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Exploring The Sacred Lute

Ken Moore, Frederick P. Rose Curator in Charge, Department of Musical Instruments

Posted: Monday, August 11, 2014

Ostad Elahi, 1966. Courtesy of the Nour Foundation

Ostad Elahi, 1966. Courtesy of the Nour Foundation

«The first time I heard the evocative sounds and exquisite poetry of classic Persian music, I was amazed by its simple and elegant beauty. I later learned the complexity and philosophical principals behind the music, and about the different genres and ancient regional traditions that still endure. After a trip to Iran to visit scholars, composers, instrument makers, and musicians, a friend introduced me to the music and life of the exceptional musician, jurist, and philosopher Nour Ali Elahi (1895–1974), also known as Ostad Elahi. The resulting new exhibition, The Sacred Lute: The Art of Ostad Elahi, examines Ostad's transformation of the art of tanbūr—his modifications to the instrument, its playing technique, and the elevation of its repertoire—as well as his innovative approach to the quest for self-knowledge and his personal transformation from a classical mystic to a modern jurist.»

The exhibition presents the weaving narrative between player and instrument by exhibiting rare tanbūrs belonging to Elahi and his father; a number of Ostad's personal possessions, such as his judicial robes and manuscripts of his books; and symbolic items that provide greater insight into his disciplined approach to life. Instruments and artworks on display from the Elahi collection, the Musée de la Musique in Paris, and the Metropolitan Museum help to set the context for Elahi's traditional world.

This exhibition, funded in part by the Nour Foundation, has been endorsed by UNESCO for promoting cultural diversity through music and art.

The Sacred Lute: The Art of Ostad Elahi is on view through January 11, 2015, in Gallery 458. See all upcoming events related to this exhibition.

Installation of The Sacred Lute: The Art of Ostad Elahi

Last-minute touches being applied to the exhibition's installation


  • visitor says:

    The large screen shows many pictures of Ostad Elahi as his music is being played in the background and some of his sayings are also displayed. It beautifully blends with the rest of the exhibit.

    Posted: August 22, 2014, 4:54 p.m.

  • E says:

    "Ostad" means "Master" in Persian. This article seems very awkward, like it's trying to use the word as his name. You do know it's a title, not a name, right?

    Posted: August 28, 2014, 11:18 p.m.

  • Ken Moore says:

    The honorific "Ostad" (master), a designation given to Elahi posthumously, is explained in the more formal announcement of this exhibition. Ostad is commonly written in subsequent text after it is first cited and it is clear who is being referenced. Ostad like Ustad in South Asia designates a highly respected teacher or artist, 'Sorry for any confusion.

    Posted: September 3, 2014, 10:25 a.m.

  • NM says:

    I am a tanbour player myself so I was really excited when I heard about this exhibit and I am familiar with Ostad Elahi's music already. My favorite part of the exhibit is the quiet and calm ambiance that ensues from it. All you hear is Ostad Elahi's music playing and to see the actual instruments is a real treat. Another thing that was remarkable for me was the intricate notes that Ostad Elahi made relating to his music. The tanbur tradition is one of listening to pieces and copying the music. You do not read musical sheets as in western tradition. The video that plays in the exhibit is also remarkable. To see all those music scholars speak the way they do about his music, is an affirmation to what I have always sensed--that his music is special and that he was extraordinary. As one of the commentators in the film noted, Ostad Elahi's music gives a person a sense of stillness and the room allows you to contemplate on what it was for a man who grew up in the middle of a village in Iran to have accomplished all that he accomplished--it is really a humbling experience when one sees the actual proof in person.

    Posted: September 5, 2014, 6:43 p.m.

  • visitor says:

    One of the most moving pieces in the exhibit is Ostad's judicial robe. It feels like the closest thing to meeting him in person.

    Posted: September 7, 2014, 2:05 p.m.

  • KR says:

    Not only does this exhibition beautifully explore the life and art of this remarkable musician, thinker and jurist through a thought provoking multi-media format, which includes samples of his extraordinary music, his judicial robes, various notebooks and manuscripts and other fascinating objects such as those reflective of the years he spent steeped mysticism but also it provides a wonderful oasis for self-reflection.

    Posted: September 12, 2014, 10:57 p.m.

  • AS says:

    It was a great exhibit. I thoroughly enjoyed all the instruments that were displayed in which Ostad Elahi had played. One of my favorite parts was the video that was played in the exhibit.

    Posted: September 13, 2014, 3:39 a.m.

  • NS says:

    I really enjoyed this exhibit. I wish it were a permanent exhibit at the Met.

    Posted: September 13, 2014, 8:04 p.m.

  • SA says:

    I find myself being drawn to this exhibit over and over again. It's incredible that such a small exhibition could exude such vast energy and euphoria. The movie that is shown on the wall is full of lessons and the short documentary gives the viewers a small glimpse of Ostad Elahi's grandeur. The brief notes under all the objects and instruments convey all types of messages such as, there is a lesson behind every event in life - even the most minute ones. It is an exhibition that is truly educational.

    Posted: September 13, 2014, 9:26 p.m.

  • LH says:

    A feeling of serenity and contemplation overwhelmed me as soon as I entered the exhibition room. Born in New York and unfamiliar with the tanbur, setar, and similar instruments from Iran and the larger region, I was amazed to see how quickly I fell in love with this music. It is like nothing I have ever heard before – it is truly heartwarming and connects me to a deeper part of myself.

    Ostad Elahi seems to have been an extraordinary man – born into a centuries old mystical background, yet choosing to leave the comfort of this familiar environment to test his philosophy in the everyday world while always staying true to his values was an incredible, courageous feat. Given that he was a true master of the tanbur, a high ranking judge and a philosopher, the humility he consistently displayed is also astonishing.

    I commend the MET for honoring this special man and his work with such a beautiful exhibit.

    Posted: September 14, 2014, 12:32 a.m.

  • Jean-Jacques says:

    I am familiar with the work and music of Ostad Elahi. I was on a family visit in NYC and it was a beautiful surprise to see this exhibit announced on the pediment of the Met. So I went to see (and listen to) it and it was a great experience. All multimedia content, displayed objects and text panels give an interesting and moving evocation of this extraordinary personality. The main theme is about his music of course but other aspects of his life and spirituality are also evoked. Thank you very much for this exhibit.
    PS: I almost missed the exhibit announcement because the banner is a bit discreet and understated. I wish it displayed a picture of one of his lutes, or even better, a picture of Ostad Elahi himself: the one on the poster (displayed near the ticket counter) or the one in his judicial robe.

    Posted: September 14, 2014, 6:19 a.m.

  • Sam says:

    I am a member of the Metropolitan Museum and have found it to be a wonderful place for learning. In particular, the historical exhibits stand as a monument to the fact that what unites us as humans is far more than what divides us. How appropriate then that this year the museum has put together such a terrific collection of musical instruments, manuscripts, personal items and multimedia presentations that so elegantly paint a picture, not only of the music but also the life, works and thought of Ostad Elahi. Although the various musical scholars who have been interviewed in the multimedia presentations provide truly insightful remarks regarding Ostad Elahi's music as well as the novel contributions he made to the Tanbur, even a non-musical scholar (such a myself) can understand how remarkable this man's music was by simply listening to the various pieces that are played in the exhibit. What stands out the most for me is that when listening, one gets the feeling that an orchestra is playing. It is hard then to believe this is music from one single instrument. It is even harder to believe that it is from one single man who never played in public. This fact testifies to his deep humility, as well as the deep respect he gave to the sacred context in which he played his music. Through this extraordinary music, the Met has also shed light on the extraordinary universal thought that lay at the heart of this music.

    Posted: September 15, 2014, 10:37 p.m.

  • Frank says:

    I am a frequent visitor of Met Museum, as I live around the corner and been a long time member. Upon visiting Ostad Elahi's exhibition and going through his life story, what an honor it is for the Met to shed a small light on this monumental and unparalleled human being. My writings do not do justice, so I encourage anyone who is interested to visit and experience this journey themselves.

    Posted: September 21, 2014, 9:42 a.m.

  • Jane O. says:

    Last Wednesday I visited the Sacred Lute exhibit and found it quite interesting. The exhibit is well-designed and informative. I was accompanied by two of my students, and what a pity there were no guides who could explain what some of these writings and poems mean; even an audio guide could be quite useful.

    Posted: September 28, 2014, 9:33 p.m.

  • Jason says:

    I was visiting a friend in New York over the weekend of September 6th. He took me to the Met to see this exhibit and to attend a related concert afterwards. I really enjoyed the concert. However, the exhibit was so crowded that after waiting for over 30 minutes I still didn't get a chance to watch the documentary on the computer monitors.

    My friend has invited me back to New York to attend another related performance at the Met on November 16th. I'm hoping that this time I'll be able to watch the documentary when I visit the exhibit. It would be great if the organizers could establish a better system so that those who would like to watch the documentary can form some kind of waiting line by the door rather than having to huddle around in the middle of the exhibit.

    Posted: September 28, 2014, 11:21 p.m.

  • Charlie says:

    Great exhibition !!!!

    The short 12-minutes documentary that was made specially for the occasion is just amazing and very intense, particularly with all the specialists analysis and opinions on Ostad Elahi music. I live in Paris but I will definitely come again before the exhibition terminates.

    Posted: September 30, 2014, 5:44 p.m.

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About the Author

Ken Moore is the Frederick P. Rose Curator in Charge of the Department of Musical Instruments.

About this Blog

The Museum's collection of musical instruments includes approximately five thousand examples from six continents and the Pacific Islands, dating from about 300 B.C. to the present. It illustrates the development of musical instruments from all cultures and eras. On this blog, curators and guests will share information about this extraordinary collection, its storied history, the department's public activities, and some of the audio and video recordings from our archives.