Tekeyan NY/NJ Commemorates Taniel Varuzhan

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“We, your children will

Magnificently build the New Dawn.”

 

By Hagop Vartivarian

 

ENGLEWOOD, N. J. – The Tekeyan Cultural Association (TCA) of Greater New York has undertaken a series of events to commemorate the talented writers who were among the first victims of the Armenian Genocide. The first writer to be included in this series is Taniel Varuzhan. On May 29 a large audience assembled in the New Jersey TCA Center. It was a pleasure to attend an event similar to the serious literary evenings which used to take place in the main Armenian communities of the Middle East. Many of those present grew up with the inspiration of writers like Krikor Zohrab, Varuzhan, Siamanto, Rupen Sevag, Tlgadintsi, and remain firmly attached to the Western Armenian literary world.

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After the chairman of the TCA branch spoke his words of welcome, Zarmine Boghosian, a longtime faithful member of TCA who is a writer and educator, and most notably principal of the only Armenian school in New York—Holy Martyrs Armenian Day School—took the podium as the master of ceremonies for the evening. As she is well informed about our literary world, she not only ran the program, but introduced in a detailed fashion the intellectuals participating, as well as the young artists, with her beautiful Armenian. She occasionally added some words in English to embellish the evening further.

Several talented actors from the TCA Mher Megerdchian Theatrical Group, namely Harout Barsoumian, Arpi Cankar, Srpouhi Vartivarian and Talar Zokian, recited a few literary gems of Varuzhan in Armenian as well as in English translation.

The first speaker of the evening was Aram Arkun, the executive director of the TCA Central Board who now lives in the Boston area, but is well known to New York Armenians. As this was his first formal visit to the greater NY TCA branch since taking office, he prefaced his talk with praise of the broad range and quality of activities of the local branch. Their cultural, literary and theatrical events provide an enviable example of vibrant community life in the East Coast.

Aram spoke in English, and without any notes. He provided an overview in parallel of Taniel Varuzhan’s life and creative work. Arkun showed how Varuzhan (born Taniel Chbukkarian, 1885-1915) transformed his experiences into poetry. Growing up in the Armenian village of Prknig in the province of Sepasdia (Sivas) in one of the historically Armenian Ottoman provinces, Varuzhan saw all aspects of farm life. He saw the effects of the Hamidian massacres both in the villages and in the Ottoman capital of Constantinople, where his father was thrown into prison.

As a talented student from an Armenian Catholic family, Varuzhan was given a good education at two Mkhitarian schools in the capital, and then sent to Venice to study at the Murad-Raphaelian Mkhitarian school. Here Varuzhan came into direct contact with European culture, and in particular was greatly influenced by Italian painting (e.g. Titian) and writing (Ada Negri, Gabriele D’Annunzio). He impressed his teachers so much with his virtuosity as a writer that they sent him on scholarship to a university in Ghent, Belgium, to continue his studies. Here he became familiar with Flemish art and writers, and the effects of late 19th century capitalism. Ghent was a very industrialized city in Belgium with factories, social turmoil and poverty.

Varuzhan returned to the Ottoman Empire in 1909 after the Ottoman constitution was restored and after new massacres took place in Cilicia. He taught for several years in Sepasdia as well as in Yevtokia (Tokat). He then became the principal of a school in Constantinople.

Varuzhan has four major published volumes of poetry: Sarsurner (Tremors, 1905/6), Tseghin sirde (The Heart of the Race, 1909), Hetanos yerker (Pagan Songs, 1912), and the posthumous Hatsin yerke (The Song of the Bread, 1921). Arkun related how Varuzhan portrayed the difficulties of Armenians’ lives in his works, depicting Ottoman massacres and oppression, and the economic and social difficulties of living in cities. Yet he found strength and hope in the pagan past of the Armenians, and tried to offer a positive vision through literature to his compatriots. He was considered controversial at the time because of his odes to Armenian pagan gods, and the sensuality of his poetry. His encounters with capitalism made him into a socialist to a degree.

His last work, Hatsin yerke, was about the cycle of production of bread, from the sowing of the wheat to its transformation to flour and food. It was a lyrical presentation of village life that he never got to finish because of the Armenian Genocide. He was arrested on April 24, 1915 and brutally killed that summer, at the age of 31. Fortunately, his wife and friends managed to bribe officials and obtain the confiscated manuscript.

Varuzhan was one of the most important writers of the Ottoman Armenian renaissance. He built on the romanticism and realism of his predecessors to create a new aesthetic approach to poetry, while remaining an Armenian nationalist. As an heir of the Mkhitarian fathers, he enriched the Armenian language through the reanimation of words from Classical Armenian, but did it through modern ideologies. He served as an intellectual leader in various groupings of Armenian writers after his return from Europe.

After Aram, the beloved poet Vehanoush Tekian was invited to the stage to recite her poem which she had dedicated to Varuzhan. This was a surprise, which brought a new level of richness and quality to the already vibrant program.

The next speaker was Dr. Vartan Matiossian. While he grew up in Argentina, his love of Armenian culture and values connected him to Armenian schools, education and life. He is a respected member of New York Armenian intellectual circles, and encourages TCA in its activities.

His talk was in Armenian, and here I will present in summary translation a few of his thoughts. “The first three volumes were sufficient to bring Varuzhan to the peak of Western Armenian poetry. And he will remain there forever, for Western Armenian and Western Armenian literature ended with his generation and its survivors. The diaspora and Diasporan Armenian literature succeeded them—the product of a completely different environment and conditions.”

“I wish that this event becomes an opportunity for those who have up until now only been listeners, to turn into readers, and for readers to read again.”

“It is possible to read the following lines from the article “Hay lezui khntir” [Question of the Armenian Language] published in 1911 in a metaphorical fashion on the nation-building role of poetry: ‘the language began to become foreign and servile with some writers who had no talent, at least in order to keep it in the same condition in which it was presented to them by magnificent writers like Bedros Turian, Krikor Odian and Hagop Baronian… But where was the Province, where the whole of the soul of the people resides? Where were its multitudes of powerful, picturesque, and realistic minstrels? That language which arises distant from its breast of course cannot express those great ideals, the epic poetry of those sublime images, which belong to its man and to its soil. That language truly did not have the universal pulsing of a people’s heart, though, we must confess, it very successfully, in great detail, outlined the irritation of the subject’s emotions.”

Dr. Matiossian in a very succinct fashion presented the affectionate relations between Varuzhan and Vahan Tekeyan, despite the differences in principles of the two great poets.

It was impossible to obtain copies of Varuzhan’s books from New York Armenian bookstores in order to make them available to audience members. During this centennial of the Genocide, amazingly it was not possible to find any books of the martyrs of the Genocide in the bookstores of the Diocese, Prelacy and Armenian General Benevolent Union. Under those circumstances, the author of this article gave a copy of his book Hantibumner 1 [Encounters 1] to each guest, as it contained an interview with the daughter of Varuzhan, Veronica, in New York. At least the guests would have a lasting memento of this literary evening.

After the formal program, a reception took place organized by Marie Zokian, Helen Misk and Diana Mkhitarian.

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