A Master Poet, "in Spite of Being a Turk": Shani Takallu and Literary Culture under Shah 'Abbas

By Paul E. Losensky
Submitted to Session P5009 (Politics, Culture, and Everyday Life in Safavid Poetry and Prose, 2017 Annual Meeting
13th-18th Centuries; Iranian Studies; Persian;
After two centuries of critical neglect and disparagement, Persian poetry of the early modern period has enjoyed increasing scholarly attention over the last few decades. This revival has focused largely on the work of poets and writers who emigrated from Iran to Mughal India and has left intact the historiographical truism that Safavid rulers had scant interest in poetry and devoted their cultural resources solely to the propagation of Shi’ite doctrine, driving poets to distant lands. But even at the height of the great Indian migration between 1580 and 1625, not all the poets went to India, and biographical compendiums and the literary record both attest that Safavid Iran was home to a dynamic literary culture. Sh?h ‘Abb?s in particular took an active personal interest in poetry and often conversed directly and knowledgeably with the poets of his realm. As a step toward offering a fuller account of literary life under the Safavids, this paper examines one of the most prominent and well-rewarded poets of ‘Abbas’s court, Sh?ni Takallu (d. 1023/1614). As his name indicates, he was a member of one of the Qizilbash tribes that provided military support to the dynasty, but were seldom known for their cultural accomplishments. Contemporary accounts of Sh?ni’s life show how ethnic identity could play out in the contentious literary rivalries that swirled around Isfahan at the turn of the sixteenth century. But the main focus here is on Sh?ni’s poetry, recently made available in a published critical edition. In Sh?ni’s div?n, poems of devotion to the Shi’ite imams stand side by side with odes in praise Shah ‘Abb?s and other prominent Safavid officials. Devotional poetry, far from displacing the praise of temporal rulers, is integrated into the long tradition of panegyric, throwing into doubt the secularist assumption that interest in religious ideology is incompatible with other forms of cultural expression. Sh?ni’s large corpus of lyrical ghazals further suggests that even as he wrote for the court, he was also active in the broader social practice of poetry, where the idiom of the amorous ghazal was the common language for negotiating various social relations. Sh?ni’s life and works show the many literary venues in which poetry circulated in Safavid Iran throughout the sixteenth and seventeen centuries.