The Sacred Lute: The Art of Ostad Elahi
August 5, 2014–January 11, 2015


Exhibition Location: The Hagop Kevorkian Fund Special Exhibitions Gallery 458

Ostad Elahi (1895–1974) was a renowned Persian musician, thinker, and jurist whose transformative work in the art of tanbūr—an ancient, long-necked lute—paralleled his innovative approach to the quest for truth and self-knowledge. The Sacred Lute: The Art of Ostad Elahi documents the interdependent, mutually transformative relationship between player and instrument through a presentation of nearly 40 rare instruments and works of art from the Elahi collection, the Musée de la Musique, Paris, and the Metropolitan Museum. The exhibition includes rare tanbūr that belonged to Ostad Elahi and his father, who was also a great tanbūr player; a number of Elahi’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.  

The exhibition is made possible in part by the Nour Foundation.  It is presented under the patronage of UNESCO.

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 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 tanbūr became 
a sacred, venerated instrument used by dervishes in the mystical order 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 ecstatic dance.  

Nour Ali Elahi, later known as Ostad (master) Elahi, was raised in western Iran and learned tanbūr from his father, Hadj Nematollah, a charismatic mystic and poet who attracted tanbūr players from as far as Turkey and India. As a young child, because his hands were so small, Ostad played a tanbūr 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 tanbūr by the age of nine. 

The exhibition is organized by Ken Moore, Frederick P. Rose Curator in Charge in the Department of Musical Instruments at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In conjunction with the exhibition, the Museum offers a variety of programs, including a tanbūr workshop and an interactive panel discussion both on November 15, and a Sunday at the Met program on November 16. 

The exhibition is featured on the Museum’s website at www.metmuseum.org.

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October 28, 2014

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