Festival of Arts, Shiraz-Persepolis1
OR You better believe in as many as six impossible things before breakfast
By Mahasti Afshar
The Shiraz-Persepolis Festival of Arts was an international festival held in Iran every summer for eleven years, 1967-1977. Jashn-e Honar-e Shiraz as it was popularly known in Persian was an inspired and feverish exploration, experimentation and creative conversation between Iran and the outside world that unfolded primarily through music, drama, dance and film. The programs started at 10 a.m. every day and ended at 1 or 2 a.m. the next, staggered across ancient, medieval and modern venues, some natural, some formal, others makeshift, in Shiraz, or forty miles northeast at the Achaemenid ruins of Persepolis and Naqsh-e Rostam. True to its mission, the festival’s ecosystem cut across time and other boundaries, refreshing the traditional, celebrating the classical, nurturing the experimental, and stimulating a dialogue across generations, cultures, and languages, East and West, North and South.
Shiraz, “without doubt the most important performing arts event in the world . . .,”3 as where most Iranians first encountered the traditional arts of Asia, the Far East, Africa and Latin America— Indian raga music, Bharatanatyam and Kathakali, Qawwali, the music of Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Korea and Vietnam, Balinese Gamelan, Japanese Noh, the drums of Rwanda, traditional dances of Bhutan, Senegal, Uganda , and Brazil . . . The experience was eye-opening, expansive, magical, and transformative.
Shiraz is also where Iranians came to ‘rediscover’ their own traditional music on a different platform. Presented by master musicians on an international stage before large publics for the first time, this exquisite art form acquired a fresh vitality and just recognition and gained new fans, especially among youth. Regional music from the four corners of the country was also presented at the festival, with the same result. And that is not all. It is at the Shiraz Festival that Iranian audiences witnessed the revival of Persian storytelling and dramatic traditions, naqqali, ta’ziyeh/shabih-khani and ruhowzi, celebrated a new generation of Iranian filmmakers and cinema legends from East and West, and watched the spectacular birth of new Iranian theatre—playwrights, directors, set designers and actors fearlessly writing and staging innovative plays in Persian that for the first time resonated globally. Five groundbreaking works by Iranian dramatists were invited to festivals in the West, including Arby Ovanessian’s staging of Abbas Nalbandian’s equally original début work, Pazhouheshi . . . (1968)4 that virtually transfigured and modernized Iranian theatre, and Esma’il Khalaj’s Shabat (1976).5
The feature that set the Shiraz Arts Festival apart from its peers internationally was the variety of unique works by pioneers of New Music and avant-garde theater and dance that it commissioned and premiered, works that embodied a transcendent blend of East and West and were shaped by the landscape for which they were created. These were, in music, Iannis Xenakis’s Persephassa and Persepolis (1969 and ’71, respectively), and Bruno Maderna’s Ausstrahlung, a spiritual journey through history that integrated recitations of Persian poetry (also in ’71); in theatre, Peter Brook’s Orghast, a “work in progress” (1970), involving actors of diverse nationalities, Iranians among them, and an invented idiom that included Avestan, Greek and Latin; and in 1972, Bob Wilson’s Ka Mountain . . . which ran non-stop for seven days and nights on a hill at Haft-tan, with American and Iranian actors and nonprofessional locals; and last but not least, in dance, Maurice Béjart’s Golestan (1973), named after the 13th century Sa’di Shirazi’s literary masterpiece and choreographed entirely on Iranian music.
Tens of thousands of admiring spectators experienced the festival each year on site. Millions had the opportunity to watch the recorded programs on national television throughout the year. The festival operated on a starting indie budget of $100K that grew to $700,000 in 1977, subsidized in part by the state but mostly by the National Iranian Radio and Television (NITV/NIRT),6 which offset its costs by airing the programs as part of its broadcast schedule. Ticket sales generated some revenue; most travel costs for foreign artists were taken up by governments that had bilateral treaties with Iran; and the artists, thrilled by the opportunity to explore and innovate in a singular environment, accepted minimum fees and no extra funds for commissioned or world premieres of their work.
To be sure, the festival’s fans, artists, and organizers represented a minority of the general population in Iran; the majority had little or no awareness of, interest in, or access to the likes of Balachander, Béjart, and Bijan Mofid. But that was precisely the point, to bring down the wall between the culturally privileged and underprivileged, to celebrate and share humanity’s artistic wealth as widely as possible for the benefit of larger publics, especially the younger generation. The vision was all the more meaningful given the state of the country as a whole. Many dream of making the world a better place; some dare act on their dreams. Others slumber in the luxury of stagnation. Jashn-e Honar never slept.