During this period of political allegiance with the USA, which brought with it a westernisation of Iranian culture, the young Shajarian was part of an intellectual movement devoted to a "return to the cultural self". He championed traditional music on Iranian radio and television, firmly convinced of its value for the formation of character and intellect. He wanted to provide a deliberate counterpoint to Iranian imitations of western pop music.
The border principle
Shajarian was an enthusiastic and knowledgeable consumer of European, Indian and East Asian classical music. He also took a degree of pleasure in jazz. But when it came to making his own music, he followed the principle of the border, of cultural independence. He quickly abandoned experiments with piano and violins. He regarded the possibility of aesthetic enrichment through mixing musical styles and techniques as nonsense. For him, it represented more of a danger of dilution and impoverishment. He would have seen the term "world music" as an insult. His frame of reference remained the Persian scale as long as he lived.
Shajarian suffered from the advance of bad taste during the Shah’s reign, and then also from the ideologically-motivated harassment of musicians following the Islamic Revolution. Under Khomeini, any public concerts that didn’t glorify the regime and the war were prohibited. After Khomeini’s death, Shajarian was permitted to perform in Iran from time to time.
There is no forgetting one sarcastic piece in a newspaper following a 2004 "benefit concert" in Tehran for the victims of a major earthquake in the south-east of the country. "Thousands of people have to lose their lives in an earthquake before there is a decent pretext for music lovers to get to enjoy a Shajarian concert," a critical journalist wrote.
Numerous friendships linked him to critical cineastes, visual artists and writers. He himself held back from overtly expressing any political opinions. He deviated from this principle in 2009, when in several interviews he condemned the brutality with which the anti-government protests had been suppressed.
He dissociated himself from the regime by banning the state radio stations from playing his music for some time. He was spared personal attacks such as arrests and interrogations. Mullahs and Revolutionary Guards never dared lay a hand on him.
As long as he lived, the rulers of his country eyed Shajarian with mistrust, as a potential threat to their authority. Following his death, they will try to co-opt him. This is an established pattern. The secret service tortured the writer Houshang Golshiri in prison for years – and when he died, "cultural policy makers" came knocking at his wife’s door to invite her to contribute to appreciative documentaries about him and his work.
But the artistic legacy that Mohammad Reza Shajarian leaves behind will be far more significant than any political intrigues. He will serve as an aesthetic role model to generations. Young singers emulate him, among them his son, Homayoun, orienting themselves by his style and technique. Long before musical works of art could be mechanically reproduced, Goethe said:
Know this: that poets’ words will rise
To the gates of paradise
Will softly knock, float, make their plea,
Asking to live eternally.
It is as if he had guessed that the poets’ words stand a better chance when they are set to music by a true master.
© Qantara.de 2020
Translated from the German by Ruth Martin
The author is a television journalist for the ARD magazine programme Panorama. He studied Arabic literature and language at Tel Aviv University.