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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.

  • Monica says:

    I was in New York from France and I visited the exhibit, it's truly remarkable. I went to
    the exhibit twice on a Saturday and a Sunday. on both days, there were a lot of people in the room, so it was a bit difficult to see all the items and read the description of the items. I wish they would limit the number of people at a time as to allow for everyone to be able see and read everything.
    Also there are only two audiovisual stations and a line of people waiting to see the video that is being shown. Since there are no audio guides, more audiovisual stations would really help the visitors and make the exhibit even more impactful. I highly recommend this exhibit.

    Posted: October 5, 2014, 5:31 p.m.

  • ida says:

    Yesterday was my second visit to the exhibit and at the unusual time of 7 pm Saturday I was able to view the 12 min film. We'll worth the visit. Happy to see the new CD but disappointed that there was not an open copy nor could I preview in the main gift shop. Would be helpful if the cover explained that it is Ostad Elahi playing and singing it. Found that info in John Schaeffer ' s radio program.

    Posted: October 5, 2014, 6:28 p.m.

  • lkb says:

    This was a beautiful exhibition that had an immediate calming effect on me. I couldn't help but return several times and found myself in reflection each time, the effects of the music really is remarkable.

    It is also very interesting to see all the instruments. Of the personal objects, the watch and judicial robes were among my favorites.

    It would be wonderful to have this exhibition be a permanent one!

    Posted: October 10, 2014, 4:10 p.m.

  • MM says:

    I visit the Met often and since the installation of this exhibit, i found myself visiting this room over and over again. Is it the music, the atmosphere or the positive energy?? I'm not sure - but I know i will visit it every time I am in the museum. I hope it can become a permanent part of the museum's collection. The beautiful commemorative CD that has also been released from the Met is a lovely way to take a small bit of the exhibit home :)

    Posted: October 14, 2014, 4:35 p.m.

  • SM says:

    As a long-time member of the Met, my family and I regularly visit any new special exhibits and we were delighted to learn about this particular one earlier this fall. What is remarkable, however, is the wealth of information available in such a relatively small and unassuming exhibit. We have found ourselves returning to it several times during our regular visits to the Met, each time finding something new and inspiring we had not encountered before. There is something intangible, yet very real about the this exhibit that is quite inviting. I wish Met would consider making some or part of the exhibit permanent. It is such a pity that an enriching collection such as this is limited to a specific duration and not permanently available to all future Met visitors. As only the Met can do, this is a window into a special world of music, culture and inspiration, and I wish it could remain open to all.

    Posted: October 25, 2014, 5:13 p.m.

  • Ellie says:

    It was my honor to be able to visit the exhibiton. My words can not describe how's my feeling. I highly recommend all to visit it. And it would be great MET could have this exhibition there permanently

    Posted: October 30, 2014, 1:53 p.m.

  • rosa says:

    I'm looking forward to seeing this exhibition next month. Thanks for your comments.

    Posted: November 5, 2014, 3:24 p.m.

  • Stephanie says:

    Immersing in Ostad Elahi's music (performed by the Garcia Fons Quartet) for the first time allowed me to surrender deeply - not something that is easy for me to do. In this surrender, I was carried forth by music that reverberated with a celestial frequency which penetrated every cell of my being. I felt love, healing, peace and so much beauty, which prompted me to release further, and connect with myself more wholly. People sometimes think of spirituality as something ethereal, out-of-body almost, but this is hardly the case. Ostad Elahi's music demonstrates the connection of spiritual to sensual and sensory pleasures, in a way that is most enjoyable and up-lifting. It by-passes cognition, and reaches the depths of one's soul - at least mine. Although, observing the auditorium, it was obvious that the energy had completely shifted. I would venture to say that the entire audience was transported to quite another state of being.

    Posted: November 22, 2014, 1:07 p.m.

  • Alessandro says:

    I visited the exhibition on Ostad Elahi and attended the concert last Sunday, November 16th. First, I would like to congratulate the MET and Mr. Ken Moore, the Curator, for the quality of both. In his remarks, he stated that in less than 4 months the exhibition has set a record number of more than 60,000 visitors. Although significant, I would say that I am not surprised by that number. In fact, I personally believe that this exhibition reaches a dimension that goes far beyond the pure display of some musical instruments, manuscripts and traditional dervish attire. Indeed, these few items only offer some preliminary clues to Ostad Elahi’s personality. I believe this exhibition could represent the beginning of a large and deep exploration of the multi-dimensional personality of Ostad Elahi and, as a mirror, of the Iranian cultural transition, of the spiritual music tradition and, to some extent, of oneself. I recommend visiting the exhibition and sincerely hope that the MET will extend its duration beyond January 11, 2015, or better yet perhaps rotate some of the other items that belonged to Ostad Elahi in order to prolong the exploration of his background and legacy.

    Posted: November 24, 2014, 2:44 a.m.

  • Marion says:

    What a wonderful exhibition about an exceptional human being!!! I sincerely hope that this turns into a permanent exhibition as I would love to be able to visit it many more times...

    Posted: November 29, 2014, 4:12 a.m.

  • chan says:

    Powerful exhibit small in its size but great in its impact. I spent half an hour listening over and over again to the music and looking at the instruments, the photos, the writings and the objects on display. I loved the music, the lighting, the whole atmosphere.
    Unfortunately I couldn't get to watch the videos. There were at least 10 people queuing up, partly in front of the showcases which was a bit awkward. I wish there were more than 2 monitors in the room.
    Apart from that, the exhibit is really exceptional, I highly recommend it.

    Posted: December 30, 2014, 9:55 p.m.

  • Sam says:

    Huge congratulations to the team at the Met for putting together such a wonderful exhibition that so eloquently captures the music and life of this remarkable musician and jurist. Judging by the crowds that I witnessed at the exhibition today and the multitude of nationalities and languages being spoken, to my mind this warrants becoming a permanent rather than a temporary exhibition. However, while it was wonderful to witness such large numbers of people eager to learn more about Ostad Elahi, the overcrowding in the relatively small hall did have a drawback though. In particular, when I visited today 10 or more people had lined up to watch the multimedia content on one of the two available computer terminals. Of course, in such a small room, a queue of 10 or more people lined up inwardly had inevitably led to the actual exhibit items being blocked off by the line of people. A practical suggestion, would be to perhaps encourage the queue to extend outside of the exhibit hall, thereby allowing people inside to freely enjoy the wonderful exhibit and be able to view and read the descriptions of the items. Thanks again to all at the Met. Your efforts at putting together this exhibition is much appreciated.

    Posted: December 30, 2014, 10:47 p.m.

  • LH says:

    The MET deserves the utmost praise for this superior exhibition – the music and life of Ostad Elahi is truly extraordinary and the exhibition depicts his incredible life and music beautifully.
    I do have to agree with the previous posts, however, regarding the line which has formed inside the exhibition for the lovely video which is part of the exhibition. I have also witnessed that a long line forms within the exhibition room blocking other patrons’ access to the objects on display. I believe it would be much more efficient for the MET to organize the line so that it forms and extends outside the exhibition room allowing for others to enjoy the rest of the exhibit without a crowd blocking his or her ability to view the musical instruments and other objects on display.

    Posted: December 31, 2014, 11:49 a.m.

  • DS says:

    I have visited this exhibition several times and each time I am delighted to learn about a different facet of Ostad Elahi's fascinating life and music. I find this exhibition extremely enriching on many levels and very much enjoy watching the videos. Since this exhibition is very popular, I agree that it might be a good idea for those who are waiting see the videos to form the lines so that they extend outside of the gallery rather than take up space within it Nevertheless, it is very heartwarming to see so many people of all ages from all over the world enjoying and benefiting from this superb exhibition. I would like to applaud the Met for organizing it and for providing a special glimpse into the personality and art of this extraordinary thinker, jurist and musician. Bravo!

    Posted: December 31, 2014, 9:51 p.m.

  • rosa says:

    It's probably the first time I had such an experience in a museum. I first remember the contact with the walking surface, a soft flooring, I paused and then the music. The room was filled with this delicate music. I took a few minutes there as I was experiencing an intimate and profound moment.
    Concerts can sometimes give this kind of experience but here it's simply a room in a museum.

    Posted: January 3, 2015, 6:06 p.m.

  • amelia says:

    What a unique opportunity it has been to see this exhibition at the Met. I played the tanbur for many years and therefore "grew up" with Ostad Elahi's music, so it was quite an astonishing surprise to discover that Ostad Elahi's rare instruments and belongings would be displayed at one of the most renowned museums in the United States.

    I went to this exhibition several times - there was something truly unique about this exhibition. There was an energizing atmosphere created by the video displaying pictures and maxims of Ostad Elahi and his music playing in the background. I also truly enjoyed the documentary that can be watched at the back of the room.

    This exhibition spurred my motivation to study Ostad Elahi's teachings better, and although I am far from grasping all its subtleties, it is undeniable that his music is an extension of his teachings - uplifting and humbling. As a law student, I was also truly inspired by Ostad Elahi's judicial career and his truly ethical approach to judging.

    So thank you to the Met for this rare exhibition, and I hope that another exhibition about Ostad Elahi's life or music will soon see the day, either at the Met or elsewhere.

    Posted: January 4, 2015, 10:10 a.m.

  • Alejandro says:

    I wanted to know whether there will be any final tours or a closing event by the time this exhibit ends. if so, where can I RSVP? Thank you.

    Posted: January 4, 2015, 11:11 p.m.

  • Anne Dunleavy says:

    Dear Alejandro,

    Public programming related to this exhibition has ended, but we encourage you to visit and see the show for yourself before it closes on January 11. Thank you for your interest!

    Anne Dunleavy
    Website Managing Editor

    Posted: January 5, 2015, 1:55 p.m.

  • Prateeti Ballal says:

    This exhibit has evoked so much interest and seems to have inspired so many people. Is there no way of extending it by public demand even by a week or two?

    Posted: January 8, 2015, 8:40 p.m.

  • ARI says:

    This comment contains my express thanks to the MET organizers, and I am extremely grateful for this impressively tremendous exhibition. As a visitor from Germany I was struck by the breadth and depth of the content of "The Sacred Lute" exibition at the MET - a Eldorado where the human aspect and creative genius are omnipresent.

    The admirable generosity and dedication of Ostad Elahi accompanied you from the beginning to the end. Beside the absolute accoustic blessing it was the intelligent arrangement wich consisted of a historical , a material social and work-related but also a musical "supernatural" outline which indicated Ostad Elahis stature as a person, his goodness and magnanimity.

    I noticed a warm welcome as one would personally met this great personality. Immediately I was taken and fascinated with this simple and yet wonderful art of music and the by the name of Ostad Elahi. I was also impressed with the beauty of the instrument Tanbur shown in videos and records around the The Sacred Lute exhibition.

    I was heartened to see and hear just how enthusiastic people became acquainted and enjoyed Elahis musicial expression in a technically and spiritual perfect way. Only in this way one can understand the real purpose of musical activity - the connection with our soul. During each composition of Ostad Elahis tanbur music, it was as I reconnected with an old friend and met a wonderful person.

    Posted: January 12, 2015, 4:28 p.m.

  • John says:

    I was fortunate to have visited this exhibit in December at the Met. Now it is over, i wish i had friends come along and discover who Ostad Elahi was. Hopefully, someday, there will be a permanent exhibit.

    Posted: January 14, 2015, 4:35 p.m.

  • Ken says:

    Many thanks to all who visited the exhibition, to my colleagues in the Department of Islamic Art, our lenders and to The Nour Foundation for its support.. It was a pleasure to have an opportunity to draw attention to the life an talents of this extraordinary musician, judge, and spiritual leader.

    Curators approach topics in different ways with the aim to share their own discoveries and enthusiasm with a larger audience. Museum's are a place for discovery, contemplation, study, and preservation of cultural heritage and I hope that all of these applied in this instance. It was an honor to bring this piece of the human experience to the Met's visitors. Apologies for not being able to extend the show.

    Here's to more discoveries and experiences at The Metropolitan Museum of Art!

    Ken Moore, Department of Musical Instruments

    Posted: January 16, 2015, 2:30 p.m.

  • Diana says:

    First of all I wanted to deeply thank the Met to have hosted such a Beautiful and "Sweet" exhibition!
    I came back to my home town with a heart full of joy because the opportunity was given to me to attend this kind of exhibition in the Great and worldwide known Metropolitan Museum.
    I feel sorry for those who did not or could not see the exhibition because words cannot describe the atmosphere within that Room. I sincerely hope that the opportunity to experience such an event will be given to them in the future!
    Bravo again!

    Posted: January 19, 2015, 10:47 a.m.

  • A says:

    Wonderful exhibition, very interesting. I was touched by many things (all i think !!) : the music, the movie and the different testimonials, touched by all the qualities of this man as a musician, philosopher, writer, calligrapher, judge… i ve felt something very pure from this place, serene and at the same time, intense and deep. Thank you !

    Posted: January 24, 2015, 1:07 p.m.

  • Vera says:

    I'm here addressing the MET and Curator and whoever could answer my request ...
    I'm looking for a video or more pictures about this exhibition. I was hoping that the MET could let us have access to it now that it's finished on website ...
    I've had the opportunity to visit it and I regret that it's over now and we can't see any of the items that were exposed. Or read any of the comments because no pictures were allowed.
    This exhibit was such a joy and high level quality, I miss it.
    May be it's going to be on line soon...
    Tell us... Thanks

    Posted: January 26, 2015, 3:42 p.m.

  • Ken Moore says:

    Dear Vera:

    I would like to draw your attention to two links: The Sunday at the Met program (http://www.metmuseum.org/metmedia/video/lectures/sam-the-sacred-lute) and NYC-ARTS for a more in-depth look at the exhibition (http://www.nyc-arts.org/showclips/118416/the-sacred-lute-the-art-of-ostad-elahi-i-nyc-arts-profile).

    Also, please revisit the Met for the exhibition "Celebrating Sax" on the work of Adolphe Sax and his family. It’s located in the Musical Instruments Galleries.


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

    Posted: February 9, 2015, 5:32 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.