Features of Reza Shah’s cultural politics

  December 04, 2021   Read time 3 min
Features of Reza Shah’s cultural politics
One of these issues is the question of agency in Iran’s cultural modernization during the 1920s and 1930s. The image of Reza Shah and his all-powerful state pushing the whole nation towards progress and modernity;

For instance, when we look at the shah’s personal interest in specific cultural reforms, his role as single engine of the comprehensive reform program appears questionable. He turns out to be not a wholeheartedly committed reformer, as his dedication varied from case to case: he ardently supported the excavations in Persepolis and personally urged the archaeologists for faster results.19 His involvement in the foundation of the University of Tehran, however, was actually limited to his participation in the opening ceremony, even if he certainly approved higher education in Iran.20 So, how authoritarian was Iran’s modernization during the early Pahlavi period and who actually implemented it?

There is a general agreement that a group of elite politicians including ‘Abdolhoseyn Teymurtash, ‘Ali Akbar Davar, and Mohammad ‘Ali Forughi were the initial driving force behind the comprehensive reform agenda. In the cultural arena, their importance manifested itself in their membership in or affiliation with the “Society for National Heritage” (Anjoman-e asar-e melli), a key institution in formulating the nation’s cultural memory until the mid 1930s. These men unquestionably played a crucial role in the country’s transformation towards a modern nation-state, but the circle of the architects of modern Iran was much larger, as this volume shows. An essential group among these modernizers was that of the intellectuals who did not necessarily hold high-ranking public offices. In addition to prominent figures like Malek al-Sho’ara Bahar and ‘Isa Sadiq, there were many personally committed individuals whose ideas and individual initiatives provided the creative sparks for later governmental programmes. However, in order to implement their concepts on a national scale and to achieve long-term effects these individuals were heavily dependent on state institutions, as the examples of Mir Mehdi Varzandeh or ‘Alinaqi Vaziri demonstrate.

Other members of the Iranian intelligentsia were not involved in state politics, but due to their artistic or literary productions had a great share in the cultural life of the 1920s and 1930s: this group includes Tehran’s young literati like Sadeq Hedayat and Bozorg ‘Alavi or popular playwrights like Reza Qolizadeh. Of course, we should not ignore the new bourgeois middle class as a decisive factor in the process of cultural modernization. The initial target group of governmental and non-governmental reforms, the members of this social stratum for the most part readily integrated innovative technical devices and new forms of entertainment into their daily life. And the wealthier ones among them commissioned pioneers of avant-garde architecture like Gabriel Guevrekian to design and construct their private homes, thus promoting the country’s visible change and contributing essentially to the popularization of modern culture.

What did “modern culture” in early Pahlavi Iran mean? The contributions to this volume emphasize the strong influence of Western ideas on Iranian reformers. In their conception of modernity, they heavily relied on concepts and ideologies that were prevailing at that time in Europe, like Varzandeh who was influenced by Social Darwinism and eugenics or Bahar who based his literary history Sabk-shenasi on Darwin’s theory of evolution. Western trends in literature, music, theatre, and architecture inspired a growing number of creative professionals inside Iran. And on the material level, the adoption of Western modernity manifested itself not only in official architecture or private residential houses, but also in new means of transportation and the spread of mass consumer goods.

Principal agents of Western modernity were well-known foreign figures like Ernst Herzfeld, Arthur Upham Pope, or André Godard who assisted the Pahlavi state in shaping its cultural policy in the field of arts, archaeology, and museology.28 Less known, but likewise trendsetting, were foreign physical instructors, engineers, and physicians practising in Iran. The key role in this process, however, was played by Iranians, particularly by those who had spent some time abroad and brought new ideas and a distinct awareness of a modern way of life and material culture back home to Iran. Most chapters of this volume point out that a stay in Europe had a trigger effect on individuals to actively contribute to the modernization process.