Iran and India in the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries: Social, Cultural, and Political Connections

This panel will investigate the social, cultural, and political connections that linked Iran and India during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As recent scholarship has shown, the historiographic divide between “Middle East” and “South Asian” studies— as well as the divides that have defined nationalist narratives of modern history— have worked to obscure the connected histories of Iran and India.

The four papers that comprise this panel will use innovative empirical sources and creative conceptual strategies to highlight the connectedness of Iran and India during this period. The first paper (“Reading Outside the Lines”) will investigate the legacy of textual exchanges between Iran/India in the late 19th and early 20th century. In contrast to conventional arguments that emphasize a sharp decline of exchange as a result of nationalist language politics, this paper will detail the dynamic exchange of Persian language texts between India and Iran, well into the 20th century. The second paper (Reveil de l’Iran) will focus on new forms of cultural exchange that were enabled by orientalist conceptions of artistic and architectural aesthetics. Looking at the role of Freemasonic institutions in India and Iran, this paper will argue that modern networks of masonic exchange connecting the Indo-Iranian world enabled new aesthetic understandings of a classical past shared by Iranians and Indians. The third paper (“The Iranian Migrant Poor”) will focus on the social and economic context of migration from Iran to India in the late 19th/early 20th century to detail the emergence of a new social-cultural institution in this period: the Irani café in Bombay. Cafés and other institutions established by immigrant Iranians in Bombay helped to formalize connections between Iran and India, and worked to provide a social-cultural-economic space for immigrant Iranians in Bombay. The fourth and final paper (“Sword of Freedom”) will focus on the life and work of Abdulrahman Saif Azad, a journalist and activist whose work traversed the Indo-Iranian political terrain. As the politics of nationalism and anti-imperialism grew during the 1920s and 1930s, the paper will argue that activists like Saif Azad attempted to bring the efforts of Iranian nationalists and Indian independence activists into common cause.

Collectively, these four papers demonstrate that the social, cultural, and political connections linking Iran and India during the late 19th and early 20th century were much more extensive than has been traditionally assumed in Iranian and South Asian studies.


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This paper will analyze the journalistic and political activities of Abdulrahman Saif Azad (1891-1970) during the 1920s and 1930s. Saif Azad (Arabic for “sword of freedom”) is most commonly known for his editorship of the Tehran-based newspaper Iran-e Bastan (published between 1933-1935), a newspaper noted for its pro-Nazi sympathies and its glorification of Reza Shah and a pre-Islamic based Iranian nationalism. What is less often noted is Saif Azad’s connection to political, cultural, and intellectual currents in British-ruled India between WWI and WWII. Using an array of primary sources— including his own published writings, memoirs written by his associates, and recently declassified British intelligence files—this paper will document Saif Azad’s activities in the subcontinent: from his participation in the German-Turkish Niedermayer campaign to enlist the Afghans for war against the Raj, to his publication of Indian independence newspapers such as Azadi-ye Sharq and Salar-e Hend, to his collaboration with the Bombay Parsis to help promote the nation-building project of Reza Shah, to his association with pro-German Indian nationalist politicians such as Subhas Chandra Bose, and finally to his arrest in India and his internment by the British between 1939-1944. Placing Saif Azad’s life and activities within this broader Indo-Iranian social, cultural, and political context will help to highlight the transnational dimensions of Iranian nationalism during the interwar period. Rather than a history of state-building and cultural reform, the life and work of Saif Azad suggests that the evolution of Iranian nationalism in the interwar period was very much tied to broader social, cultural, and political currents related to an emerging global struggle against empire.

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For at least half a millennium, Persian was a lingua-franca across large swathes of Asia. A large chunk of its literary production happened outside the borders of modern Iran. While its use at the imperial level has been well studied, its role and agency in formations of popular culture and aesthetic has been largely ignored. Studies of later Persian literature are mired with nationalist paradigms and modern categories, reading contemporary distinctions into the historical record. One major casualty of such scholarship is the reception history of Persian works written in India. The received wisdom is that such works were unwelcome in Iran. This observation hinges on the transmitted opinions of an Iranian emigré to India in the 18th century,Ḥazīn-i Lāhījī, and the large surveys of Persian literature written by the nationalist poet of Iran, Bahār (d. 1951). This limited evidence says little about the actual reception of Persian works written outside the Iranian plateau. This paper engages the debate by examining publishing patterns and the sale and transfer of books between North India and Iran in the 19th century. By surveying purchase records, oral histories of bookstores, and public and private collections in Iran for books by South Asian authors, this paper demonstrates not only the absence of guidelines such as “Iranian” and “Indian” in the consumption of Persian literature, but also pushes against notions of a single “national” language with its own unique literature. It demonstrates the critical changes that occurred in publishing after the rise of Iranian nationalism, underlining the role of language reform and new curricula in creating a new geographically limited canon of Persian literature.

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The connection between Parsis, Zoroastrians, Shi’a-Qajar reformists, and Orientalists went beyond politics, economic wealth, and literature: the spread of Freemasonry in Iran and India at the closing of the 19th century resulted in a cult-like belief in the foundational significance of Iranian civilization. In both Tehran and Bombay, reformists were instrumental in the establishment of the first lodge. In 1842, Maneckjee Cursetjee was the first Indian to have applied and initially denied entrance to Freemasonry. Following him, many reformist Parsis, including Ardeshir Cursetji Wadia, Framji Dinshaw Petit, Rustom K.R. Cama, Sir Pherozesha M. Mehta, A.F. Moos, D.F. Karaka, and F.J. Patel, became members of the Lodge Rising Star of Western India.

By 1870, the lodge’s charity had reached to the orphans of Singapore and to poor Zoroastrians in Iran. Through the Masonic structure and its extensive global network, revivalist ideas were disseminated among the reformist elite across class, national, and religious boundaries. K. R. Cama, a staunch reformist, a community leader, scholar, philanthropist, and an overt Freemason, spoke and wrote about the connections between Freemasonry and Zoroastrianism/Mithraism both through the Masonic networks. When in 1907, prominent Iranian reformists, including Zoroastrian representative to the parliament Arbab Keikhosraw Shahrokh, prime minister and scholar of ancient Iran Mohammad Ali Forughi, ideologue and stanch advocate of revival Seyyed Hasan Taqizadeh, prime minister and ambassador to UK Hosayn Ala, and prime and cultural minister Ebrahim Hakimi formed the first official Masonic lodge in Tehran, they named it Reveil de l’Iran.

This paper seeks to bring to light the mechanics of how Orientalist and Freemasonic misconceptions of ancient Persia impacted Qajar and Parsi revival of this art as much as how Iranian and Indian agency helped inject Persian rituals and symbols into Freemasonry. How did, in turn, Freemasonic practice helped shape the mainstream communities in Tehran and Bombay through the construction of neo-Persian temples, schools, ministries, and palaces?

When Freemasonry arrived in the imperial centers, local Freemasons, deployed Freemasonry to revive ancient Persian art and architecture. In other words, Masonic organizational structure and political ideology – i.e., constitutional government, universal brotherhood, reason and tolerance – enabled these reformists to invent an artistic tradition that linked their convictions of modernity to an ancient and venerated past. This paper explores the connections between Masonic networks and the spread of the neo-Achaemenid and neo-Sassanian styles.

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As Iran became incorporated into the world economy over the course of the nineteenth century, the Iranian poor experienced famine, hardships, and widespread unemployment. Over the course of the 1870-1920 period, Iranians migrated to Bombay hoping to find better economic opportunities. In many cases, these emigrant communities found their paths to upward social mobility blocked due to lack of relevant linguistic competencies and already saturated labour markets. As such, Iranian migrants opened up teahouses, small shops, and hotels. Iranian teahouses in Bombay became cultural spaces in their own right marking a distinctive part of the urban fabric. Teahouses were, and continue to be, important social institutions that provide scholars with an opportunity to understand how the urban poor come together in cosmopolitan contexts. Existing studies of Iranians in Bombay emphasize the role of elite merchants, diplomats, religious figures, and political activists, not the conditions of the urban poor. This project will redress the current lacuna in the field by using newspapers, travelogues, diaries, and government reports to reconstruct the economic conditions of the rural poor in Iran. I will explore the new consumption patterns introduced by Iranian migrants, such as the use of Iranian water-pipes and distinctive methods for brewing tea, in addition to the recognizable decorative and architectural features of Iranian shops, teahouses, and hostels. Iranian Zoroastrian (typically referred to as Iranis) and Muslim refugees opened cafes, restaurants, and hostels in Bombay. Since these refugees struggled with the English language that would have allowed them to pursue more lucrative careers in modern professions or the civil service, they carved out a niche for themselves by opening such small businesses. In contrast to similar eateries catering to the urban poor, Irani cafes provided a space for leisure and socializing rather than just a quick meal. Much like its analogue elsewhere, the Irani cafe became associated with criminal activities and middle class anxieties about its subaltern patrons. The popularity of such sites with the poor of Bombay points to the role of Iranian migrants in diversifying leisurely urban spaces. Shi’i passion plays and processions in Bombay and published Persian poetry all to varying degrees bore the imprint of Iranian labour migrants in the cultural life of Bombay.