Untold lives blog

Sharing stories from the past, worldwide

24 October 2016

Tagore Meets an Old Friend in Iran

After ousting the young Ahmad Shah from the imperial throne in 1925, Reza Shah Pahlavi determined to once again assert Iran as a world power on the global stage. Gone were the Qajars, who had reduced Iran to a mere plaything in the hands of the English and the Russians; their reign had been replaced by a new order, which sought to modernise Iran, embolden a national identity, and salvage the nation from the ideas and institutions that had so entrammelled it for centuries.

In 1932, Reza Shah invited the Nobel Prize-winning Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore to Iran. Ties between Iran and India stretch back to time immemorial, a fact of which the Shah and the poet were well-aware. The Shah, on one hand, sought to promote and celebrate Iran’s Aryan (or, Indo-Iranian) identity, while Tagore saw Aryan kinsmen in the Iranians. ‘In me they saw a poet, and that too an Eastern poet, an Indo-Aryan poet like themselves’, he noted. Issues of ethnicity, however, constituted only a part of Tagore’s interest in Iran. The poet was familiar with Iranian history and literature, and was also curious about the Pahlavi dynasty.

On 11 April 1932, Tagore and his daughter-in-law Pratima Devi set out for Iran by air, and reached the port city of Bushehr on the 13th. Although Tagore would later visit the ruins of Persepolis and the Iranian capital, Shiraz (in which he arrived on the 16th) undoubtedly marked the raison d'être of his trip.


  Tagore with members of the Iranian Parliament in Tehran
Tagore with members of the Iranian Parliament in Tehran Wikimedia Commons


In Shiraz, Tagore visited the tombs of the revered Persian poets Sa’di and Hafez. Unlike Voltaire, who had been nicknamed ‘Sa’di’, Tagore – like Goethe before him –felt more of a kinship with Hafez (here is a Mughal-era commentary on his Divan).  Could this have been because of his upbringing? Tagore’s father was a known lover of Hafez. ‘I spent half the night reciting hymns and the verses of Hafez’, he remarked of his childhood evenings. This love was later passed down to his son: ‘… I had my first introduction to Hafez through my father, who used to recite his verses for me’, Tagore recalled in Esfahan. ‘They seemed to me like a greeting from a faraway poet who was yet near to me.’

Indeed, the bond between the two poets extended far beyond verse. At Hafez’s tomb, Tagore sat and read the bard’s poems alone with eyes closed. ‘I had the distinct feeling that after a lapse of many centuries, across the span of many births and deaths … another wayfarer … had found his bond with Hafez’, he afterwards wrote. Echoing the florid imagery of Hafez’s poetry, Tagore penned a eulogy of Iran before leaving for Calcutta in early June:

Iran, all the roses in thy garden
and all their lover birds
have acclaimed the birthday
of the poet of a far-away shore
and mingled their voices in a pair of rejoicing.

… And in return I bind this wreath of my verse
on thy forehead, and I cry: Victory to Iran!

Joobin Bekhrad
Founder and Editor of REORIENT, a publication about contemporary Middle Eastern arts and culture

Further reading:
Das, S.K., ed. The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore. Volume Three: a Miscellany. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1996.
Marashi, A. Nationalizing Iran: Culture, Power, and the State, 1870 – 1940. Washington, D.C.: University of Washington Press, 2008.
Mukhopadhyaya, P. & Roy, K. in Radhakrishnan, S., ed. Rabindranath Tagore: a Centenary Volume 1861 – 1961. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1961.


20 October 2016

Dame Anne McLaren: a noted career

To celebrate the broadcast of the Sky Arts series, Treasures of the British Library, we are publishing a number of articles in the coming weeks on people whose work features in the six-part programme. We begin today with Dame Anne McLaren whose notebook was one of the items chosen by Professor Lord Robert Winston.

Dame Anne McLaren (1927–2007) was a developmental biologist who pioneered techniques that led to human in vitro fertilisation (IVF).

Emma Wesley, ‘Dame Anne McLaren DBE, FRS, FRCOG’ (2010). Collection of the Royal Society, London. Copyright Emma Wesley

McLaren studied Zoology at Oxford and received a DPhil in 1952. In the same year she moved to UCL and began research with her husband Donald Michie into the skeletal development of mice. In 1955 she and Michie moved to the Royal Veterinary College and it was in 1958, while working with John Biggers, that McLaren produced the first litter of mice grown from embryos that had been developed outside the uterus and then transferred to a surrogate mother. This work paved the way for the development of IVF technologies and the birth of the first IVF baby Louise Brown some 20 years later.

McLaren 1
Detail from McLaren’s laboratory notebook dated 1955-1959 recording her experiments concerning embryo transplants in mice. (Add MS 83844). Copyright the estate of Anne McLaren.

McLaren 3
 Detail from Mclaren’s laboratory notebook dated 1968-1976. (Add MS 83854). Copyright the estate of Anne McLaren.

In later years Anne’s career took her from Edinburgh to Cambridge via UCL where she continued her work into fertility and reproduction. As well as undertaking research she was a keen advocate of scientists explaining their work to the population at large and being involved in the formation of public policy. McLaren was a member of the Warnock committee whose advice led to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act of 1990 as well as the establishment of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, which regulated in vitro fertilization and the use of human embryos, on which she served for over 10 years.

McLaren 2

Selection of lectures dating from 1977-78 including a ‘Lecture to girl’s school near York’ (Add MS 83835). Copyright the estate of Anne McLaren.

The Anne McLaren papers at the British Library consist of letters, notes, notebooks and offprints. These are currently available to readers through the British Library Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue at Add MS 83830-83981.

Additionally one of Anne McLaren’s notebooks containing material from 1953 to 1956 (Add MS 83843) is on long-term display in the British Library’s Treasures Gallery.

Anne McLaren’s scientific publications and books are available to readers via the British Library Explore catalogue.

Jonathan Pledge
Curator, Contemporary Archives and Manuscripts


18 October 2016

Pageantry and Parade in Persia

In February 1809, the Napoleonic Wars were raging in Europe. The Ottoman Empire and Britain had just concluded the Treaty of the Dardanelles, while in Spain a British army was forced from the shores of Northern Spain at the Battle of Coruna. Meanwhile, the French, British and Russians were also fighting for influence and control in the Persian Empire. The Russians and Persians fought a bitter war for control of the Caucasus, the French sought to threaten India with a Franco-Persian alliance, and Britain looked to prevent both while also drawing away attention and resources from Europe.

In order to do this, a letter was prepared by the British from George III to the Shah of Persia, Fath Ali Shah Qajar. This letter was delivered by the representative of the East India Company and British government  in Persia, Sir Harford Jones. Being an old hand in Persia, Jones appreciated that it wasn’t just the letter that was important, but also how it was presented. A record of the procession organised by Harford Jones is written in the East India Company’s records. It gives an impression of the importance that such pageantry held in the workings of diplomacy in Persia and elsewhere at this time.

“The Procession to the Palace began in the following manner: Officers belonging to the King of Persia. Led horses belonging to the Envoy [Harford Jones]. Native officer of Cavalry, sword drawn. Trumpeter. The Letter with HM Letter and Present. Guard of Native Cavalry, swords drawn. Persian Officers of the Envoy’s Household mismounted. The Envoy. Secretary and Gentlemen belonging to the mission. Guard of Native Cavalry…”


  Fath Ali Shah K90059-69

Add.Or.1241 The court of Fath Ali Shah with foreign ambassadors - from a reduced copy of the Nigaristan Palace mural. Images Online


It’s not always what you say, but the way you say it. The embassy of Harford Jones was not just impressive in terms of its personnel either, as it carried with it an array of expensive gifts from India and London. The procession was calculated to look impressive, being a display of wealth and military strength to assuage any doubts as to Britain’s ability to defend herself or her Empire in India. The situation in Persia was complicated by constant shifts in the interests of each power in Europe, with both the French and British wishing to bring Russia onto their side while knowing that any agreement with Russia would abrogate the chances of a treaty with Persia. Displays of power and prowess were therefore seen as a necessary ingredient in diplomacy with Persia.

Peter Good
PhD student University of Essex/British Library

Further reading: