Mohammad Reza Shajarian: When the clocks stopped in Iran

Mohammad Reza Shajarian, the ‘prince of Persian music’, passed away on October 8, leaving Iranians in and outside their homeland in mourning.

A fan displays an image of the famous singer Mohammad Reza Shajarian on his phone, outside the Jam Hospital where Shajarian died at the age of 80, in Tehran Iran, October 8, 2020 [AP Photo/Vahid Salemi]

“Khosrow-e avaz-e Iran par keshid!” “The prince of Persian music flew to heavens!”

Iran is in mourning. Mohammad Reza Shajarian has passed away. Who was he? What was his significance for Iranians?

How can I convey the depth of the pain of his loss to non-Iranians?

Think of Um Kalthum for Egyptians and the larger Arab world, think of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan for Pakistan and the Indian subcontinent, think of Mercedes Sosa for Argentina and the Latin American world. Think of Edith Piaf, Charles Aznavour, Luciano Pavarotti, think of Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone, think of Demis Roussos, Nana Mouskouri, think of Mariem Hassan in Western Sahara and Mauritania. Now add to them anyone in their company you love and admire but I have missed and bring them all together in your imagination.

For Iranians around the world, Mohammad Reza Shajarian was, as WH Auden would say, “their North, their South, their East and West, their working week and their Sunday rest, their noon, their midnight, their talk, their song.” And when he finally breathed his last sigh in a homeland he joyously loved, they turned to,

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

The voice of a nation

Mohammad Reza Shajarian, who died in Tehran on October 8 at the age of 80, became a legend in his own lifetime. He joined eternity knowing full well he was the joy and pride of his people.

When, in May 2014, Shajarian’s longtime friend and collaborator, virtuoso instrumentalist Mohammad Reza Lutfi, passed away, I detailed on these pages the manner in which they had opened up the closed doors of Persian classical music to the public at large. With the passing of Shajarian, that very global public they had crafted sat in mourning for the loss of their nightingale.

“Khosrow-e Avaz-e Iran Par Keshid!” The headlines wept the second the news of his passing hit the airwaves and social media. Iranians in and out of their homeland paused for a moment to catch their breath, realising they were a witness to history. In his music, Shajarian had connected the Constitutional revolution of 1906-1911 to the Iranian Revolution of 1977-1979, and from there to every major and minor twist of their contemporary history, and from there to eternity.

Almost instantly, mourners gathered in front of Jam Hospital where Shajarian had passed away. Someone in the crowd live-streamed it for the whole world to see. Soon, Homayoun Shajarian, his oldest son and a gifted singer in his own right, came out to plead with them to observe the public health mandates of social distancing and masking because of the coronavirus pandemic and also to tell them the body of his father would be flown to Mashhad, his birthplace in northeastern Iran, to be buried on the hallowed ground of legendary Persian poet Ferdowsi’s mausoleum. “Why not Tehran?” someone asked from the crowd.

On the surface, this was a rude thing to say to a mourning son. Obviously, it was for the family to decide where he would be buried. But that anonymous voice spoke for every Iranian around the globe to whom this is a personal as well as a public and historic loss. The man was not asking for Shajarian to not be buried in his hometown. He was asking for him to be buried in his heart.

Acknowledging this, the grief-stricken son said: “Shoma saheb aza’id” (You are the host of this mourning), and he graciously gave the symbolic body of his father to the people he loved.

Not since the passing of Abbas Kiarostami in July 2016, and before him, the passing of Ahmad Shamlou in July 2000, was such an outpouring of grief for a cultural icon so publicly on display in Iran.

For a passing moment, Shajarian in his death had re-crafted Iranians, left and right, high and low, ruling and ruled, into a nation. People from President Hassan Rouhani to former Queen Farah sent their heartfelt condolences.

But why? What had Shajarian done, what was the meaning of his name?

The sound and fury of our history

Mohammad Reza Shajarian was born on September 23, 1940, in Mashhad, Iran, to a devout Muslim family – a family that prided itself on having a number of master reciters of the Quran in it.

He turned to music at a very young age in a deeply devout environment where the human voice was sacred, a divine gift of grace, a sign of the sublimity of our origins. As his pious father did not want him to pursue a career in music, he trained in secret and assumed the pseudonym “Seyavash” – a legendary Persian prince who also had a troubled relationship with his father.

By the time he was 12, Shajarian had mastered the Persian classical repertoire, the revered and tyrannical Radif. By the late 1950s, he was singing at Radio Khorasan, and by the early 1960s, his name, his voice, his astonishing command of Persian music and his distinct and awe-inspiring vocal range had already become integral to the lives of Iranians.

Today, every Iranian can name a landmark song or record by Shajarian that for them holds the memory of a time and place they long for. For me, it is the recording in which he sang the poems of Omar Khayyam to the glorious music of Fereydun Shahbazian and recitations of Ahmad Shamlou.

That cassette, which I still have, was in my little suitcase when I left Iran for the US in 1976 as a wide-eyed college graduate. It was the very definition of home for me. I never missed Iran because I had smuggled the quintessence of my homeland in that cassette through all the borders I have crossed.

I subsequently met Shajarian in person on multiple public and private occasions, including a dinner party at a family friend’s house in London when he sang to the tar of a gifted young musician for us.

A rooted tree flowering with confidence

Much is being said today about Shajarian’s “politics”, most of it specially choreographed by the disgraceful BBC Persian, which has become the mirror image of the Seda and Sima, the official propaganda machinery of the Islamic Republic.

In every piece of news or talk show they have featured, their only and paramount concern is to denounce the ruling Islamic Republic for having mistreated Shajarian, or he having denounced their tyranny.  These are prosaic truisms that completely conceal the far more important loss of a towering figure a whole nation is now morning.  The passing of Shajarian has nothing to do with the ruling state.  Who knows or cares to remember who was the governor of Shiraz when Hafez was alive, or ruled over Anatolia when Rumi was in Konya, or over Delhi when Bidel was alive.

Iconic figures like Shajarian have transcended history. This is a gross abuse of Shajarian’s precious memory. Shajarian was not political in the ordinary sense of the term. He and his music were the quintessence of love. There was not a shred of hatred in his character. He was always with his people, and this was his “politics”.

From the Iranian revolution of 1977-1979 to the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988, through the painful days of the Green Movement, and then now when they are under the pernicious US economic sanctions. He stayed with them from the time he sang to them: “Give me my gun,” to the moment when he corrected himself and sang: “Put down your gun.”

The origin of Shajarian’s “politics” was in the poetics of his music. He was a master classicist and yet a daring and imaginative artist who took on the Radif and mastered it to overcome it. He was confident enough of his own mastery to dare the elements and cautiously but steadily pave the way for the next generation to make it their own. His efforts have resulted in the iconoclastic music of Mohsen Namjoo – a revolutionary singer influenced as much by blues and rock as Persian classicists.

It does not matter whether Shajarian did or did not approve of Namjoo – what matters is that he created a musical tradition that remains solid in its roots but enables the flowering of a treasure trove that has enriched the aesthetic imagination of an entire people.

No classicist of his generation would ever come anywhere near a poem by Nima Yushij, the iconic master of modernist poetry. When Shajarian sang Nima’s “Darvak”, we shivered with fear and ecstasy that he knew the inner musings of our souls so well. To this day, I feel uncontrollable joy remembering Shajarian’s voice sing “Qased-e ruzan abri darvak key mirasad baran?” (Oh messenger of cloudy days when will the rain come?)

If you are to listen to just one of his songs let it be him singing this glorious poem by Ali Muallem about rain to the iconic music of Master Keyhan Kalhor. It begins with simple modulations: “Rain oh clouds of spring, rain, rain on mountains and plains, rain …” until in the middle of the song where he sings with the whole pain of the history of his people in his voice: “Rain on the memories of the lovers of this land, lovers with no graves …”

Rest in peace and power, master: “Khosrow-e avaz-e Iran!”

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.