The first early modern text to assert that Hinduism is a monotheistic faith, not polytheistic, and helped launch the Brahmo Samaj is a little-read book by Bengali reformer Raja Ram Mohan Roy titled Tuhfatul Muwahhidin (Gift to the Monotheists), published in 1804. The book influenced groups like the Brahmo Samaj, Arya Samaj and played a key role in shaping present-day Hinduism.

Similarly, an important part of Sikh scripture is Guru Gobind Singh’s epistle to Mughal emperor Aurangazeb, the Zafarnama.

Both these texts are written in Persian, a language that very few people in India read anymore. But for well over 600 years from the 12th century, Persian was the pre-eminent language of the courts, government and written communication for most of cosmopolitan India – Hindu or Muslim.

Persian, particularly the now largely moribund Indo-Persian variety, is as Indian a language as English has become today.

That is not surprising. India was an integral part of the Persianate cosmopolis and a major centre of Persian language writing and literature. From Amir Khusrau Dehlavi (1253-1325 CE), to ‘Urfi Shirazi (1555-1591), Ghani Kashmiri (1630-1670) to Bedil (1640-1720) and Saeb (1592-1676), a number of the greats of Persian literature were either from the subcontinent or migrated and blossomed there.

To be sure, Persian was never a widely-spoken language. But even though it was an elite form used for literary production, teaching, correspondence and official documents, it acquired its own flavor in India: the Indo-Persian register is distinct from the Persian of Iran or Dari of Afghanistan. In some ways, it continued to follow in an older Classical tradition, diverging from modern Persian.

A calligraphic rendition of a verse referencing a dancing peacock by Jigar Moradabadi in Persian. Created by Sharib Shaikh, copyright: Adhiraj Parthasarathy.

Modern Persian and Indo-Persian

The distinctions between modern Persian and Indo-Persian are not trivial. One of the foundational differences lies in phonology. Indo-Persian retains older vowel distinctions, in written form, that Modern Iranian Persian no longer does.

If Persian speakers from Iran were to glance through Classical Persian works published in recent years by Indian presses, the first difference they would notice is the usage of a few distinct characters – vowels and nasals – that modern Persian texts do not use.

In addition to these phonological distinctions, a number of Indian words were introduced into the language through the process of tafris (Persianisation), as Sirajuddin Khan “Arzu” (1688-1756), the prominent linguist, lexicographer and poet noted.

This was also pointed out by Indian dictionaries such as Bahar-e-’ajam by Tek Chand “Bahar” (d 1776) and Mirat-al-Istilah by Anand Ram “Mukhlis” (1699-1750) – both Hindu. Even Mirza “Qateel” Lahori, a prominent Hindu convert to Shia Islam writing in the late 18th century, noted the existence of unique Indic idioms – muhawarat-e-hind – that he pointed out were absent in the Persian of Iran, and Afghanistan through which he traveled.

Indo-Persian was also distinct in style.

The last great scholar of Indo-Persian to emphasise its distinctive style and usage was the Islamic theologian and writer Shibli Nomani (1857-1914), who taught in Aligarh and Lucknow. His massive Sher-ul-’Ajam (The Poetry of Persia) contains an extensive discussion on India’s contribution and Indian Persian writers.

Preempting the argument of Iranian critic Mohammad Taqi “Bahar” (d 1951) that the Indian writing in Persian only introduced decadence, cliches, formulaic language and poor-quality prose, Nomani evoked the works of Iranian poet Saeb Tabrizi, who developed the sabk-e-hindi or Indian style.

Nomani recalled that Saeb spent seven of his most fruitful years in India, producing works that introduced into Persian a tarz-e-taaza (new manner), a ma’ana-ye-begana (unfamiliar conception), a certain rangini (colorfulness) and latafat (delicateness).

Indo-Persian began its decline in the 1830s, when the British East India Company stopped using it as an official language. Bereft of state patronage, except in some princely states, it went into a tailspin.

The works of Allama Iqbal (d 1938) mark the end of significant Indo-Persian writing in the subcontinent. Iqbal is today most widely remembered as an Urdu poet, one of the early originators of the Two-Nation theory and the author of Saare Jahan Se Accha. While he is today remembered for his Urdu production, he considered himself – at least in his early years – to be a Persian language writer. Of his 12,000-odd verses, more than 7,000 are in Persian.

(Left) Iranian critic Mohammad Taqi “Bahar”, copy of the cover of Sher-ul-’Ajam (centre) by Shibli Nomani and (right) Allama Iqbal. Ma'arif Press, Uploaded by Owais Al Qarni, in public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Decline of Indo-Persian readership, audience

The new educational system that the British introduced in the first modern universities in India: Madras, Calcutta and Bombay, set up after the 1857 War of Independence, required all students of the arts to learn a classical language. They had the option of choosing between Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic.

Students in junior grades were also expected to attain basic fluency in one classical language, something that changed after Independence.

The only significant group of people who still study Persian as part of their education in India are the students of madrasas across India, which follow variants of the Dars-e-Nizami syllabus – a system developed in the mid-18th century at Firangi Mahal, Lucknow.

This course of study emphasised an education in both the manqulat or transmitted sciences (subjects such as Arabic grammar, Islamic studies and jurisprudence) taught in Arabic and ma’qulat or rational sciences (such as literature, history, astronomy, ethics and logic) which were traditionally taught in Persian.

Effect of madrasa modernisation

The primers for the introductory years in the Dars-e-Nizami were, and to some extent remain, in Persian. Among the prescribed texts in the madrasa system was Sa’adi’s (d.1292) prose work, Gulistan as well as readings from other works like Qabusnama – didactic texts designed to train students in ethics and formal, literary writing and conventions. While still part of the curriculum, they are now only taught as abridged excerpts.

The Dars-e-Nizami has slowly morphed since its syllabus was designed. Various governments have emphasised madrasa modernisation programmes, introducing subjects from computing to science and local languages.

It would, of course, be unreasonable to load all these additional subjects into the curriculum without taking something out. Since madrasas today focus on creating religious specialists and imparting religious training, it would be impossible to eliminate any of the Arabic or Islamic components of the syllabus. Subjects that have typically been dropped, updated or reworked involve secular topics that were originally taught in Persian – gradually reducing the amount of Persian training that students receive to only the most basic.

Some state madrasa boards such as Bihar, however, continue to teach a high standard of Persian. The syllabus of their Class 10 equivalent (Fauqania Year-2) even includes selections of the Ramayana in the Persian poetic, narrative genre of masnavi.

An extract from Sabrang Kitab Ghar’s 1976 edition of Rumi’s Masnavi printed in Delhi, using Indian orthography, with the Urdu translation. Credit: Adhiraj Parthasarathy

Iranian disregard for Indian Persian

Despite being a significant strain of Persian writing, Iranians have been dismissive of Indo-Persian. In the early part of the 20th century, Mohammad Taqi “Bahar,” the pre-eminent Iranian literary critic and harbinger of the Iranian Bazgasht adabi (literary return) neo-classical movement developed the somewhat misleading term “sabk-e-hindi”, the Indian style, to refer to a particular style of ornate, and highly embellished Persian writing, and literature especially poetry.

Mohammad Taqi “Bahar” devised an elaborate scheme to mark epochs in classical Persian verse and divided them into styles – the Khurasani style, the Iraqi style, the Indian style among them.
“All in all, the Indian style was a mediocre poetic craft which through its clever supporters replaced all the Persian rhetorical devices and the concepts of expression, grammar and syntax,” he said sniffily.

He was not alone. Many other modern literary critics had a low regard for Indo-Persian writing and did not consider it – with a few exceptions – to be of high quality. They looked down on the Persian used by Indians almost exactly the way the British treated historically Indian English.

In 1986, Ayatollah Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, made a speech in Teheran at the first International Conference on Iqbal but was not very complementary. “A specimen of Iqbal’s Persian prose is available to us in his prefatory note to his masnavi, Rumuz-e bikhudi [The Secrets of the Selflessness] and Asrar-e khudi [The Secrets of the Self],” Khamenei said. “If you read them you will see that it is hard for the people whose mother tongue is Persian to understand it.”

Khamenei explains, “Iqbal was not acquainted with Persian idiom, as he spoke Urdu at home and talked to his friends in Urdu or English. He did not know the rules of Persian prose writing... Iqbal never studied Persian at any stage in a school or college during the years of his childhood or youth…Iqbal chose the Persian language as his medium of literary expression only for the reason that he felt that his ideas and themes could not be effectively expressed in the Urdu language.”

This condescending attitude towards Indo-Persian pervades in Iran even today. When Khamenei spoke so derisively of Iqbal’s Persian writing, he was clearly unacquainted with Indo-Persian convention. The Iranians do not consider Indo-Persian worth reading, except perhaps Amir Khusrau Dehlavi and a select few Indian poets. They think (as they have for centuries) that it is derivative and unoriginal.

Indians have long lost fluency in Indo-Persian, Despite this, it is important to recognise that Indo-Persian is an integral part of our history. Refusing to engage with it means that India risks consigning to the dustbin an entire, sophisticated literary tradition, indigenous to this country.

However, despite this decline, Indo-Persian themes and usage continue to resurface time and again – in modern religious writing and devotion, but also in Hindi film scripts, traditional weddings, classical and pop music and even in journalism.

The history of Persianate production in India, as the scholar Vivek Gupta has pointed out, is one involving a confluence of two worlds – one Indic, and another Perso-Arabic– to create something new. As the 18th-century Indian, Arabic-language writer, Azad Bilgrami evocatively described it, it “…[added] the voice of the local cuckoo [al-kawkila] to the cooing of the dove (saj).”

Even though it is much softer now, the cuckoo continues to coo.

Adhiraj Parthasarathy grew up on Imam Khomeini Road in Hyderabad and studied some Persian. Mohammad Dawood is a PhD in Persian from Jawaharlal Nehru University with an interest in Indo-Persian.

The Dancing Peacock is a series on the enduring existence of Persian in modern India-in film, music, books, religion and culture. Views expressed are personal.