both in Iran and Hindustan, tazkirahs of the eighteenth century were more often than not written outside the frame of literary court patronage, which allowed the figure of the author to be more defined in these texts. Kia draws in her analysis on various tazkirahs by Hindustanis, Irani emigrants to Hindustan and Iranis based in Iran. By interrogating their respective selections of poets and their narrative strategies and concerns, she retrieves the ways in which the authors imagined their social and cultural community and positioned themselves within it. The complex issue of Persianate ideas of origin in entries on other poets and in self-representation is illustrated with various examples indicating that ethnic and language differences were not decisive factors for exclusion. Kia traces the imprint of social history in tazkirahs arguing that the composition of these texts, which testify to the transregional circulation of information and individuals, was affected by the turbulent events of the mid-eighteenth and early nineteenth century respectively by giving several examples. She suggests that “the constitutive effect of access (or lack thereof) to texts, correspondence, reliably transmitted accounts and travelers is as important as the deliberate selection of detail to historicizing the production, transmission and circulation of knowledge” (p. 301).

The dissertation concludes with an epilogue entitled “Mobile Communities and Modernity” in which Kia discusses how the existing scholarship, deeply influenced as it is by nationalist attributions of origin and anachronistic assumptions about pre-modern societies, has failed to consider mobile communities and the historical development of transregional identities within the Persianate realm. In doing so she calls for a broader geographic focus in historical disciplines that goes beyond the restrictions of modern nation-state borders. In this context, she positions her own scholarly work as following such a path by historicizing communities, meanings of origin, transregional identities, social conduct and relationships within the Persianate world in order to provide the basis for a thorough understanding not only of pre-modern society, but also of resultant events in the modern era. In doing so, she addresses specific issues and contexts worth considering in studies of the nineteenth century and colonial modernity: “By focusing on the ways in which mobile communities of Persians … circulated through different local contexts, scholars can reassess understandings of colonial modernity and nationalism in Iran and India in a way that does not centrally focus on Europe and European actors” (p. 323).

Mana Kia’s work is a thought-provoking, deeply analytical and innovative study which challenges the ways various scholarly disciplines have approached the history of pre-modern seventeenth and eighteenth century Iran and Hindustan. Her study illustrates the enduring elements and processes of change which constituted shared social and cultural notions of Persianate culture over time. Drawing on a wide and varied range of commemorative texts, her analyses offer invaluable insights into shared literary expressions of social practices and their cultural forms. This study represents a major contribution to the fields of Iranian Studies and Persian Literature Studies as well as to the historiography of South Asia, given its potential to change the ways in which scholars read and approach the relevant texts.

Jasmin Khosravie
Department of Near and Middle Eastern Studies
University of Bonn, Germany

Primary Sources

Commemorative texts of different genres (tazkirahs, memoirs, histories, travelogues), including:
Muḥammad ‘Alī “Ḥazīn” Lāhījī, Tazkirat al-mu‘āṣirīn (1751-52)
‘Abd al-Karīm Kashmīrī, Bayān-i vāqi‘ (ca. 1779)
Luṭf ‘Alī “Āzar” Baygdilī,  Ātashkadah (1760-61)
‘Alī Qulī Khān “Vālih” Dāghistānī, Riyāż al-shu‘arā’ (1749)
Sirāj al-Dīn Khān “Ārzū”, Majma‘ al-nafā’is (1750-51)

Dissertation Information

Harvard University. 2011. 343 pp. Primary Advisor: Afsaneh Najmabadi.


Image: Eighteenth-century Mughal Shahnameh, Fol. 401, MS Persian 78, Houghton Library, Harvard University (with permission).