The Sacred Lute: The Art of Ostad Elahi

Exhibition August 5, 2014

Ostad Elahi (1895–1974) was a renowned Persian musician, thinker, and jurist whose transformative work in the art of tanbur—an ancient, long-necked lute—paralleled his innovative approach to the quest for truth and self-knowledge. Beginning August 5 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the exhibition will document the interdependent, mutually transformative relationship between player and instrument through a presentation of nearly forty rare instruments and works of art from the Elahi collection, the Musée de la Musique, Paris, and the Metropolitan Museum. The exhibition will include rare tanburs that belonged to Ostad Elahi and his father, who was also a great tanbur player; a number of Ostad’s personal possessions, such as his judicial robes and a selection of manuscripts; as well as symbolic items that provide greater insights into his disciplined approach to life.

Small-bodied, long-necked plucked stringed instruments have been used in central and western Asia since the third millennium B.C. They appeared first in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, and in their long history have been used for both secular and sacred music in regions ranging from Egypt and Greece to central and western Asia and India. The tanbur became a sacred, venerated instrument used by dervishes in the mystical order of the Ahl-e Haqq (“Fervents of Truth”), founded in the late 14th century. The members of the order are primarily from western Iran and Iraq and use the instrument for contemplation, meditation, and sacred chants.

Nur Ali Elahi, later known as Ostad Elahi, was raised in western Iran and learned tanbur from his father, Hadj Nematollah, a charismatic mystic and poet who attracted tanbur players from as far as Turkey and India. As a young child, because his hands were so small, Ostad played a tanbur built from a wooden ladle, eventually graduating to the larger instrument. Under his father’s tutelage and influenced by the players who came to hear his father’s teaching, Ostad rapidly absorbed multiple musical styles and playing techniques, becoming a consummate master of the tanbur by the age of nine.

In celebration of the eponymous exhibition at the Met, the opening event will feature a series of stirring musical performances, including a rare appearance by tanbur grandmaster Chahrokh Elahi, as well as solo and duet pieces by renowned double bassist Renaud Garcia-Fons and master lutenist Claire Antonini, who will present a unique fusion of eastern and western melodies inspired by Ostad Elahi’s music.

Moderated by WNYC’s John Schaefer, a panel discussion examining the transformative music of Ostad Elahi will bring together Clive Bell, musician, composer, and writer for the music monthly The Wire; Jean During, an ethnomusicologist specializing in Central Asia and a leading authority on the tanbur; and Robert Simms, an ethnomusicologist and multi-instrumentalist specializing in Middle Eastern and West African traditions.

The evening will conclude with a special Rumi poetry recital by Leili Anvar, Prof. of Persian language and literature, highlighting the enduring and intimate relationship between music and mysticism. The recital will be accompanied by a blend of sacred and contemporary music.

The Nour Foundation and The Metropolitan Museum of Art are grateful to UNESCO for its patronage of this exhibition. The Foundation would also like to thank the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations and The Musical Olympus Foundation for their support.