Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California

UC Berkeley

UC Berkeley Electronic Theses and Dissertations bannerUC Berkeley

Bâzgasht-i Adabî (Literary Return) and Persianate Literary Culture in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Iran, India, and Afghanistan


The idea that some poets in eighteenth and nineteenth century Iran revived Persian poetry by returning to the styles of the classical masters, while poets outside of Iran did not, has left a deep impression on how Persian literary history has come to be written. This idea, known as bâzgasht-i adabî (literary return), has left much historiographical debris in its wake: the conflation of the writing of Persian literary history with that of Iran's own; the assertion of a greater proprietary right by Iran over the great "masters"; and the erasure from history of many facets of Persian literary culture occurring outside of Iran's borders. As influential as this concept has been, its impact has not been challenged sufficiently. This is equally true for how the idea of bâzgasht-i adabî developed and shaped the writing of both Iranian and Persian literary history, as it is for understanding the activities of Iranian poets who sought a "return" to the masters. This dissertation addresses this gap by revisiting the concept of bâzgasht-i adabî and the larger realm of Persianate literary culture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Crucial to this endeavor is recognizing that bâzgasht-i adabî is an idea, movement, and category exclusively pertaining to Iran. Its inclusion within the narrative of Persian literary history signifies a special literary path for Iran, as distinct from other locales in the Persianate world. Those places, not subjected to a revival of the masters' styles, supposedly remained stagnant and therefore unimportant to the development of Persian literary culture. Thus bâzgasht-i adabî is an interjection in Persian literary history that at once revitalizes literature in Iran while effectively dismissing aspects of Persian literary history occurring outside of Iran. This omission is all the more glaring because the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were a vital and transformative period in the Persianate world, not just in Iran, but in other places as well.

This work addresses the immense historiographical impact of bâzgasht-i adabî, and also the historiographies of Persian literary culture in eighteenth and nineteenth century India and Afghanistan. Analyzing the historiographies of Iran, India, and Afghanistan together provides a more integrated approach to Persian literary trends, a necessary corrective in the context of an era of global change. A wide-angle comparative approach offers the benefits of situating bâzgasht-i adabî-- as a conceptual category and historical movement-- in a larger geographical and chronological framework. This approach enables a fuller understanding of the shifting literary-cultural landscape in the Persianate world during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Following a historiographical appraisal of Persian literary culture in Iran, India, and Afghanistan during these two centuries (Chapter One), this work focuses on three specific literary environments, one in each of these locales. Chapter Two examines the Isfahânî Circle of poets that sought to "return" Persian poetry to the styles of the masters and argues for a re-evaluation of their aims and aspirations. Chapter Three focuses on the Persian literary activity at the court of the last Nawâb of Arcot (a ruler of a Mughal successor state in South India) and highlights how local poetic debates remained connected to similar issues vexing the larger nineteenth century Persianate world. Chapter Four explores a series of jangnâmahs (battle-poems) of the first Anglo-Afghan War (1839-1842), composed in imitation of Firdawsî's Shâhnâmah, and demonstrates how the circulation of these texts created a robust "marketplace of the masters" stretching across Afghanistan and South Asia, in both oral and print forms. All four chapters are based on a wide range of original source material in Persian, especially poetry and works of the tazkirah (biographical anthology) genre.

Chapters Two through Four each convey their own stories and geographically bound social and literary histories. Often these topics appear best understood as firmly grounded in events of a local nature and more relevant to the writing of Iran, Indian, or Afghan literary history. At the same time, they document a larger Persianate environment best characterized as a shared engagement with the work, ideas, and personas of the "masters" of Persian poetry. The Isfahânî Circle of poets in Iran, the court of the last Nawâb of Arcot, and the Afghan jangnâmahs, are instances of how various individuals in different locales looked toward the poetry and prestige of the masters and engaged with them at a time when the Persianate world was breaking apart. Their occurrence demands a reappraisal of the exclusivity of the idea of bâzgasht-i adabî as applicable only to Iran. With an expanded definition of bâzgasht-i ababî, one that encompasses other engagements with the "masters" outside Iran, we are able to rethink the categories used in the writing of Persian literary history and to confront the need to write a more integrative account.

Main Content
For improved accessibility of PDF content, download the file to your device.
Current View