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Looking Back At The Shiraz Arts Festival


By Cyrus Kadivar (1 September 2015)

Shiraz Arts Festival

There is something surreal about finding a piece of history in a room - specifically in a confined space on the first floor of London’s Whitechapel Gallery next to the reading room. The exhibition is entitled: A Utopian Stage: Festival of Arts Shiraz-Persepolis.

To start with, I am intrigued. There is a feeling of curiosity in the same way a wayward child may enter a forbidden attic, stumbling over items, old and worn memorabilia. An adult may ponder like an archaeologist over the significance of a few remains pointing at the existence of a civilisation long considered buried and forgotten.

In this case, the objects consist of wall-to-wall posters documenting the Shiraz International Art Festival that ran from 1967-1977 in the capital of Fars Province and the ancient ruins of Persepolis where Persian art and empire was born. There are also black-and-white photos, yellowing catalogues, fading newspaper and magazine clippings in Farsi and English covering specific performances.

One photo shows a white-haired man in black-tie playing the piano on the steps of the palace of Xerxes during an evening performance in honour of Farah Pahlavi, the Shahbanou or Empress of Iran, the founder and patron of the Shiraz Art Festival, and a hundred or more of her Iranian and foreign guests. The man in question is the long-gone, world-renowned Arthur Rubinstein, a Polish-Jewish American classical pianist.

It seems incredible today to imagine that Iran- a country just beginning to emerge from over three decades of revolution, war, political intrigue, pariah status and isolation, could have been the focus of what the organisers claim was ‘one of the most adventurous and idiosyncratic festivals in the world.’

Iran in the Sixties and Seventies was a different place than today. Not only did the country boast a system of monarchy that spanned 25 centuries it was politically autocratic and liberal; nationalistic and international; prosperous and impoverished; repressive and free; stable and unstable; traditional and modern. Compared to its neighbours in the Middle East, Iran during the progressive reign of its last king, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, appeared to encapsulate a paradox.

For the nascent Iranian middle-class that grew after the Shah’s White Revolution in the early 1960s when feudalism was ended, peasants given land, education made compulsory and women granted the vote, the chasm between modernity and tradition widened. No other person than Farah Pahlavi, the Shah’s wife, an elegant, cultured and French-educated former arts student, exemplified the need to find new ways to bring art to the elite and the masses.

Several years after inaugurating the festival in Shiraz, a city famed for its gardens, wine, and the medieval poets Hafez and Sa’di, Empress Farah, then 32 years old, spoke of her vision as she sat on the covered and ornate veranda of the 19th Century pavilion Bagh-e Eram (‘Garden of Paradise’) in my former hometown, overlooking a garden of roses, cypresses, and fountains.

‘Art lives if people love it,” she whispered to Naomi Barry, a Western reporter. “But they cannot love it if they do not experience it, so we must give them occasions to see it...’

And so it was that Shiraz became a mecca for Eastern and Western artists, ballet and dance groups, non-conformist performers, poets, filmmakers, and musicians who each year flocked in the late summer and early autumn for two weeks to bring art to the Iranian people. Some of the shows were held among the majestic and haunting ruins and various historical sites: a Zorastrian fire-temple, Persepolis and Naqsh-e Rostam, the tomb of Hafez and the Narengestan-e Qavam but also in town, the Vakil Bazaar, Pahlavi University concert halls but also in the purple-brown mountains and desert plains.

Nation-wide coverage by the state media under the auspices of the NIRT (National Iranian Radio &Television) run by its Managing Director Reza Ghotbi, a cousin of the Empress, made names such as Peter Brook, Iannis Xenakis, Yehudi Menuhin, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Cathy Berberian and many others household names. Music groups from exotic Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East danced and sang to their heart’s delight. Persian classical performers like Mohamad Shajarian and the female vocalist Parisa drew large crowds at the Hafezieh.

The catalogues and pictures of the celebrated faces, local and international, seem to speak volumes for an overlooked era. In another part of the dimly-lit room are three cube-shaped television monitors each providing rare colour footage of some of the performances: a crowd of startled Qashqa’i boys and girls express their shock and delight as semi-naked Africans dance in a circle; a bare-footed Indonesian woman in costume swirling against the bas-reliefs of Persian soldiers in Darius’s army; a group of traditional Iranian wrestlers flexing their muscles to the solo chant and drumming of one of their own.

Elsewhere there is a projection of a play set in a tent with mysterious figures: male and female in robes, moving like shadows among white, silk curtains. Throughout the time spent in this curious room the sound of a young boy and girl fills the air. The source is a clip on another monitor of the Iranian playwright Bijan Mofid’s allegorical satire, Shahr-e Qesseh (‘City of Stories’). For me, an Iranian who lived in Shiraz during the Shah’s era, this exhibit brings back memories of an ever-increasing distant world.

The current exhibition that ends in October 2015 is according to its sponsors and guest curator, Vali Mahlouji, a window to a piece of history, a sociological phenomenon unique in the Middle East and perhaps in the world. In a seminar held at London’s Asia House and hosted by the Iran Heritage Foundation (IHF) in May this year, Mahlouji spoke passionately of his extensive research for a book on the subject. His talk was accompanied by rare film excerpts of the often avant-garde festival; one that despite the controversy it provoked, sought to bridge the differences of the world by cultural dialogue among civilisations.

A Utopian Stage: Festival of Arts Shiraz-Persepolis
Exhibition at London’s Whitechapel Gallery

My viewing of the Whitechapel exhibition leaves me wondering if the few non-Iranian visitors who pass through the room really comprehend what is being revealed here. In most cases they linger for a few minutes, rolling their eyes and shrugging their shoulders in the same way a tourist may pass a couple of fallen stones from an ancient building. The sound of drums and the cacophony of the performances leaves them puzzled or simply indifferent.

Time can bury the past but sooner or later it resurfaces. Despite the success and criticism that the Shiraz Art Festival engendered during its tenure, it remains part of a vanished world. In 1977 a curious performance by an Hungarian theatre group caused a public uproar among the pious Shirazi population, vociferously condemned by religious leaders, and debated among the nation’s governing elite as another sign of imperial excess. Only six years earlier the Shah and Shahbanou had staged a magnificent pageant celebrating Iran’s fast-paced economic and social development and 2,500 years of monarchy at Persepolis. Many of the world’s leaders and their representatives attended.

By late 1978 the Shah’s plans to liberalise the political system was undermined by revolution. In a panic the government announced speedy reforms but also cancelled the Shiraz Art Festival. Large crowds took to the streets of the capital and major cities. The army and various governments faltered. Months later the Iranian monarch and his family left Iran into exile never to return. Within weeks, Ruhollah Khomeini, an exiled Iranian ayatollah opposed to the Shah, returned from Paris to Tehran and swept away the last pillars of the Pahlavi dynasty in February 1979. Music, drama, film and all vestiges of Western culture was targeted by the mullahs as they eliminated their secular rivals and established an Islamic republic.

We live in a world where violence and the destruction of culture and civilisation especially in the Middle East (notably Iraq and Syria) appear to threaten human values, communities and historical monuments. Today Iranians are re-assessing their past whether at home or among the three million in the Persian Diaspora.

Geopolitical changes means that some Westerners are once again excited about Iran and the prospect of business, tourism and cultural exchange. In some respects, the exhibition of an obscure footnote in Iran’s contemporary history may seem insignificant. In reality, looking back at the Shiraz festival is a reminder that the study of the past points to the present and the future. For art in whatever form is an expression of humanity, identity and consequently eternal.


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