In the 1950s, as newly independent India was attempting to find its place in the world, the Soviet Union proved to be among its most reliable allies. Moscow helped India build steel plants and dams, and supported India’s foreign policy objectives, backing New Delhi’s demand at the United Nations that Portugal leave Goa, for instance.
The relationship wasn’t one-sided. Indian cultural figures – notably Raj Kapoor – became icons in the Soviet Union. Among Kapoor’s friends in the Soviet Union was the prominent Azerbaijani tenor Rashid Behbudov, who showed his fondness for India by including the patriotic song Saare Jahan Se Achha in his repertoire.
Behbudov wasn’t popular only in the Soviet Union. Over his long career, which started in the mid-1930s, he performed across the world, leaving an impression on audiences in Argentina, Japan, Iran and Turkey, among other places. His travels gave him the opportunity to pick up tunes from several lands. In addition to singing in his native tongue of Azeri, he also performed songs in Russian, Persian, Turkish, Urdu and Bengali.
Behbudov visited India twice, in 1952 and 1953. It was on his first visit that he befriended Nargis and Raj Kapoor, whose 1951 film Awaara was a craze in the Soviet Union. (Kapoor would later return Behbudov’s visit.) The tenor became so famous by his second trip to India that when his train was passing through Hyderabad, a massive crowd halted it, gave him fruits and flowers – and then made him sing. Rashid later wrote a book about his trip, entitled In Far India
The tenor gave six concerts in Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai. He sang both Azeri and Hindi tunes at his concerts. His audiences always asked him to sing Saare Jahan Se Achha at the end of his shows, possibly because it tickled them to see a non-Indian agree with them.