The Golha Programmes

‘Flowers of Persian Song and Music’: the Story of Digitalizing the Golha Archive

 Jane Lewisohn

The Golha (‘Flowers of Persian Song and Music’) radio programmes were broadcast on Iranian National Radio for 23 years from 1956 through 1979. They comprised approximately 850 hours of programmes made up of literary commentary with the declamation of poetry, which is also sung with musical accompaniment, interspersed with solo musical pieces. The programmes themselves were the brainchild of Davoud Pirnia, a one-time Assistant Prime Minister, who in addition to being a well-known politician and judge, was an enthusiastic patriot and scholar who harboured a deep love for Persian culture and its rich literary and musical traditions. When he retired from political life in 1956, for the next eleven years he devoted himself tirelessly to producing of the Golha programmes.

Pirnia persuaded many of the foremost figures in classical Persian studies in Iran to work alongside him, so that the most formidable literary, academic and musical talents of his day offered him their collaboration and support. These included professors of Islamic Studies like Jalal al-Din Homa’i, Sa‘id Nafisi and Badi‘ al-Zaman Foruzanfar, the writer, scholar and senator ‘Ali Dashti, Iran’s poet laureate Lotf ‘Ali Suratgar, the historian Rezazada Shafaq, and the great song-writers and poets such as Mu‘ini Kermanshahi, ‘Emad Khorasani, Rahi Mo‘ayyeri, Toraj Negahban, Shahriyar, Simin Behbahani, Hushang Ebtehaj (Sayeh) and Bizhan Taraqqi. All the most eminent literary critics, famous radio announcers, singers, composers and musicians in Iran also participated in them. These included the likes of musicians and composers such as Abu’l-Hasan Saba, Mortaza Mahjubi, Ruho’llah Khaleqi, Habibo’llah Badi’i, Lutfo’llah Majd, Mortaza Naydavud, Hasan Kasa’i, Jalil Shahnaz, Reza Varzanda, Hasan Kasa’i, Ahmad ‘Ebadi, Farhang Sharif, Husayn Tehrani. The greatest Iranian vocalists of the twentieth century such as Banan, Marziya, Humayra, Qavami, Golpayegani, Iraj, ‘Abd al-Wahhab Shahidi, Sima Bina, and Puran were also featured in the Golha programmes. Even Iran’s supreme virtuoso singer—Mohammad Reza Shajarian—saw his career launched on these radio programmes.

Besides having such a rich pool of the supreme talents of the time at his fingertips, Mr Pirnia was fortunate in having the support of the Director of the Iranian National Radio, Nusrato’llah Mu‘niyan who during the 1950–1970s transformed the radio from being a commercial advertising platform for entertainers and a parking place for relatives of political elites into a respected and influential cultural vehicle for the preservation and promotion of Persian culture, music and literature. The programmes that Pirnia produced quickly became exemplars of excellence in the sphere of music and refined examples of literary expression, making use of a repertoire of over 560 classical and modern Persian poets, setting literary and musical standards that are still looked up to with admiration in Iran today and referred to by scholars and musicians as an encyclopedia of Persian music and poetry. Indeed, most of the greatest ballads and songs in modern Persian literature were commissioned and composed specifically for these programmes.

During the eleven years of his directorship, Mr. Pirnia produced five different categories of programme: ‘Perennial Flowers [of Persian Poetry and Song]’ (Golha-yi javidan, up to 157 in number), ‘Particoloured Flowers [of Persian Poetry and Song]’ (Golha -yi rangarang, 481 in number), ‘A Green Leaf [of Song and Verse]’ (Barg-i sabz, 312 in number), ‘A Bouquet of Roses [of Song and Verse]’ (Yik shakh-i gol, 465 in number), ‘Desert Flowers [of Song and Verse]’ (Golha-yi ṣaḥra’i, 64 in number), each featuring choice selections from the lyrics of the great classical, and contemporary Persian poets, combining song, declamation with musical accompaniment, learned commentary by eminent scholars and recital of poetry by those skilled in the art of poetic declamation with classical and folk Persian music.

The Golha marked a watershed in Persian culture, following which music and musicians gained respectability. Heretofore, due to the conservative socio-religious anti-music bias which dominated the society, music had been practised behind closed doors. Where performed in public spaces, the performers had been tarred with the same brush as popular street minstrels. Until the advent of these programmes, it had been taken for granted that any female performers and musicians were less than respectable. Due to the high literary and musical quality of these programmes, public perception of music and musicians in Iran completely shifted, its participants came to be considered—virtually for the first time—as maestros, virtuosos, divas and adepts of a fine art, and no longer looked down upon as cabaret singers or denigrated as street minstrels who inhabited the lowest rung of the social ladder.

The Golha programmes created such a craze among the Iranian public at large that many people would organize their daily schedules around listening to its broadcasts, precious recordings of which were taped and bandied about among friends. Among musicians, the Golha programmes evoked a kind of neo-classical revival in Persian song and verse in which the great songs of the late Qajar period written by ‘Arif Qazvini, Shayda and Darvish Khan were re-interpreted and performed by modern musicians and vocalists, and they also caused the rediscovery of Persian regional vernacular musical genres and traditions that were carefully researched, recorded, and broadcast on air. The Golha programmes thus served to preserve both the vernacular and classical traditions of Persian music and poetry which was under threat from influences outside and forces within Iran that wished to modernize, and—in some cases—eradicate the traditional love and cultivation of traditional Persian music and poetry in Iran.

Possibly one of the most important effects that the Golha programmes had on the society of Iran, where the illiteracy rate was 85% in the 1950s and 1960s, was, by combining music and poetry, they accustomed people to listen to good poetry and good music and caused them to realize the breath and depth of their poetic heritage, re-introducing over 560 Persian poets from the ancients to the moderns to the country at large. Because of the airing of these programmes, interest in classical Persian literature was revived so that the Divans of poets out of print for years, or never properly edited and published before, suddenly became in high demand and booksellers were astounded at the demand for and the sale of these classics.

When Pirnia retired from his post in 1967, he was succeeded by several other musicians, scholars and poets, who despite good intentions did not manage to maintain his same high standards. In 1972, Hushang Ibtihaj (Sayeh), a well-known modern Persian poet, took responsibility for production of the programmes, changing their name, consolidating all the various types of ‘flowers’ into one programme which he called ‘Fresh Flowers [of Song and Verse]’ (Golha-yi tazeh, 201 in number). As director of the Golha programmes, Ebtehaj also patronized a revival of interest in Persian music of the Qajar period (1794-1925) that had occurred all through the 1970s; as a partial result of Ebtehaj’s vision, despite the general ban that was placed on music in Iran after 1979 Islamicist revolution, a movement to preserve and cultivate the traditions of Persian classical urban art music is still alive and flourishing in present-day Iran.

Given the monumental importance of these programmes, I wanted to find out if it would be possible to find, collect, archive and digitalise the entire Golha archive for posterity. The “Golha Project” thus began in early 2005 with a pilot project supported by the Iran Heritage Foundation, the British Institute of Persian Studies and the Department of Music at SOAS. Following the success of the pilot project, with the support of the Department of Music at SOAS and a substantial British Library Endangered Archives Programme (EAP) Grant, I was finally able to pursue this project. Over the next two years – 2006 and 2007 – I made many trips to Iran, France, Germany, Canada and the United States, collecting the Golha programmes, in which I was assisted by many generous private and institutional collectors. Finally in July 2007, I deposited a digital copy of the complete collection of the Golha archive in the British Library’s World Sound Archive.

In 2008, the second phase of the Golha project, on which I am currently engaged, was launched with the support of the Iran Heritage Foundation, the British Academy, the Parsa Foundation and the Department of Music at SOAS. This aims to construct a searchable, relational database for the Golha programmes which will include bio-bibliographical data on the performers and authors (where applicable, their photographs) musical notation for the songs, transcriptions of the poetry, and commentaries included in the programmes in order to make them available over the internet. The database will be searchable through a purpose-built website. This website and database will allow one to search the database by programme name, number, singer of the avaz and tarana, song writer, poet of the avaz, first line of the song or poem sung, name of the song, instrument, musician, composer, name of poet whose poetry is sung or declaimed, the poetic genre of the poem, dastgah or avaz and gusha of the music performed, etc.

On this website it will also be possible to display the written versions of the poems and songs while these are playing as well as the musical notation for the songs. So, for instance, if one wanted to illustrate the singing or recital of the poetry of a particular author, or discover which melodies have been traditionally chosen to accompany which poems or meters, this would also be available at one’s fingertips. Furthermore, the biographies of all 560 Persian poets whose work appears in the programmes as well as the biographies of the some 250 performers along with their pictures (when available) who performed in the Golha programmes will also be available. This archive will be a unique cultural resource that can both be enjoyed by students and lovers of Persian culture, which can also be used as a teaching tool for both Persian music and Persian literature. If all goes according to plan, the searchable relational database for this important archive will be accessible at www.golha.co.uk sometime in late 2011.

Since 2005, many other archives and important collections have been collected or donated to the Golha project, including folk recordings, private recordings, additional archives of radio programmes, together comprising thousands of hours of twentieth-century Persian music. Some of these resources have already been digitalized, but over 1000 reel and cassette recordings still need to be digitalized. All this additional material needs to be archived and indexed so hopefully these may be eventually included in the Golha database and made available to scholars, students, artists and lovers of Persian music. It is our hope that in its future phases, the Golha Project will be able to eventually find the support it needs to make all this wonderful material available. Any one who would like more information on the Golha project may refer to http://www.iranheritage.org/golha_project/default.htm or contact jane@golha.co.uk.

Jane Lewisohn is a Research Associate at the Department of Music at SOAS.