Sayat Nova at 300: Epitome of Multiculturalism


By Edmond Y. Azadian

Multiculturalism seems to be the fad of modern times. For centuries, dominant nations would impose their own will and culture on subject nations, even if that meant eventual assimilation of weaker nations. But as the world became a global village, mass migration became the trend of the times and different people — even through osmosis — came to learn more of other cultures, began to tolerate them and even appreciate them.

The United States, which at one time was considered a melting pot, became a trendsetter in multiculturalism, especially in the aftermath of the Civil Rights movement.

Many nations in Europe and the Americas have even established ministries of multiculturalism as they began facing the need of absorbing masses of immigrants.

When we think of multiculturalism in the Armenian world, one name stands out — that of the Armenian troubadour Sayat Nova, who lived his prolific life in the 18th-century Caucasus.

In 2012, Armenia celebrates the 300th anniversary of the birth of the legendary minstrel in cooperation with United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The bard is believed to have been born in the year 1712, however that date is hotly debated. In a recent interview, the former director of the Charentz Museum, Dr. Henrik Bakhchinyan, stated that Armenia has jumped the gun on the celebration by almost a decade. During the current year, Armenians also celebrate the 500th anniversary of printing; this time, because documents are extent and there are books imprinted with the date of 1512, we know we have the right year.

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In Sayat Nova’s case, no definitive documents are available to fix the exact date of his birth.

Harutyun Sayatyan, who only later became known by the penname Sayat Nova, was born in Tbilisi (Tiflis at the time), Georgia. His father was born either in Cilicia (Adana) or Aleppo and migrated to Sanahin to marry a local girl, Sara. Sayat Nova became a monumental cultural figure even in his own time and became a legend in Armenian history. There is a tremendous body of academic work on his life and literary legacy that would defy any writer to come up with a complete and comprehensive study. Therefore, we will avoid delving into that ocean of literature, concentrating on the symbolism for which he is known.

Two hundred and twenty poems credited to him have survived but scholars believe an equal number of poems and songs have been lost. Mourouss Hasratian, who is the author of an exhaustive work on the bard, makes a succinct analogy. He says, “If we picture the Medieval Armenian goussans as a mountain chain, Sayat Nova undoubtedly represents the summit.”

He was one of the most charismatic figures of his time, with attractive features, an equally charming voice and a supreme intellect. After winning many contests among the ashooghs or goussans (both meaning troubadours), he was invited to perform in the court of the Georgian King Erekle II. While in the court, he also worked as a diplomat forging an alliance between Georgia, Armenia and Shirvan against the Persian Empire.

There is speculation that he lost his position at the court after he fell in love with the king’s sister, Anna. He then led an itinerant life until 1759, when he was ordained a priest to serve at the Monastery of Haghbat. It was there that he was martyred in 1795 when Mohammad Khan Qajar, the Shah of Iran, invaded the area.

There is a legend about his martyrdom. He was asked to come out of the monastery and he refused by saying: “I don’t leave the church and I don’t abandon Christ,” reminiscent of the response Vartan Mamigonian and his entourage had given the Persian King some 1,200 years ago, when they defied the king. The historian Yeghishe wrote, “No one can shake us in the faith of our ancestors. We are ready — your sword to our necks,” (translated loosely.)

There was a mixture of races living in the Caucasus at the time and they were dominated by the Ottomans, Persians and Russians. They all shared the same fate when their overlords changed hands and they lived together.

Sayat Nova began writing his lyric in Azerbaijani (the language of the Tatars). He also performed in that language. In the second period of his creative career, he began writing in the Georgian language. His Armenian poems appear after age 30. (He has a poem stating that date.) He was gifted in many more languages, like Persian and Arabic. His mastery of the Persian language helped him to introduce some Persian poetic forms and traditions in Georgia. He has a few songs that are written in all four languages at the same time.

He was a wordsmith; he crafted with simple words songs expressing philosophical thoughts or great human passions. Through his multi-disciplined art, he explored all the dimensions of the human experience: religious, social and sensual by advocating: “love the lord, love the soul, love the sweetheart.”

When Lord Byron went to Venice to learn the Armenian language from the Mkhitarist fathers, he wrote to his friends that he had found the Armenian language to be a tough nut to crack.

The same can be said about Sayat Nova’s language, which is the 18th-century Tiflis-Armenian vernacular, spiced with Turkish, Persian, Georgian and sometimes even Cilician Armenian words. His songs would have been locked behind the language barrier had it not been for the interpretation and translation of some scholars.

Many modern singers who soulfully perform Sayat Nova’s songs seldom comprehend the words.

The literary historian Mourouss Hasratian has translated the bard’s poems from Azerbaijani and Georgian languages into the 18th-century Tiflis-Armenian vernacular; a very authentic job, as if the poet himself had written in his own time. He has also converted samples from the bard’s 18th-century poems into modern Eastern Armenian vernacular to render them more comprehensible.
There are significant studies on Sayat Nova by literary historians including Nigol Aghbalian and Baruyr Sevak, as well as others. Sayat Nova’s poetry and music has captured the imagination of many scholars and there are studies on him in Georgian, Azerbaijani and Russian.

What propelled Sayat Nova’s name and the legacy into the international stage were a few scholarly and artistic works. Prof. Charles Dawcett published his academic work in London under the title, “Sayat Nova, an 18th-Century Troubadour.” Sergei Paradjanov’s movie, titled “The Color of Pomegranates,” marked not only a new era in filmmaking but also popularized Sayat Nova’s life story and artistic legacy. One of his earliest translators was the Londoner Alice Stone Blackwell. The composer Alexander Haroutiounian wrote an opera based on the bard’s life, using his music in a pastiche format. Sayat Nova’s works have also been translated into French by Elizabeth Mouradian and French poet Serge Venturini.

Back in Armenia and in the Caucasus, Sayat Nova has always been a very popular figure for all the nationalities. The reason Azeris and Georgians have not tried to claim as their own is that the bard, throughout his poetry has identified himself as a Christian Armenian, using his baptismal name as Aroutin and referring to his father as Karabet.

The poet Hovhannes Toumanian had started a tradition in the early 20th century, which still continues to this day. He began a festival,which he called Vartadon (Feast of flowers) during which poets, writers, singers performers and the general public are invited to Sayat Nova’s Mausoleum in the Armenian Quarter of Tbilisi, called Havlabar, and speeches and performances are given in memory of the great bard.

During the Soviet period, the Sayat Nova Troubadour’s Ensemble was created to perform and perpetuate Sayat Nova’s artistic legacy, under the leadership of Vagharshak Sahakian.

Today, the same ensemble is reinforced by new musicians and performers under a more erudite scholar and singer, Thomas Pogossyan.

As crude and cruel the Soviet regime was, it had a forced cohabitation between constituent nationalities. Sayat Nova’s Vartadon was celebrated by all the nations and the bard symbolized brotherhood among those nations, who have since become mortal enemies, fighting and murdering each other.

Sayat Nova’s genuine and natural multiculturalism is needed today to bring peace and harmony to the region. The day all three nations join again to sing Sayat Nova’s music in unison the martyred soul of the bard will find its peace and the region will head towards a more prosperous and promising future.



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