Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), the 1913 literature Nobel Prize laureate, was a leading Bengali-language Indian writer and a truly influential intellectual in the subcontinent, across Asia, and indeed the world. He travelled to more than 30 countries in the America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. He often and perhaps most importantly in Asia talked about Asian civilization: a bloc shared by entities like Japan, India, or Iran that—he here followed Orientalist tropes—was more spiritual than the West. A 1926 visit of his to Egypt impressed Iranian educational officials and diplomats, including the consul-general in Bombay, Jalal al-Din Keyhan, who maintained close relations with that city’s Zoroastrian community. As a result, Tagore was invited to Iran, whereto he flew in 1932 for a month-long country-wide tour. Analyzed in Afshin Marashi’s Exile and the Nation: The Parsi Community of India and the Making of Modern Iran (2020), his tour inter alia included a visit to the tomb, in Shiraz, of one of Iran’s most famous poets, Hafez, and dozens of meetings with regular citizens, intellectuals, and politicians, including an audience in Iran’s capital of Tehran with the country’s ruler, Reza Shah Pahlavi (1878-1944; r. 1925-1941).
This and one other text contained in the collection are (perhaps revised) transcripts of two conversations Tagore had in Tehran. One was with educators, likely in the garden palace in which Tagore was put up; the other took place during a party at the residence of the known politician, journalist, and secularist thinker Ali Dashti (1897-1982). Certainly the former but perhaps also the latter conversation was facilitated by an English-Persian translator, likely the poet Gholamreza Rashed Yasemi, or Dinshah Irani, a leading Indian Zoroastrian invited with Tagore to Iran, or Jalal al-Din Keyhan, who accompanied Tagore, too. At the time, Iran was in the midst of a sociocultural transformation. While led by the increasingly autocratic Reza Shah Pahlavi, it was initiated and carried by an expanding modern middle class, as Cyrus Schayegh has shown in Who Is Knowledgeable, Is Strong: Science, Class, and the Formation of Modern Iranian Society (2009). This process went hand in hand with a nationalism that was importantly, though not exclusively, focused on Iran’s pre-Islamic past. At that time, the nationalist narrative went, Iran was interwoven with the Indian subcontinent, whose inhabitants are, like Iranians, Aryans—a European term warmly welcomed by many Iranians and Indians. In this simultaneously nationalist and supra-nationalist narrative, that common Indo-Iranian realm was broken only when Semitic Arabs, whom Iranian nationalists often malign, invaded Iran in the seventh century.
We thank Afshin Marashi for information provided about the translation practices during Tagore’s journey.