Persianate Literary Culture in the 18th and 19th Centuries


A review of Bâzgasht-i Adabî (Literary Return) and Persianate Literary Culture in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Iran, India, and Afghanistan, by Kevin Schwartz.

As in the fable of the blind men who touch different parts of an elephant and come to different conclusions, the Persian literary tradition can appear very different to scholars focusing on particular periods or regions. Persian is, of course, the present-day national language in Iran, and under different names in Tajikistan and Afghanistan (Tajiki and Dari, respectively). It was a literary language in those places long before they became modern nation-states. But it was also the historical vehicle of a transnational, learned literary culture (roughly akin to Latin in European history), even in places where it was never widely spoken but was nonetheless culturally significant. Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi has memorably referred to Persian “homeless texts” left stranded by, for example, having been written during the Mughal period in India, where Persian is today a dead language and only glancingly part of the discourse around present-day South Asian identities. The cultural transformation across the former Persian-using world, which at its peak stretched from Anatolia in the West across Central Asia to the Chinese frontier in the East and to all but the very tip of the Indian Subcontinent, goes beyond that: South Asian participation in Persian literary culture is an entire “homeless tradition.” For many scholars, touching that part of the elephant leads to bewilderment.

Such continuities and discontinuities are the historiographical muddle to which Kevin Schwartz responds. His dissertation is admirable both as a work of intellectual history and of literary close-reading, and it must be both in order to succeed in its aim of tracing some key developments in Persian literary culture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It frames its analysis around the bâzgasht-i adabî [Literary Return], a cluster of Persian poets active in mid-eighteenth-century Isfahan who sought to break with the recent past and write poetry according to classical models. Although bâzgasht is often retrospectively seen as a pre-meditated transformative movement in Persian literary history, Schwartz follows Matthew C. Smith and John R. Perry in arguing that its practitioners had no such aims. Indeed, the label “bâzgasht-i adabî” was first applied in the early twentieth century by the literary scholar Muhammad Taqî Bahâr (though Rizâ Qulî Khân Hidâyat, d. 1871, had earlier used the concept if not named it). Bahâr’s categorization of stylistic eras in Persian literature remains highly influential, but there are risks when it is uncritically applied. Schwartz highlights the crucial fact that although Bahâr’s categories for earlier stylistic eras (sabk-i khurâsânî, sabk-i ‘iraqî, and sabk-i hindî, spanning roughly the ninth to thirteenth centuries, the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries, and the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries, respectively) are named for particular places, Bahâr is clear that they are to be understood as universal across the Persianate world. By contrast, bâzgasht was in its time a purely Iranian phenomenon restricted to a particular network of poets, even if it did, as Schwartz demonstrates, echo elsewhere later. Bahâr’s nationalism leads him to elevate a local aesthetic turn into a universal literary movement, which has a distorting effect even if there is no question of his being right or wrong on the facts. If one imagines Persian literary culture like a great house with many rooms bustling with people, it is as though Bahâr turned the lights off in all but one of the rooms. A transnational cultural enterprise thus becomes identified solely with Iran, and we know that was not the case over the centuries.

The fundamental difficulty for any analysis of the Persianate world (as for any broad cultural zone) is that it is closely connected in some ways, and in others its parts are independent. Bahâr struggled with this, and Schwartz must face it as well. The dissertation presents case studies of three very different parts of the Persian world, namely Isfahan in the late eighteenth-century, the Court of Arcot (based in present-day Chennai in south-eastern India) in the 1840s, and Afghanistan in the wake of the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42). Without a doubt these are very well-selected examples, because they are each in a way peripheral and yet are evocative when taken together. They show Persian as a vibrant medium of expression in unexpected contexts in a time when supposedly the Persianate world was gripped by stagnation. Schwartz wisely aims not for a comprehensive account of Persian in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries but rather “seeks  to  highlight  some  of  the multiple  transformations  of  Persian  literary  culture  as  yet  misunderstood  or  erased  by  many modern  critics  and  authors” (p. xiii).

The dissertation consists of an introductory chapter, and the three geographically and chronologically-delimited case studies: Chapter 1 is a general summary that introduces the key trends in Persian literary history and how they instantiated in different regions. Here he attempts to unspool the various strands of analysis, historical and modern, and shows how some are contemporary and some anachronistic. For example, he notes that “it is striking how clearly modern historians’ interpretations of the rise of the bâzgasht movement replicate attitudes in Zand and Qajar tazkirahs” (p. 8). Perhaps it is time for a reevaluation then? Or with regards to the contested term sabk-i hindî or “Indian Style” in Persian, he wisely reserves the term “sabk-i hindî” for the context of Bahâr’s analysis and “tâzah-gû’î” in reference to contemporary debates on the value of newness and tradition among poets (p. 7 fn 14). While there were debates on poetic style in the Safavid-Mughal period, it is important to read them as much as possible on their own terms (literally since tâzah-gû’î or “fresh speaking” was a contemporary label staking out one position in the debate), rather than interpreting it through Bahâr. Poets could not have been debating the merits of sabk-i hindî because there was no such category until Bahâr created it centuries later! Chapter 2 addresses Isfahan during the bâzgasht period. It highlights the importance of a poet called Mushtâq (died c. 1757) as a mentor to others in Isfahan, and traces how the tażkirahs (collected biographies of poets) remember him. This focus on how people memorialize each other and how future generations in turn read these efforts is important. Chapter 3 addresses Persian in what is today Tamil Nadu. Even specialists in the region might be surprised to learn how vibrant Persian was in southern India even after the British had officially moved away from Persian. The court of the last Nawâb of Arcot, Muhammad Ghaws Khân (1824-1855), prized Persian. The young ruler of what was by now a puppet state dismayed his British handlers by showing little interest in learning English and instead maintained an active Persian salon. He and his peers engaged in vibrant debates about the value of the literary style of ‘Abdul Qâdir Bîdil (d. 1720), and these conversations were anchored in local rivalries and concerns while also echoing trends across the Persianate world. Chapter 4 discusses the genre of jangnâmahs [battle poems] written about the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-1842) that were modeled on Firdawsî’s Shâhnâmah. Schwartz picks apart previous scholars’ analysis of an “Afghan bāzgasht” because they assumed it must have been on the Iranian model or must have served an Afghan nationalist cause. Their analyses are not necessarily wrong but such a narrow view excludes so much from consideration. Schwartz rectifies this with a rich analysis of poetic networks and textual circulation, particularly as the jangnâmahs make their way through India. The poems, which were not necessarily in dialogue with the bāzgasht-proper of Isfahan, “make the case for a definition of bâzgasht as an expansive category able to account for a wider range of phenomena” (p. 135).

The key primary sources used in the study are tażkirahs, a genre of brief biographies of poets generally with quotations from their work. Since these texts by their nature are intended to represent a real or imagined literary community, they lend themselves to mapping associations and rivalries among poets. Schwartz’s careful reading shows the importance in thinking about the form of representation since rhetoric was not a flourish but crucial to the message. He explores verse as communication as well, and offers impressive evaluations of poetry in which people relate to each other socially (for example, an exchange among the bāzgasht poets Âzar, Sabâhî, and Hâtif on p. 66ff). The translation here, as throughout the dissertation, is crisp and accurate. Beyond such sensitive and interdisciplinary readings of primary sources, this dissertation makes good use of secondary sources, paying uniquely good attention to developments in recent Iranian scholarship. A difficulty facing Western scholars of Persian or Indic literatures is that excellent work by Iranian or Indian scholars is buried in journals that are difficult to find in the West. Schwartz has surmounted this apparently by looking very carefully.

Schwartz’s project complements a number of other recent dissertations (for example by Mana Kia, Nathan Tabor, and this reviewer) that have tried to combine literature and history to better understand the social relations involved in literary production. In this they follow the methodology employed most influentially in several collaborations between Muzaffar Alam and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, as well as by Alam, Rajeev Kinra, Stefano Pellò, Nile Green, and others. Despite the large number of scholars pursuing such questions with different disciplinary tools at their disposal, there is still endless work to be done since local contexts need to be re-examined across the Persianate world and assessed against wider trends. Schwartz’s analysis of three axial cases, including introducing readers to the unexpected Arcot connection, is a significant step. This dissertation provides a model for writing intellectual history that spans the local and the universal, as well as the traditional concerns of history as a discipline and literary studies.

Arthur Dudney
Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies
University of Cambridge

Primary Sources
Aligarh Muslim University Oriental Manuscripts Collection
British Library Manuscripts Collection
College of Fort William Collection, National Archives of India
National Archives of India
Various published tazkirahs

Dissertation Information
University of California, Berkeley. 2014. 190 pp. Primary Advisor: Shahwali Ahmadi.

Image: The poet Sa’di converses by night with a young friend in a garden.” Miniature from the Gulistan of Sa’di. Herat, 1427. Chester Beatty Library, Dublin. (Wikimedia Commons).

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