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Shahnama: Three museums, 1,000 years

The Weekly Dig, July 21, 2010 (read there)

You don't often get to celebrate a thousandth birthday, but the Shahnama, an epic Persian poem completed in the year 1010, is getting up there in years. So three Boston institutions are partying this summer, with small but important exhibitions of art the poem inspired across the ancient empire.

It's pronounced "shah-nah-MEYH" and it literally means "book of kings." Its author, Abu'l-Qasim Firdawsi, was Muslim, but the poem tells the story of 50 Persian kings, starting with a Zoroastrian creation story and ending with the Muslim conquests of the seventh century. Of the 50 kings, the first half are mythological and the second are historical fancies. Alexander the Great, for instance, is given Iranian parentage and a spiritual quest. But 50 monarchs' worth of heroism and intrigue, scaled up to legendary proportions, makes for some badass inspiration. The Shahnama's illuminators painted in miniature, using colorful patterns and lines as thin as a hair. The paper was burnished to a shine. Artists mixed colors using white seashells as dishes, then applied them in thin layers with saintly patience. The masterpieces are lustrous and exquisitely delicate.

For the Harvard Art Museum's Heroic Gestes: Epic Tales from Firdawsi's Shahnama, curator Mary McWilliams concentrated on the main theme of the poem: the struggle between Iran and Turan, a kingdom on the other side of the Oxus River. A painting from 1600 shows where the trouble began (at least, according to Firdawsi). Salm and Tur, who rule Asia Minor and Turan respectively, are murdering their brother Iraj, who was the favorite of their father and thus given Iran as his kingdom. As one brother plunges a dagger into Iraj's chest, his eyes are full of regret, as if he's already cognizant of the generations of conflict to come. Despite the darkness of the episode, it's rendered in pastels, gold leaf, and bright reds and blues. Sure, other ancient stories have examined what legitimizes a ruler, but none have been illustrated with such pearlescent beauty.

The Museum of Fine Arts, meanwhile, shows Romantic Interludes: Women in Firdawsi's Shahnama, and Laura Weinstein, the MFA's new assistant curator of South Asian art, makes it clear that women in the Shahnama are full of moxie. A sumptuous Persian page from the 15th century depicts Manizha, a Turanian princess, with the Iranian hero Bizhan. He takes her face in his hand. She puts her hand on his thigh. It looks like an even match, but Manizha has drugged the wine they're sharing, and she plans to kidnap him back to Turan and claim him as her own. Outside, courtiers enjoy an idyllic garden, unaware of her intentions. A tree with flowers like pink pinwheels sprouts up the middle of the page, its curved branches evoking the story's careening plot.

A third exhibition at Harvard's Houghton Library features early lithographic editions of the Shahnama. Adapting the Persian miniature style to the press required great graphic ingenuity, as the five volumes on display assuredly prove.

Several talks and performances related to these exhibitions will kick off in October, but the programs are worth checking out now. The art is lovely, the subject deserves more attention and the multi-institutional effort is unprecedented.

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