Persian Poetry, Music & Fables in Australia – Paradise Found

Pooya, Samira, Toofan, Sepehr, Mehdi, Tina and Timothy, The Mehr Ensemble

In Australia with the expansion of multiculturalism, particularly over the last thirty years, the intoxicating music of other cultures is now being woven into the fabric of our lives. Whether played on authentic instruments or as a mix of east and west, music that reflects on the richness of all our cultures and their development, is seductive in anyone’s language.

There are now a number of groups offering the evocative classical music of Persia and the Middle East. They are growing both nationally and internationally. Like all music disciplines, Persian classical music has its purists, as well as those interested in expanding its original range, depth and style.

When you illustrate such glorious music with poetry readings, or some of the fascinating stories and fables inherent in far eastern culture, then you can really begin to imagine a paradise on earth. In America at the Smithsonian’s Museums of Asian Art, the Freer and Sackler galleries have one of the finest collections of Islamic art in the United States, with particular strengths in ceramics and illustrated manuscripts. They often hold classical music events as an important aspect of their commitment to expanding knowledge.

Here at Melbourne, Australia the Mehr Persian Music ensemble performs ornate original compositions, honouring authentic Persian musical traditions and poetry, while drawing inspiration from the regional music of Iran and neighbouring regions such as Kurdistan and Azerbaijan. Led by composer Pooya Mehman Pazir, the group features several of Australia’s most respected Persian musicians. It has toured throughout Australia and overseas and collaborates with numerous local and international musicians.

This image of a setar player appears in a painting that was created around 1600 in present-day Uzbekistan. The musician performs for a companion who is drinking a cup of wine. Detail, album folio, A Seated Princess (Right-Hand Half of a Double-Page Composition), painting attributed to Muhammad-Sharif Musawwir, borders signed by Muhammad Murad Samarqandi; ca. 1600; opaque watercolor and gold on paper; origin: possibly Bukhara, Uzbekistan. Purchase--Smithsonian Unrestricted Trust Funds, Smithsonian Collections Acquisition Program, and Dr. Arthur M. Sackler Smithsonian Museum of Asian Art

The ancient Persian lute known as a Setar, was mentioned in Persian poetry. Its hauntingly beautiful sounds, much like that of the Ney (an end blown flute), the Oud (a pear shaped stringed instrument), or the robuts sounds of the Dohol a large cylindrical drum with two skin heads and the Kamanche, yet another Persian bowed stringed sweet instrument, all enliven and encourage our wish to experience the ongoing richness of Persian musical traditions. They resonate and linger long in the memory, offering a promise of us perhaps enjoy further adventures in life.

During the era of the Persian Empire (550-330 BCE) and until the seventh century after the Christ event, Persian music and musicians enjoyed exalted status at court, playing often in sumptuous palaces. In Persian society traditions of music were learned by ear or rote, as specialised notation had not yet arrived.

For centuries music was performed as an accompaniment to Persian poetry, which was all about loss, beauty, nature and love.

Music was interpretative, the musician being all at once, the composer, the performer and the creator

This sixteenth-century painting from Iran depicts an allegorical court scene with musicians playing the setar and doira, or frame drum. The image is part of a mystical treatise known as the "Effulgences radiant splendors of Light." Detail, Lawa'ih (Effulgences of Light), Mir 'Ali, d. 1556; Nawwab Durmish Khan, Safavid period (ca. 1521-1525); opaque watercolor, ink, and gold on paper (origin: possibly Herat, Iran). Purchase, Smithsonian Unrestricted Trust Funds, Smithsonian Collections Acquisition Program, and Dr. Arthur M. Sackler courtesy Smithsonian Museum of Asian Art"

In Persian culture poetry was far more than art. It provided a way of accessing life, whether it is terrestrial or celestial.

Holy scripture, music, feasting, festivities and especially gardens containing roses, were all integral to life. When refined and purged of self, love was considered both holy and divine.

If I speak of love constantly until resurrection, the blissful
Qualities of love shall not come to an end;
And no matter how eloquently I express the virtues of love,
When I gaze at the fair face of love,
I am ashamed of whatever I have said

At the Queensland Music Festival in July 2013 the mystical music of the Pezhvak Traditional Music Ensemble will be featured. In a concert entitled 1001 nights they seek to take the listener on a journey into the mysteries of the celestial heavens via the Ney, the Oud, Dohol and Kamanche, which will summon sumptuous images of the stars over sand enriched by the well-known tales of Aladdin, Ali Baba, Sinbad and more.

Hezar Ava Ensemble, Brisbane Australia

Also in Queensland the Hezar Ava Persian Ensemble, founded in 2010, blend music and the wonder and beauty of Persian poetry.

Persian traditional pianist and vocalist, Pegah Varamini leads their presentation of stunning classic Persian masterpieces from some of the most renowned Persian composers as they introduce classical and traditional music to a wider Australian community.

Their eight Persian and non-Persian professional musicians play a mixture of east and western instruments.

Children of the west have grown up listening to fascinating stories from the mystic and very Far East for over two hundred years now.

They were recorded in fables and tales that trace their roots back to ancient and medieval sources, originally gleaned from Persian, Arabic, Indian, Egyptian and Mesopotamian folklore and literature.

Many were originally folk stories, considered by many scholars to have been more than likely relayed down through the ages.

This happened from at least the time of the Sassanian kings in Persia, who reigned from the second to the seventh century

According to legend, the fifth-century king Bahram Gur had seven castles, each painted a different color and housing a different royal mistress. In some Persian paintings, each castle is also provided a different music ensemble for the king and his princess to enjoy. This sixteenth-century painting depicts his turquoise-blue pavilion with a duo of musicians on setar and doira. Detail, Folio from a Khamsa (Quintet) by Nizami; recto: Bahram Gur in the turquoise-blue pavilion; verso: text; Murshid al-Shirazi; Safavid period, 1548; ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper; origin: Shiraz, Fars, Iran. Gift of Charles Lang Freer. courtesy Smithsonian Museum of Asian Art

Civilisation arose in many different ways in our world’s diverse cultures and their history is dominated by the rise and falls of great empires, intersperse with invasions and periods of anarchy.

However, as is the case in the histories of early civilisations when one city or kingdom was seen to flourish and perceived successful, along would come one warlord, or another, to conquer or destroy it.

It was Persia’s King Cyrus II (600 or 576-530 BCE) who left a great and very impressive legacy of cultural riches.

He is also renowned for putting in place the first ‘bill of human rights’, which is recorded on the ‘Cyrus Cylinder’ on show in America in 2013 at a number of locations, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Remains of a Mosaic Floor featuring Alexander and King Darius III last king of the Achaemenid Empire of Persia from 336 BC to 330 BC.

When the legendary Macedonian prince Alexander the Great (356 – 323 BCE) conquered Persia in 331 BC he traveled throughout the land and, unlike others before him, although certainly like many after him, he found a great deal to admire about Persian culture.

When he visited the ancient King Cyrus II’s tomb to offer respect, he found it set in a glorious garden.

Alexander at the Tomb of Cyrus the Great by Pierre Henri de Valenciennes

Six centuries before the Christ event the Persians under King Cyrus had a unified garden design with long watercourses interspersed with basins and pools.

Bagh-e-Fin Garden, Kashan Iran, a historical Persian garden created by Shah Abbas 1

In his age not only was making a garden an act of faith, but also a way of suppressing the age old oriental fear and antipathy to nature’s hostility in a place where a dry trackless desert, stinging winds, relentless sun, and most of all, the pervasive uncertainty of finding water, were daily concerns.

Islam became the national religion of Persia during the 7th century and for a long time music lost social approval, except for weddings and private gatherings.

During the so-called ‘Islamic Golden Age’ from the mid 8th century until the mid 13th century, beautiful love poems and stories were recorded and illustrated in manuscripts, miniature painting, illuminations and calligraphy.

This happened during a period when this ancient society was leading what we would regard as ‘cosmopolitan lives’.

The creativity of the people of Islam had no peer in the European medieval world, which during the Middle Ages was a frontier society fragmented, fearful and rudely fortified against itself

The publication of the ‘Arabian Nights’ or One Thousand and One Nights during the 18th century in the west, first by Antoine Galland, presented exotic tales most of which were gleaned from ancient Persian culture. They were instantly successful, exotic and appealing. Over the centuries since the stories have inspired western authors.

A great aspect of their appeal is attached to the beauty of Persian poetry, which since the Middle Ages in Europe attracted many scholars and admirers.

For both Christians and Muslims water is above all a symbol of moral and sacred purification. Similarly, there is hardly a religion in the world that does not use water to evoke life, creation, purity and rebirth.

It’s a symbol that ultimately links all cultures together.

In Islam the whole of nature becomes a symbol with each flower admired, not so much for its individual beauty, but because it is a reminder of the spirit of God.

The Persians considered the rose the most beautiful of flowers and for century’s writers poets and artists sang its praises. The Phoenician saint, who established Christianity in Persia carried the Holy Rose or Rosa sancta, as it became known, to Abyssinia where it is still found in churchyards today.

Traders along the old caravan routes carried it to Kashmir, Afghanistan and India. In 1187 the Muslim Sultan Saladin used 500 camel loads of rose water from Damask Roses to purify the Temple of Omar, which had been used as a Christian Church.

The Rose has special significance.

By tradition for Muslims it was created from a drop of perspiration that formed on the prophet Muhammad’s brow during his heavenly journey.

When the rose is faded,
Memory may still dwell on
Her beauty shadowed,
And the sweet smell gone.

That vanishing loveliness,
That burdening breath,
No bond of life hath then,
Nor grief of death.
‘Tis the immortal thought
Whose passion still
Makes the changing
The unchangeable.

Oh, thus thy beauty,
Loveliest on earth to me,
Dark with no sorrow, shine
And burns, with thee

Hezar Ava Ensemble, Brisbane Australia

The growing appreciation for a whole new world of global arts and culture has grown up gradually during the 20th century.

What it now means is that in the 21st century, the co-relationship between art and nature, music and gardens and eastern and western society has heralded the arrival of a new ‘creative age’. Today Persian music is being seriously notated so those learning can be encouraged to improvise with its many and varied sequences and the complexity of its structure.

Technology is also helping to spread knowledge so that we can all soak up new sounds and consider new ways of thinking.

Persian music and poetry shared can animate the heart, mind and soul of the artist who is giving, and the person receiving, so that they both respond to its beauty.

In learning about and acknowledging other cultures and the value of their various art forms, we gain respect for social and creative innovation. If we are inclusive and show respect and regard for each other and each other’s stories it can only help us create, co-operate and collaborate with each other far more effectively.

Music is a medium of art that brings us all together. Traditional eastern and western forms of music are helping to transform ancient concepts into a whole new creative Australia, one we can enjoy together.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2013

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