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Kolkata's Persian connection

Print edition : Jan 17, 2020 T+T-

The address on Dr M Ishaque Road, formerly Kyd Street, where the Iran Society is located.


Ali Chegeni (centre), Iranian Ambassador to India, at the Iran Society library in early December.


Dr Fuad Halim, an eminent doctor and the Iran Society council member in the library’s Persian section. He points out that just as Indian society was influenced by Persian culture, Persia, in turn, became a window for the world to understand India.


C. Rajagopalachari. He was among the many luminaries associated with the Iran Society.


The first issue of Indo-Iranica, the Iran Society’s journal.


B.M. Barua’s seminal article on the Indus script that first appeareed in “Indo-Iranica”.


A 1946 edition of a Gujarati translation of the Zend Avesta, the sacred text of zorastrianism.


An old Persian text printed in the Nastaliq script.


Raja Ram Mohan Roy. He published the first Persian language newspaper in the country, “Mirat-ul-Akhbar”, from Calcutta in 1822-23.


An old Persian school textbook on chemistry from Iran, preserved at the Iran Society library.

At a time when divisive tendencies threaten to tear asunder the secular fabric of Indian society, Kolkata’s Iran Society stands like an oasis of cultural harmony and knowledge-seeking.

IN the fast-changing cityscape of Kolkata, there still stand buildings that are almost 200 years old. One such address is 12, Dr Md Ishaque Road, formerly known as Kyd Street in central Kolkata. The earliest evidence of its existence is its entry in the records of the Municipal Corporation in 1828. But it is not its antiquity that makes the building unique. Unknown to many, within the walls of this structure functions an institution that has quietly been keeping alive an ancient language and heritage that is fast disappearing from public consciousness in India. The Iran Society, which turned 75 this year, is the country’s oldest functioning centre for Persian studies and a treasure trove of old and rare Persian books and journals related to Persian studies.

Kolkata and the Persian language have ties that go back a long way in history. The first ever printing press in Persian was set up in Calcutta, as the city was then called, in the early 19th century, and people from Iran who wanted their works to be published got them printed in the city. The first Persian language newspaper in the country, Mirat-ul-Akhbar , was published from Calcutta by Raja Ram Mohan Roy from 1822-23. It was a weekly that came out on Fridays. The Persian language and culture had a huge impact on the language, literature and society of Bengal. There was a pronounced Persian tilt in early Bengali prose writings, which can be detected in the books of Ram Ram Basu, one of the pioneers of Bengali prose who wrote Bengali textbooks for Fort William College in the early 19th century.

Sampa Sen, Professor of Bengali in the Government Girls General Degree College, Iqbalpur, said: “In the early days of Bengali prose, we can see in the styles of Ram Ram Basu and Ram Mohan Roy wide use of the Persian language. The influence of Persian was also because of the cosmopolitan nature of Calcutta at that time, with many people from Iran conducting trade here and with the Sufi tradition making a deep impact in the culture of India, particularly in undivided Bengal. They brought with them their language and their oral literature.” The Government Girls General Degree College is one of the few colleges where Persian is taught as a subject. Professor Sen is trying to set up a centre for comparative studies of Bengali, Arabic, Persian and Urdu in her college. She pointed out how the philosopher Debendranath Tagore, father of Rabindranath Tagore, was highly influenced by the Persian poet Hafiz (1315-90) and that there are repeated references to Hafiz in his autobiography. “It would be an incomplete assessment to attribute only western education as a catalyst for the Bengal Renaissance. The influence of older Islamic and Persian traditions also played an important role,” she said.

From as early as the latter part of the 17th century, Persian words began to enter the Bengali vocabulary. There are thousands of words used in Bengali that are either Persian or of Persian origin. K. Jaweed Yusuf, general secretary of the Iran Society and a lawyer by profession, points out the extensive use of Persian words in judicial activities. “Words like adalat , mujrim , peshkar and munsif came from Persian and are being used in the courts even today,” said Yusuf. Though these old Persian words remain in use in everyday life, the Persian language itself has faded into obscurity. Once the official court language of the Mughal rulers, it began to lose its use and relevance after the British took over the reins of administration in the country.

“Macaulay’s Education Minutes of 1835 determined the colonial language policy and made English the official language of governance since it was the language of the British rulers. This meant Persian, the language of courts in Mughal times, would be displaced by English. This would signal the beginning of governmental neglect and decline of classical vernacular languages such as Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic in India,” the well-known historian Suchetana Chattopadhyay told Frontline . Today, it is very difficult to find proper Persian scholars to keep the language alive. “From a time when it was considered a classical language that all educated people loved, it has now slipped into a community-specific language,” said Sampa Sen.

Fuad Halim, an eminent doctor and council member of the Iran Society, pointed out that just as Indian society was influenced by Persian culture, Persia, in turn, became a window for the world to understand India. “In the Mughal period, most Sankrit works, including the great epics, were translated into Persian and they travelled to Europe via Persia. This was happening mainly during the reign of Akbar and subsequently during the rule of Shah Jahan and the time of Dara Shuko,” said Halim, whose grand-uncles, M. Ishaque and Khan Sahib Abdul Halim, founded the Iran Society in 1944.

M. Ishaque (1898-1969) was a noted Persian scholar. While studying at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London between 1938 and 1940, he came across the Iran Society, London, which was engaged in the promotion of Persian studies. He resolved to set up a similar society in Calcutta, and so he did upon his return, along with his elder brother, Khan Sahib Abdul Halim, and some friends. After shifting address a few times, the society finally settled down at 12 Kyd Street, in 1960. The new office was inaugurated by Humayun Kabir, then Union Minister of Culture. Kyd Street was subsequently renamed Dr Md Ishaque Road in 1971.

With Persian language and heritage having practically disappeared from the mainstream of Indian society, the Iran Society’s quiet efforts at preservation become all the more important. Its doors are open to anyone who is interested in doing research in Persian, and its books and academic resources are readily available to those keen on Persian studies. The society is a treasure trove of old and rare Persian books, many of which are now out of print. Besides the Persian section, the library also has another section comprising various other kinds of books donated to the institution by its patrons right from the time it came into being. This part of the library contains a pre-Persian Avestan section, an Urdu section, an English section and a history and linguistics section. The library also contains the entire Indo-Iranica— the bilingual (English-Persian) quarterly journal that the Society has been bringing out without interruption for the last 75 years—in bound volumes.

On his visit to the Iran Society, Iranian Ambassador to India Ali Chegeni was visibly impressed by the collection of old Persian books in its library. “I was aware of the Iran Society in Kolkata, but I did not know there were such treasures in it. I feel like I am in a museum. Some of these books are even written in calligraphy, which itself is an art that is fast disappearing,” he told Frontline while perusing some of the old books in the Persian section of the library. Chegeni feels that Iran has special ties with Kolkata that go back centuries. “The first Persian newspaper in India was printed in Kolkata. I have books in Persian that belonged to my father that were printed in Kolkata. There is an important port in Iran, the Abadan Port, where some old shops still stand with the sign ‘Our Goods Come From Kolkata’,” he said.

The society has been holding a course in Persian for the last four years. Initially, the working members of the society thought that mainly young students looking for career options in academics would be interested in it. They were in for a pleasant surprise when people from all walks of life, including retired people, began to enrol. “We soon realised that in Kolkata there is a sizeable population that has always been interested in the Persian language but had found no scope to pursue its interest. Many retired people have joined the course. It is not just people who want a career in academics or doing business in Iran who are learning Persian but also many who are learning it simply for the love of the language,” said Fuad Halim.

The Iran Society is a self-contained body that does not require any government aid for its functioning. The founding fathers had envisioned that the earnings from the property on which the society at present stands would fund the organisation’s activities. Also, the journals published by the society are purchased by universities both within India and abroad. “When the need arises, we appeal to our members and the general public for support, and that appeal is generally heeded,” said Halim. At present, the society has around 170 members all over the world, and some of the biggest names of modern Indian history have been associated with the organisation, either as patrons or as office-holders, inlcuding C. Rajagopalachari, former Indian President Zakir Hussein, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Padmaja Naidu, the legendary Communist Party of India (CPI) leader Hiren Mukherjee and former Speaker of the Lok Sabha Somnath Chatterjee. “This a centre of national unity and integration. It is not a Muslim society. Our presidents have been Hindus, Christians, Parsis, Buddhists, Sikhs and Muslims,” said Jaweed Yusuf.

At a time when divisive tendencies threaten to tear asunder the secular fabric of Indian society and communal tensions are fanned for narrow political gains, the Iran Society stands like a small, hidden oasis of harmony and knowledge-seeking. It has remained that way for the last 75 years, untouched by the politics of the day and never straying from the purpose for which it was created—to keep an ancient language and heritage from disappearing completely.

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