In March 1947, a 36-year-old aspiring Tajik writer and journalist named Mirzo Tursunzoda traveled abroad for the very first time to India to attend a conference of Asian and African writers in Delhi. The heady talk of brotherly camaraderie of oppressed nations and the winds of change that were sweeping over India, on the cusp of its independence, so inspired the son of a poor carpenter from the rural Gissar valley that he wrote a set of Tajik-language poems: Qissa-ye-Hindustan (The Indian Ballad).

His passion immediately electrified the Tajik literary landscape, and established him as a giant of modern literature. Even Comrade Joseph Stalin, sitting in faraway Moscow, sat up and took notice.

When the committee in-charge of selecting recipients of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic’s Stalin Prize in 1948 hesitated to give Tursunzoda the award on the grounds that he was too young, the Great Leader personally intervened. In recognition of Tursunzoda’s brilliance and contribution to the brotherhood and friendship of nations, Stalin ordered that he be given the prize.

This anecdote is found in most hagiographical biographies of Mirzo Tursunzoda (1911-1977), Hero of Socialist Labour (a Soviet-era honorific title), winner of the Stalin Prize (1948), Lenin Prize (1960), Nehru International Prize (1967) and People’s Poet of the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic.

Most Soviet-era rags-to-revolution narratives, written in a breathless, adulatory style, emphasise Tursunzoda’s commitment to the Soviet fatherland, the friendship of nations, and the cause of exporting socialism.

Lost in this propaganda, however, is the story of an accomplished, lyrical poet, writer and occasional film-maker, famous for his love and admiration of India, who was once the star of literary circles and progressive writer’s forums – not just in Russia and his native Tajikistan, but also in India, and Pakistan.

One of the fathers of modern Tajik literature, who along with Sadriddin ‘Ayni’ (1878-1954) and Abolqasem Lahoti (1887-1957) developed a new literary identity for Tajik, Tursunzoda was more than just a Soviet apparatchik, but a poetic genius wasted to socialist realism, who built a reputation as a bridge between the USSR and India, and in turn inspired, and mentored a generation of Indian poets after Independence.

Sadriddin ‘Ayni’ and Abolqasem Lahoti. Credit: in public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Tajik language in the USSR

The Tajik language is a variety of Persian (with which it is mutually intelligible) written in the Cyrillic script, and spoken by around ten million people in Central Asia. Once the language of a wider, historical region called Turan that was the center of Persianate cities like Samarkand and Bukhara, Tajik is now mostly spoken in Tajikistan, and parts of Uzbekistan – states once controlled by Russia.

While some scholars tend to think of it as a form of Persian, Soviet-era changes in script (from Perso-Arabic to Roman to Cyrillic), extensive borrowings from Russian, and neighboring Turkic languages like Uzbek and the development of a distinct Tajik identity have lead to some divergence from the Persian of Iran, and the Dari of Afghanistan.

Tursunzoda came of age in a new Soviet-era world that emphasised a new Soviet Tajik identity, an idealism that believed in a clean break from the past and a belief that all social evils and religious obscurantism could and would be stamped out with revolutionary progress.

In Tursunzoda’s youth, the Soviet state redrew boundaries in Central Asia, creating five socialist republics in the USSR, one of which was Tajikistan. It began emphasising a distinct national, ethnic identity and language in each of the states.

In Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, it ran a large-scale adult literacy campaign, fostered a network of Komsomol youth clubs, and even encouraged public veil-burning ceremonies (hujum) amongst Muslim women.

Tajik writers like Sadriddin ‘Ayni in the generation that preceded Tursunzoda had forged a new Tajik literature and imagination, distinct from Persian. Tursunzoda took this forward. As Jiři Bečka, Czech scholar and biographer of Sadriddin ‘Ayni’, points out, “If Jami says in the 15th century, ‘Your face resembles the sun’...’Ayni says in his poem, Inquilob - ‘The revolution resembles the sun…’”

All of the Persian language’s literary metaphors were now being reworked into the language of socialist realism, with abstract, love poetry being re-read to conform to Marxism-Leninism. Literature in Tajik Persian increasingly began to focus almost exclusively on revolution, social change and reform.

Tursunzoda in 1972 below a giant image of Vladmir Lenin at a meeting in Tajikistan. Credit: Tajikistan State Archive of Photo and Video Documentation and Artemy M Kalinovsky.

The fantasy of Indo-Soviet brotherhood

Tursunzoda’s visit to India in the 1940s resulted in the publication of the book that made him famous: Qissa-ye-Hindustan. It was published in two volumes, right before Independence and then after. It consists of a number of poems dealing with India, such as Rud-e-Gang (The River Ganga), Tara Chandr and Taj Mahal. His visit to India and a subsequent visit in 1950 to Pakistan laid the foundation for a life-long fascination with South Asian literary culture, and politics.

In this era of new internationalism, the Soviet Union tried, through extensive state patronage and junkets, to promote a Communist narrative globally. To the Soviet Union, Tursunzoda as a dedicated Communist with one foot in Asia, fluent in Persian and some Hindustani, was an ideal tool to propagate socialism globally.

Tursunzoda eagerly took on this task of exporting revolution as a duty of the Tajik people, even writing in 1956, “The Tajik people… understand their great responsibility – to be pioneers in relation to the Entire East, which is now waking from many centuries of confusion and rising towards freedom, to the battle for a happy life.” As head of the Soviet Afro-Asian Solidarity Committee he even organised its first International Congress in Central Asia.

Soon Tursunzoda was everywhere in South Asia – exchanging poems of mutual admiration with the literary giant Faiz Ahmed Faiz, hobnobbing with the father of the Progressive Movement and Communist leader Sajjad Zaheer in the USSR, and collaborating with Urdu, Punjabi and Hindi writers and theatre artists such as Makhdoom Mohiuddin, Balraj Sahni and Ali Sardar Jafri from the 1950s.

A series of stamps on India-Soviet unity. Credit: India Post, Government of India, GODL-India, via Wikimedia Commons

His poems, published in Tajik and translated into Russian, had print runs of more than 16,000 copies at a time when the population of Tajikistan was no more than a million.

At the idealistic peak of Indo-Soviet friendship in the 1950s, Tursunzoda was able to drive audiences in Delhi wild with his poetry readings. Tales are told of packed halls of Punjabi writers, Urdu professors and Hindi litterateurs begging him to read from his Qissa-ye-Hindustan. Heavily promoted by the Soviet state, he was also popular in Indian revolutionary circles, and went on to win the Nehru International Prize in 1968.

He was so prominent a figure in Progressive Writer’s circles in India that he and his fellow travelers were sometimes even the objects of affectionate caricature by satirists like Mujtaba Hussain who parodied their endless wait for a Surkh Savera (Red Dawn).

Today, however, one would be hard placed to even find a student of Persian in India familiar with Tursunzoda’s writings.

Abdullah Jan Ghaffaruf, in his essay on Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Tursunzoda’s friendship, talks about their shared fascination and devotion to the 17th century mystic, Indo-Persian poet Mirza Abdul Qadir Bedil. Faiz composed poems about his friendship with Tursunzoda, in the style of Bedil.

In 1958, after the Afro-Asian Writer’s Conference in Tashkent, Faiz Ahmad Faiz and several other writers went on to visit Soviet Tajikistan, whose language he noted was closer to the subcontinent’s Persian than Iran’s. Faiz wrote about his interactions with Tursunzoda in Mah-o-Saal-e-Ashnai (The Months and Years of Friendship). Tursunzoda, in turn, got Faiz’s poems translated into Tajik and published in Dushanbe as Ruh-e-Azadi (The Spirit of Freedom).

Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Ali Sardar Jafri. Credit: Bpldxb, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

‘From the Ganga to the Kremlin’

While today, socialist realism with its stock propaganda images of workers, peasants and soldiers on a relentless march of progress towards a Communist utopia full of steel factories and irrigation dams may seem laughable, in Tursunzoda’s time it was considered avant garde.

The idea of India throwing off its colonial chains was one that he repeatedly returned to in his poetry. It was one element of an internationalism that was mirrored also in Indian writers of his time who were churning out revolutionary literature and writing about the struggles of Patrice Lumumba in Zaire, and Fidel Castro in Cuba.

Tursunzoda’s prolonged interaction and the friendships he developed in India shaped the trajectory of Tajik literature for decades. Ever the idealist, and loyal foot-soldier of Communism, even as late as the 1970s, he was still writing about India, and dreaming of revolution here.

In 1970, he published his poem Az Gang ta Kreml (From the Ganga to the Kremlin) about an Indian’s visit to Moscow to meet Vladimir Lenin. This was subsequently made into one of the first Tajik films, Subhe Gang (Dawn over the Ganga), and released in Russian as Voskhod nad Gangom in 1975.

Mirzo Tursunzoda on a Tajik bank note. Credit: National Bank of Tajikistan Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

It is easy to dismiss Tursunzoda as a transient phenomenon and a tool of Soviet propaganda. Certainly, a great deal of his writing reads like that. But Tursunzoda was also someone acquainted with the classical tradition in Persian, particularly that emerging from India.

Like many Tajiks, he greatly admired the poet Bedil. He popularised Indian love stories from Bedil’s works such as that of the Hindu musician, Madhav Nala, and the Muslim courtesan, Kama Kandala, which Tajik musician Ziyodullo Shahidi adapted as the Tajik opera Komde-Madan.

Tursunzoda’s reputation and art transcends his socialist realism and politics in Tajikistan even today. He is still worshiped in Tajikistan as a State Hero, a People’s Poet and appears on Tajik currency notes. Streets, villages and towns in that country are named after him.

It is in large part thanks to Tursunzoda’s Indian turn that many elements of Indian culture – Bollywood cinema (from actors Raj Kapoor to Mithun Chakraborty), Indian literature (from folk tales to writers like Bedil) and music – continue to be popular in Tajikistan.

It is India’s loss that we no longer remember the spell he once cast on an idealistic, newly independent nation.

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

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The Dancing Peacock: A series that charts the literary tradition and indigenous roots of Indo-Persian as well as its enduring legacy today