Sambit Roychowdhury’s essay: Of poets and emperors

Saaghi haadise sarv-o gol-o laaleh miravad / Vin bahs ba salase-ye ghassaleh miravad …*
Cup-bearer, the tale of the cypress, the rose and the tulip is going on

And even after washing down three cups, this conversation is going on 

So starts a ghazal, the first line above penned by Ghiyasuddin Azam Shah, sultan of Bengal during the last decade of the fourteenth and first decade of the fifteenth century. His grandfather was the legendary Iliyas Shah, who originally came from Sistan in Persia, but managed to create an independent Bengal by rebelling against the Delhi Sultanate and uniting the provinces of Satgaon, Lakhnauti and Sonargaon by 1352 AD. Azam Shah continued his grandfather’s policy of creating a Bengali identity by running a sound administration through the involvement of the local populace, and rewarding local talent irrespective of religion. He was also a patron of scholars and poets: his court poet Shah Muhammad Sagir wrote the Bengali verse-story Yusuf-Zulekha, and Krittibas Ojha wrote the Bengali Ramayan during his reign. Azam Shah himself used to compose verses in Arabic and Farsi, and the above line was sent to a poet in Persia along with the finest Bengal muslin, and with two requests – to complete the ghazal, and to visit Bengal.

The poet in question was fast becoming a legend during his lifetime, and his fame has only grown with every passing century after his death. Shams ed-Din Mohammad Shirazi, better known by his nom-de-plume Hafez, is more than just a poet for Persian speakers of the world. His Divan, or collected works, are considered the pinnacle of Persian literature, and the most important book every Persian household possesses. His works are considered deeply spiritual, and Fal-e-Hafez or divinations with his works are often performed by Persians. A page of the Divan-e-Hafez is chosen at random to see what Hafez has to say about what is on the person’s mind, whether it be one’s situation in life, an intent, or even a wish. Hafeziyeh, his marble tomb in Shiraz surrounded by beautiful architecture and gardens that were refurbished in the early twentieth century during Reza Shah’s reign, is a place of pilgrimage. You will find many an Iranian couple sitting around the gardens, his Divan in their hands, his poetry on their lips.

Hafez did complete the ghazal and send it back to Azam Shah, in the process displaying a bit of the self-adulation:

“… Shakkar-shekan shavand hameh tutiyan-e-Hend / Zin ghand-e-Parsi ke be-Bangaleh miravad …

The sweet taste will reach all the parrots (poets) of Hind from the Persian sweet that is going to Bengal …

But he was probably too old to make the long and arduous trip. He ended the ghazal with a suitable expression of regret for not being able to take up the sultan’s invitation.

“… Hafez ze shogh-e majles-e Soltan Ghiyas-e-Din / Ghafel masho ke kaare to az naale miravad.

Hafez, do not ignore the lamentation that will engulf your life following the exhilaration due to the thought of being present in the assembly of the Soltan.”

In the early part of the twentieth century though, another aging poet could keep the invitation of another king. Only this time, the poet was Bengali and the king was the Shah of Iran.

Rabindranath Tagore’s place in Bengal’s history had already been cemented well before his demise in 1941. And as more time passes, he and his works are slowly, through both adulation and opposition, taking on a mythical status among Bengalis which is eerily reminiscent of Hafez’s status among Persians. It is exciting to wonder how Hafez’s philosophy might have seeped into Tagore’s consciousness, for Maharshi Debendranath, Tagore’s father, “was intoxicated with Hafiz’s (sic) verses”, and as a boy Tagore “often used to listen to his recitation of those poems”. Half a millennium separates these two poets and philosophers, so any fair comparison of the effects of their works on the speakers of their respective languages will have to wait a few centuries.

As for outside the Bengali speaking world, Tagore was much more in the news during his lifetime, and primarily because of his worldview. Tagore was a critic of the indiscriminate march of industrial civilization, batted for universal humanism even though he was both a staunch supporter of and an inspiration to India’s freedom fighters, and passionately believed in restarting the dialogue between Asian peoples that had been disrupted by the Western colonizers – no wonder he accepted Reza Shah’s invitation, and agreed to travel to Persia when he was seventy years old.

After wresting power from the last of the weak Qajar emperors, Reza Shah Pahlavi was on a quest to modernize Iran and re-affirm its ancient Aryan heritage. The reason for the 1932 invitation was ostensibly related to what Tagore himself noted: “In me they saw a poet, and that too an Eastern poet, an Indo-Aryan poet like themselves”. There was more to it of course. For starters, by openly inviting a long-standing critic of British colonialism, Reza Shah wanted to get one up on the perennial meddlers in Iran’s internal affairs. And so it happened that Tagore flew with KLM (thus avoiding flying British Airways) and after a multi-stop journey entered Persia through the southern port of Bushehr. Tagore has preserved the story of his travels in Parosyo Jatri. Every page of that book describes a time of possibilities – the colonial powers were on the back foot, and an independent Asia was starting to assert itself. The second World War, the partition of India, CIA & MI6 engineered coups, the gory birth of Bangladesh, the Iranian revolution, the Iran-Iraq war … all concerned were blissfully unaware of the tumultuous times that were just round the corner. But that stark reality is not the subject of this essay. Our story is about people who dream up thoughts that transcend reality.

Let us therefore follow Tagore to Shiraz and to Hafez’s tomb, and describe what happened there as recorded by Tagore himself. Hafez’s Divan was brought for him, and before opening it he made a wish – let India be free from the deathly hold of blind faith. His friends interpreted the ode chosen – Hafez stated in no uncertain terms that the doors of heaven will open, and all difficulties will melt away! Sitting beside Hafez’z tomb, on that spring day, Tagore suddenly felt as if a bright pair of eyes were smiling at him from many springtimes ago. It was as if the two of them were long lost friends who had drank many a cup of wine together. Like Hafez before him, Tagore felt he too had managed to ignore the derisions of the orthodox, and escape on the free-flowing winds of joy. After a gap of who knows how many centuries, crossing the barrier between life and death, a traveller who Hafez knew intimately was sitting beside him.

* I thank Maryam Arabsalmani for the transliteration and interpretation of the lines, which involved hours of research and discussions with multiple people. Hafez is not easy to interpret, which adds to his charm!

Sambit is an Astronomer by profession. Passionate about (subaltern) history, art (including movies), and cricket, he likes to read, roam, and satiate the senses.

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