Since 1970, Jane Lewisohn lived for six years in Iran and over the past few years, she has had various visits to the country. Her over 3 decades of work on different aspects of Iranian studies include a particular peak that is the administration of the Golha Project. The Golha Project was first initiated having the support of SOAS and a number of non-governmental institutions. The purpose was to collect and organize the series of the Golha programs broadcast from the Iranian National Radio. The Golha program was being broadcast for almost 23 years, between 1956 and 1979, and brought a total length of 850 hours of poetic prologs, readings and traditional singing (/āvāz/). Having reintroduced over 560 Persian poems from both classic and contemporary periods, this program managed to vastly influence the then social walks and inspired a large growth in demands for republishing the poetic collections of the forgotten years. To gain a more comprehensive perspective of Mrs. Lewisohn’s activities and the executive dimensions of this project, we conducted an interview which is as follow.
AVA Diplomatic’s Exclusive Interview with Jane Lewisohn,
Research Associate, Department of Music, SOAS
How did you become interested in Persian language and literature and what was your incentive for your travels to Iran?
Of course I had studied about Iran in history and geography classes at school and was always fascinated by the beauty of Persian carpets and Persian miniatures. But when I read the poetry of Molana, Hafiz and Sadi in English translations, I realized that this is the most profound, beautiful and inspiring literature I had ever come across. My husband Dr. Leonard Lewisohn and I decided we wanted to go to Iran to get to know this amazing culture that had produced this literature and to learn Persian, so we could read the poetry in its origional language.
Why did you choose Shiraz as the city to stay in and continue your education?
We arrived in Tehran and to us it was a teaming metropolis like any other metropolis we had seen in other countries chocked with traffic and tall modern buildings. After a few weeks we met some friends from Shiraz who invited us to visit Shiraz and stay with them. When we got to Shiraz we fell in love with the city it was every thing we had imagined a Persian city would be. It still had all the beautiful gardens, roses, nightengales and orange blossoms we had read about in Sadi and Hafez’s verses.
How many years did you live in Iran and what memories do you have of those days?
We arrived in Iran in July 1973 and left Iran around Christmas 1978. We immersed ourselves in our studies of Persian literature and history at Pahlavi University, and on our days off we would visit with older Iranian friends who were immersed in classical Persian poetry and read poetry with them and they would interpret the difficult lines for us, or we would go hiking in the mountains around Shiraz. During school vacations we would travel with friends’ families to other cities and regions of Iran
How many times have you traveled to Iran since then?
From about 2000 on we began visiting Iran often, to visit friends, attend conferences and to collect the Golha recordings and since 2000 we have been back at least a dozen times.
After leaving Iran and before starting the Golha project, what type of research projects did you work on?
After leaving Iran I first worked as a translator for people who were coming abroad for medical treatment and did not speak English. Then I worked for a publisher translating, editing and copyediting manuscripts of classical Persian literature in to English.
Since 2005 you have been working on Golha Project. What piqued your interest to this project?
We used to listen to the Golha programs in Iran with our Iranian family and fell in love with them then. In 2004-5 when the field of digital music really began to take off in a big way, I began digitalizing our own cassettes that we had brought back from Iran with us. While I was doing that I realized that their had been no academic study of the Golha radio programs and it was even unclear if or where the complete archive could be accessed. So I decided to embark on the Golha Project.
How did Golha Radio Project impact the social and cultural status of the Iranian people in those times? Has it been influential on the cultural or collective consciousness?
In the 1950-70’s when the Golha programs were originally broadcast the illiteracy rate in Iran was very high so most of the general population did not have access to printed material. Although Iranians, by their very nature are lovers of poetry and even if they couldn’t read it, they would memorize the poetry. If you asked the common man on the street at this time 1950-70’s to name a few poets he would probably only have been able to name the most famous ones like Molana, Hafiz, Sa’di, Firsowsi, and Omar Khayyam. In the Golha radio programs over 700 Persian poets and their verses ranging from the 800’s to 1978 or 1100-year time span are introduced to the public, through the medium of the radio, which was free to listen to. Davoud Pirnia, the original producer of the Golha programs and his colleagues chose the best poems from these 700 poets in this way they made the rich, and varied literary heritage of Iran accessible to the general public. From a musical stand point the best Persian musicians, singers and composers contributed to the Golha programs. The producers like Davoud Pirnia and later Hushang Ebtehaj were very careful to include only Persian music and compositions in the programs, and to avoid music with overt foreign influences. They created a kind of safety zone for Persian music, where Persian music could flourish and be preserved, at a time when Iranian music was being flooded with influences from Turkish, Arabic, Indian and Western genres. I have written at length about this in other articles. Like the ones mentioned below:
Jane Lewisohn, “Flowers of Persian Song and Music: Davud Pirniā and the Genesis of the Golhā Programs”, Journal of Persianate Studies, 1 (2008), 79-101.
Translated into Persian by M. R. Purja’fari, “Gulha-ya Avaz va musiqi-yi Irani: Davud Pirnia va aghaz-i barnama-yi Gulha.” In Falzlnama-yi musiqi-yi Mahur, No. 44 (Winter 2009), Tehran, Iran.
More recently “Conservation of the Iranian Golha radio programmers and the heritage of Persian classical poetry and music.” In From Dust to Digital: Ten Years of the Endangered Archives Programmed, ed. Maja Kominko, Cambridge, UK: Open Book Publishers, 2015. Here is a link to the ebook reader where you can read it online: (LINK)
Did you get to conduct any studies on the social and cultural aspects of the poems and lyrics used for the songs in Golha Program?
No I did not do any sociological or statical studies relating to the Golha radio programs. I simply let the music and the poetry speak for them selves.
How did the Music Faculty of the Fine Arts Department in SOAS University help you with this project? What other sponsors and supporters did you have?
The music Department at SOAS helped by mentoring the project and making it possible to apply for grants from various institutions and organizations. The major supporters of the Golha Project have been: British Library Endangered Archives Project, Iran Heritage Foundation UK, British Academy, Parsa Foundation USA, and the British Institute of Persian Studies. Although there were many other people who helped the project who are too numerous to name here, I have mentioned them all in the acknowledgements on the Golha Project website which you can read at this link on the Golha website: (LINK)
Years have passed since the last Golha Radio program was aired. How did you get to find and collect these programs during this project?
The first group of tapes of the Golha programs, I was given by our good friend Professor William Chitick who lived in Iran from 1966 to1978 and taught at Tehran University. He had recorded the programs from the radio himself on reel-to-reel tapes, which he gave me. The rest was word of mouth one collector would share their collection and recommend some one else who was also a collector and I would seek out collectors, wherever I heard about them, in Iran, Europe and North America. There were several major known collectors like Gulshan Ibrahimi whose collection is digitalized and is in the Museum of Music in Tehran and the ‘Abdu’l-Rasuli, Collection, which was, digitalized by the Khaneh Music in Tehran and of course the Iranian Radio collection but much of this collection has yet to be digitalized. I was fortunate enough to be able to access all these collections and the institutions like the Museum of Music, the Khaneh Music and the Iranian Radio archive were all very cooperative and supportive, in each case and with all the collectors I had mutual exchange agreements where I would give them what ever I had that they were missing and they would give me what ever they had that I was missing.
Muhammadreza Shajarian, a true master of Iranian traditional music, has praised your work on this project. Have you ever sought consultation or advice from him or other artists in this field regarding the Golha Project?
I was fortunate enough to meet and interview many of the great artists and poets from the Golha programs. Some of which are sadly no longer with us like, ‘Ali Tajvidi, Jalil Shanaz, Turaj Nigahban, Parviz Yahaqqi, Hasan Kasa’ie, Bizhan Taraqqi, Humayun Khurram, Ellahe Khanum and Muhammad Reza Lutfi. There are many other great masters of Persian music and literature who I have consulted and am still in contact with like Hushang Ebtihaj, Akbar Gulpaygani, Farhang Sharif, Farhad Fakhradini, Hushang Zarif, Rahim Mu‘ini-Kirmanshahi, Muhammad-Reza Shajarian and many more to numerous to mention, I can say that each end every one of the artists, poets, technicians and scholars, weather related to the Golha or not, who I have had the good fortune to have met and consulted have been extremely kind and generous with their time and with their advise. Without their help and support the Golha Project would not have been possible.
You have put the whole archive freely online for public access. What difficulties did you face in order to make this possible?
The biggest difficulties for the Golha Project were and continue to be financial. The rest was and is, down to hard work patience and perseverance. Although I have donated all my time freely to the project, I could not expect other people to do the same. As you know the Golha project does not just make the sound files of the Golha Programs freely available but we have included alot of background research like the biographies of all the participants in Persian and English, the musical notes for the teranehs, the typed scripts of all the programs, all of this is completely searchable so you can find what ever you are looking for at your fingertips with a click of a mouse. The people who: typed the transcripts, wrote the musical notes, compiled and translated the biographies, and electronically marked the sound files with the information about the performers, poets, dastgahs, gushehes, and instruments so they could be searchable, not to mention the programmers, all these people had to be paid and I had to find and apply for grants to be able to pay them. There are also the on going costs of the IT management, hosting and streaming of the Golha Project website that need to be paid for each month in order to keep the Golha Project on line and accessible. So I continue to have to apply for grants to pay for the cost of keeping the project going and on line.
How could this project help the researchers and students of Persian language?
The Golha Project is presently being used in many of the Universities in Europe and in North America as a teaching aid for teaching Persian literature. Persian poetry was written to be recited or sung, so to study it just as words on a page is to take it out of context. It is the rhythm and meter of the verses that bring them to life, which is very evident when you listen to the Golha programs.
Of the total 850 hours of aired shows in the years since 1916 to 1937, how many of the programs have you been able to retrieve and present in your archives?
To my knowledge the Golha Project has a complete collection of all the verifiable original Golha radio programs. Although in the last couple of years a few programs have come to light that had not been found before, hopefully once the Golha Project is able to digitalize these programs we will be able to include them in the archive along with the others.
Considering your extensive research on music, how much this art has affected the modern Iranian life and culture?
Without doing a specific study of the subject it is difficult to give a definitive answer to this question. It also depends on what your definition of “modern Iranian life and culture” is. If by modern you mean contemporary, then if you look at social media sites you can see that the performers and artists from the Golha have a huge following and not just among the over 50 age group. Many of the people following these artists and sharing their works are young people in their 20s which I find encouraging considering the huge variety of music available to people these days.
Could one divide the history of Iranian traditional music to several separate eras?
Of course Iranian music can be defined or classified according to historical eras. Again it depends on what you mean by “Iranian traditional music”. We have evidence of Iranian music from 2500 years BC in rock carvings and artifacts, all the way through Iranian and Persianate history in paintings murals, treatises written about music. With the advent of recorded sound in the late 19th century to the present day we can listen to the music produced in times gone by as well as the recent past and present.
Are you interested in starting any new projects regarding the Persian poetry and literature?
Since I started the Golha project many people from all over the world have given me their archives. It is my greatest wish to be able to make these archives freely available in the same manner as we have done with the Golha Radio programs with all the background information, academically indexed and searchable. This is a job too big for me to do alone and as I mentioned earlier the only obstacle right now is finding the funds to pay the programmers technicians and researchers to help get the job done. I am sure with Gods grace it will eventually get done and we will be able to make these collections freely accessible to all.
Do you know of any major research projects conducted in SOAS University regarding or related to Persian poetry and literature?
At SOAS we have a Center for Iranian Studies with over 50 academics working on different aspects of Iranian studies. The Centre for Iranian Studies draws on the range of academic research and teaching across the disciplines of SOAS, including Languages and Literature, the Study of Religions, History, Economics, Politics, International Relations, Music, Art and Media and Film Studies. The research is driven by the individual academics and students not directed by the university. At least 15 of the academic members of the SOAS Center for Iranian Studies are working on subjects related to Persian poetry and literature and music.
Do you have any plans to travel to Iran again and have you considered the possibility of ever sharing your experience with the younger generation in Iran?
I always love to travel to Iran whenever I get the opportunity and would love to share my experiences with the younger generation in Iran and any one who might be interested.