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year 6, Issue 19 (5-2022)
Sasanian Silver Bowl at the National Museum of Iran, known as the “dancer-musicians scene”, has been one of the museum’s most archaeological works for the past sixty years. According to Ali Sami, this bowl was purchased in 1334 (1955); it is attributed to the north of Iran (Kelardasht of Mazandaran). The palm-shaped head of this bowl shows four dancer-musician-singers with four different well-known musical instruments as well as a figure of a pheasant in the center. In all previous scholarly works, as well as in the many exhibitions in which this bowl has been displayed, this work has been referred to as the motif of the “female dancers-musicians”. However, doubtful interpretations of musical instruments of the motif can be found in the same scholarly works. Obviously Iranian scholars to the internally held exhibitions have followed previously mentioned works. The author will first challenge the “femininity” of these four dancer-musician-singers and will testify the view that three of them are only masculine. Secondly, I will present a new proposal to the readers with a different interpretation of these Iranian music instruments. Also, the author considers this bowl to probably be a heritage from the Persian Gulf (southern, not northern Iran). Furthermore, I will also focus on the identity of these dancer-musicians in such a musical group scene as “Indian gypsies” or at least inspired by such a musical style. The author will also refer to two other lesser-known similar bowls of the Museum. Meanwhile, the author will present a new perspective on the date of this silver object which is based on its motif details and two more Silver Works at the National Museum of Iran. In this comparative study, I will draw a line between the three motifs (of the bowls, especially two of them) based on the two seasons of “winter and spring (or summer)”!
Keywords: Sasanian Silver Bowl, National Museum of Iran, Musician-dancers Scene, Kelardasht, India Gypsy, Persian Gulf.
Much has been said and written about the Persian Gulf. Since more than 500 years ago until now, about cultural landscapes, art, music, clothing, food styles to different harbors and etc. through foreign travelogues and Iranian documents can be attributed to colorful valuable data on the Persian Gulf. Archaeology has also testified a large tangible data about Iranian identity over the Persian Gulf. Pre-historic objects to the valuable inscription of Darius the Great obtained from the Suez Canal to other archeological finds from Bushehr, Siraf, Kharg, Qeshm, Hormoz, etc., are proof of this claim. Zoroastrianism legacy in Saudi Arabia and especially Yemen to recent Sasanian coins from the United Arab Emirates, Sasanian fortresses in Oman (cf. Potts, 2012: online)... can be proof of our historical ownership of the Persian Gulf.
Nevertheless, the article stresses on a review of a Sasanian magnificent artistic relic in the National Museum of Iran. This masterpiece frequently has been referred for at least the lasxty years. This significant object has been displayed in most of exhibitions from the inside to the abroad. This Sasanian heritage has been published in most of the catalogs of the National Museum of Iran and international exhibitions. This very beautiful Sasanian work, “silver bowl” known as the “scene of dancer-musicians” with registry number 1332, weight 575.7, diameter 22.55 cm, and height 7 cm, obtained from Kelardasht (?), Mazandaran.
ConclusionUndoubtedly, the Sasanian silver bowl at the National Museum of Iran can be studied from a new perspective. This view can challenge all previous scholarly works from two different aspects.
First, the musical instruments portrayed on this work can testify to its interrelationship with the shores of the Persian Gulf. For example, Castanet or Sinj is a typical instrument. There is a golden shipwreck’s photo (with eight musicians-singers), has some similarities with the silver bowls of the National Museum of Iran, on the website of Asian Civilizations Museum in Singapore.6 According to the website, the work has been discovered from a Persian Gulf bound ship drowned near Indonesia. However, the author has doubts about authenticity of this report!
Although there are few written archaic texts but these instruments have been valid from generation to generation in Iran as endorsed by sources in Sasanian, Post-Sasanian, oral history as well as archeological documents until they have reached our time.
Most Post-Sasanian sources have preserved valuable information about Arghanun, sorena, lute (barbat) and even chime.7 Although Zoroastrian texts do not help on such a topic but the story of Khusraw ī kawādān ud rēdak (Oryan, 2004: 58) mentioned some of the best musicians: “harp-players, lute-players, wan players,8 tambour players, and reed players.”
Chime (cf. Ibn Sina)9 is one of the oldest musical instruments in southern Iran. The Haft-Joush (seven parts) chime was also one of the most common of these musical instruments; the Indian type of which (made of bronze) had a special reputation in Bushehr (Darvishi, 2004: 540,32). Type of the short handled and tied to the fingers have been (and still are) the most common chimes in southern Iran (for the same instrument, see: Gunter and Jett, 1992: 191).
Another important fact is that the production and control of the melody with these four instruments were very difficult for females (women); three of them (bowl) still considered male instruments. In Taq Bostan too, sorena and a kind of arghanun (or bagpipe, maybe nay-e anban) are played by men where females are depicted as tambourine and harp players (farmer, 1964: 96). Both of these latter instruments have always been depicted and described in this way (female).
So, the gender of the musicians will be the second key point of this object. It is as if the previous works did not pay attention to the connection between the “type of instrument and the type of gender” which, according to the tradition, they were at least skilled players.
The story of “ Khusraw ī kawādān ud rēdak “ (Oryan, 2004: 96) describes “a sweet-singing-dancer and a beauty with big breasts, wasp waist, black and long hair ...”. Here are two questions:
1. Whether the female musician-dancer figures on the Sasanian silver legacy, with big breasts, slim waist and charming disheveled hair (National Museum of Iran, cf. fig. 6) cannot be a seal of endorsing the above-mentioned Pahlavi text? If that is the case, which I believe it is:
2. Isn’t this (description) contrary to the motif of the musicians of the silver bowl at the National Museum?
This issue of course according to the type of make-up and body shape confirms that three of them are males. Therefore, in the dance-music scene of other objects, the shawl on the breast (or part of it such as Bishapur mosaic), from behind (such as the silver decanter at the National Museum) or above the head like a sunshade (fig. 9) can be seen. Here, the shawl is skillfully placed on privy parts (low body) by the craftsman in order to have observed Iranian ethics (of course with partial rotation of the body). If in other objects, the shawl plays a role in covering the breasts of women, here it covers probably their low bodies. This is not very compatible with Roman art!
In the Sasanian silver decanter at the National Museum, despite a kind of decorated forehead, the hair of the musician is hung from both sides towards the shoulders but here typical long-braided hair can remind us of Indian style which impacted the Persian Gulf coasts. However, no trace of the hair of the above mentioned musicians can be seen here, and they wear a head-gear (with two different logos on the forehead in pairs) that is fastened with a bandage under the throat (it is unlikely to be a hair strand). On this bowl, the whole body (with details) is portrayed in front and the head is turned to another side (profile), something that does not occur much with other works. The highly balanced and professional limbs of these dancer-musician-singers indicate their affiliation with a professional group. The beautiful and balanced body as well as the “hairless face” of these three male musicians plus one female, is thought to be one of the reasons for calling these four dancers females.
Furthermore, a theme rarely seen in Sasanian art is a “harmonious music group” (male and female) scene. Even in the royal hunting scene of Taq Bostan, less resemblance (coordinated group) can be found to this bowl. The musicians of Taq Bostan cannot be called a scene of a group performance.
Another similar silver bowl (fig. 10) with the same motif (four dancer-musicians from Kelardasht) at the National Museum of Iran published by S. Ayazi (2005: 92-93) already. These two bowls differentiate each other by some significant details which have never been studied. In the second bowl, the relatively “thick cover” of the musicians along with the figures of the “birds” is very significant. It seems, to me, that the first one reflects summer or spring season but the second one clearly recalls the winter season. Figures of different birds (which can be discovered in the spring season) is a part of the claim (the second one). There is also a third bowl with the same scene, in the National Museum, which I will write about in more detail in the future.
The author believes that the motifs of these three bowls are merely radiant of a “simple secular feast” (cf. Boyce and Farmer, 1990: 55; also: Gunter and Jett, 1992: 200). Obviously, the Sasanian heritages can never have been recorded without religious traces, which subconsciously ruled the artist’s mind. Hence, the meaningful name of the owner of the first bowl (Farrokh-hormozd not windad-hormozd) to the design of the black “ten” leaves of the palm branch, the pearl ring around the pheasant in the middle of the object, the number of pearls of the pearl ring, two ribbons and also the three branches in the beak (Glory, triple social casts or the doctrine of the Zoroastrianism) are part of this claim.
Although the existence of motif of birds and animals in Sasanian art (rock, art, bullae, etc...) is a normal subject, but the figure of a pheasant (center of the bowl) can remind us of the “Khorasan Art School” that goes as far as China (Akbarzadeh, 2020: 267).
The author believes that there is no connection between this scene and the one from Roman legacy of Dionysian or the goddess Anahita (Catalog of Wien, 2003: 233; Gunter and Jett, 1992: 27), as mentioned in all previous works. The following reasons can support me to challenge the previous works: “the typical oriental type of dance of these dancer-musicians, which is evident from their body shape, the pheasant figure most unrelated to the Zoroastrian goddess, the partial nudity dancers, which is not compatible with the officially known Sasanian art (but they are covered on the second bowl), their instruments, the absence of any bold religious symbols etc... supposedly for their body shape (type of dance), type of head-bands, shawl pattern, typical southern chime (with base, like pliers), dancer-musicians in group scene ...” Also, the author points the finger at India, not the Roman heritage for such a coordinated group performance that Sasanian art lacked (cf. Boyce and Farmer, 1990: 60).
The Indians have always been known as female-males dancer-musicians in group form (unlike individual Sasanian dancer-singers). Also, the figure of the peacock (bowls 2-3) can support this claim. Moreover, the presence of Indian musicians-dancers in the Sasanian period is a well-known issue. It is obvious that Bahram V (Gur), after treating the mental condition of the Iranian society, ordered many musicians from India to come to Iran and play in public. These musicians are known as “gypsies” in the history of Iran.10 In fact, the author evaluates this group of naked (and partly-covered) dancer-musicians (with a completely different body shape) on these Sasanian bowls as Indian gypsies. Their half-nakedness cannot be an Iranian tradition in dance. In a work, about such instruments, attributed to Ibn Khordadbeh (Mallah, 1963: 28; Sami, 1970: 49) narrates that: “Iranians usually played the lute with the flute and the tambourine and the sorna with the dohol (drum) and mastaj (chime) and the senj.”
The author also believes that due to the to the accuracy in construction and high technic of these valuable bowls and the processing of artistic symbols, especially such a dancer-musicians in group scene, its attribution to the eighth century AD., Post-Sasanian period (given the socio-political situation of Iran), is questionable. If this bowl(s) was made in the geographical boundary of Sasanian Fars province (including parts from Khuzestan to Fars and the whole of present-day Bushehr province) (which is strongly believed to be the case), the eighth century AD. was the most difficult period of this part of the Persian Gulf. Furthermore, the artistic details of these objects are never less, if not more beautiful than the objects of the sixth century AD. (cf. Lawergren, 2009: online). The skill in the inscribed needle-shaped of the owner’s religious name, the exact size of the body of the musicians, the branches of the grape, colored lace and other details indicate that the creation of this work can be even brighter than the eighth century AD.
Despite this, a fundamental problem will remain and that is the type of cover of the dancers on these three bowls. This coverage can mean a “seasonal difference”, that is likely to be the case. Based on this one, we should focus on the eighth century AD. The author suggests that the second bowl (covered dancers) can be a reminder of Mihragan Festival at the beginning of winter and the first one (naked) can be reminiscent of Nowruz Festival (or a summer fest). This six-month gap (between two seasons) is the least reason why the two group of the two objects can be considered the same. If we cannot opine about the time of Mihragan Festival, but the time of Nowruz Fest was not fixed at the beginning of spring in the Sasanian calendar. This event is related to the early Islamic periods and this one does not contradict the eighth century. In short, that discovery of this bowl (for whatever reason) from northern Iran will never be an excuse to consider its origin as northern, and of course this is not surprising in archeology.