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. This exhibition documents 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. It includes rare tanbūrs that belonged to Ostad Elahi and his father, who was also a great tanbūr 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.
Long-necked, plucked stringed instruments have been used in central and western Asia since the third millennium b.c. They appeared first in Mesopotamia and later in Egypt, and in their long history have been used for both secular and sacred music from Egypt and Greece to central and western Asia and India. The tanbūr became a sacred, venerated instrument used by the Kurdish Ahl-e Haqq ("fervents of truth") order, founded in the late fourteenth 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 musicians 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.