Mohammad-Reza Shajarian (second left) at a concert in London in November 2005. Photo: Khashayar Karimi / Wikipedia

Few artists in modern times have been able to connect Iranians of different generations as dexterously as Mohammad Reza Shajarian has done. On the surface, he is a singer like hundreds of vocal artists worldwide who release albums, perform concerts and entertain their audience. But the sublime heritage maestro Shajarian has left throughout six decades of practicing arts at the highest levels makes him an icon more special than a normal artist with limited skills and a limited discography.

For Iranian art connoisseurs who listen to and study music professionally, and for Iranians who happen to listen to random tracks from time to time, the name of Mohammad Reza Shajarian resonates with the craft of vocalization and singing.

Born in 1940 in the pilgrimage city of Mashhad, Shajarian began learning Koran recitation from his father when he was five. At the age of 12, he started studying the melodic corpus of Persian classical music, locally referred to as radif, and at the same time was learning to play the santur, a dulcimer of Mesopotamian origin.

In 1959, when he was only 19, he made his classical-music debut on Iran’s Radio Khorasan as a singer. Shajarian studied with such prominent mentors of Persian music as Esmail Mehrtash, Ahmad Ebadi, Faramarz Payvar and Abdollah Khan Davami, and the opportunity to learn from these masters endowed him with a strong appreciation of the classical style of unmetered singing, avaz, which he later in his career developed into a customized practice of his own.

Aside from teaching at the University of Tehran’s Department of Fine Arts and being a proficient calligrapher, Shajarian boasts an extensive knowledge of Persian poetry and is also credited with the invention of 14 novel instruments.

Iranian music lovers and media are unanimous in identifying him as the greatest master of Persian classical music. On top of being the composer of exquisite musical works, he has handed down his artistic finesse and ingenuity to his offspring, including his one son Homayoun Shajarian, who is a widely popular vocalist in Iran, and his daughter Mojgan Shajarian, a painter, graphic designer and sculptress living in the United States.

The maestro’s contributions to Persian classical music and his perseverance, innovations and humanitarian gestures have won him international acclaim.

In 1999, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization presented a Picasso Medal to Shajarian for his role in the enrichment and development of music. In 2006, he was awarded a UNESCO Mozart Medal.

In 2014, the French government conferred the prestigious National Order of the Legion of Honor on him. National Public Radio (NPR) recognized the virtuoso as one of its 50 Great Voices in 2010.

In 2003 and 2005, he was nominated for Grammy Awards in the Best World Music category for two of his popular albums, Without You and Faryad.

And most recently, in 2019, the Agha Khan Development Network honored maestro Shajarian with a special Patron’s Award for his “enduring contribution to the musical heritage of humanity, his peerless musical mastery” and his lasting impact as a music teacher and practitioner.

Solidarity with the people

Shajarian, carrying the accolade of Ostad, an honorific title attributed to the most influential figures in Persian arts and letters and also used in the wider Middle East to eulogize outstanding masters of cultural and artistic pursuits, has lucidly demonstrated how to show solidarity with the public in times of difficulty.

In 2003, while despair and gloom engulfed the country after a devastating earthquake ravaged the historical city of Bam in southeastern Iran, Ostad Shajarian did a benefit concert for the victims at the Ministry of Interior Hall titled “Compassion for Bam” and said the initiative was rooted in his social consciousness. The entire revenues of the concert went to reconstruction efforts.

“Some do art for their own sake. I do art for the sake of humanity. For the sake of the people in whose midst I live. When I see humanity face pains and sufferings, I face them too. I too have borne these sufferings,” he said in an interview in 2012.

He also pledged funding to the establishment of Bam Art Garden with the aim of promoting artistic and cultural activities in the quake-hit city. However, in 2009, citing the complexities of bureaucratic procedures imposed by the city officials, he pulled out of the project.

It was in 2009 when Shajarian reasserted himself as a popular icon who sided with people when they needed him. In the aftermath of the disputed 2009 presidential election, which saw the controversial re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Shajarian objected to the broadcasting of his songs on the state TV synched with celebratory, propaganda footage of the hardliner president.

Ahmadinejad, disliked by many middle-class Iranians, was seen to have rigged the vote, in an election the entire political, military and media apparatus of the state had mobilized to secure his re-entry to the presidential palace, and Shajarian’s objection was enough for his voice to be permanently banned from state TV.

Prior to that sad episode, Shajarian’s voice had been a fixture on state TV. However, he fell out of favor after the 2009 election, having unequivocally stated his disapproval of the hardliners’ chosen apostle Ahmadinejad.

Decrying the use of force in cracking down on Green Movement protesters in 2009, Shajarian composed the viral song “Language of Fire,” and invited the government and armed forces to a reconciliation with the people at a nationally tense moment.

“Lay down your guns,” he sang. “Come, sit down, talk, hear. Perhaps the light of humanity will get through to your heart too.”

For backing a resentful group who believed their vote had been stolen, Shajarian was spurned by those in power.  

Even his nostalgic recorded supplication for the Iftar time, “Rabbana,” which had been aired by different state TV channels during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan for some 30 years, was eliminated from the official programming after the 2009 election, prompting objections by Iranians from all walks of life, including the moderate President Hassan Rouhani, who replaced Ahmadinejad in 2013.

Abbas Milani, a renowned Iranian-American scholar and Stanford University professor, says Shajarian’s prayer immerses him in his youth days back in Iran: “When I still hear it, I get a chill to my bone and think that this is not the voice of a mere mortal – this is the gods speaking to us.”

Maestro and cancer

The bad news about the legendary vocalist is that he has been battling kidney cancer for some 19 years. He revealed the misfortune through a YouTube video in 2016, when he was in Canada. He referred to the disease as an “old friend” who would stay with him for some time.

Since then, he has been hospitalized several times and undergone numerous surgeries, and has so far been able to overcome what is a deadly disease. Millions of Iranians, Persian-speaking people in other countries and members of Iranian diaspora have been ardently following the developments in the singer’s health.

The latest development is that on January 27, he underwent surgery after the resurgence of his cancer. Social-media users in Iran reacted sentimentally and posted hundreds of solidarity messages, wishing the maestro good health and wellbeing.

A couple of times on February 21, rumors spread that he had passed away, but his family denied the reports. Large groups of people were videoed gathering in front of the hospital where he was being kept for the operation, interrogating the maestro’s physicians about his health and whether he was being adequately looked after.

Shajarian is an artist who has created bonds of affinity among Iranians of different age groups and different social and political communities. His work has straddled the line between the Mohammad Reza Pahlavi era and the Islamic Revolution, keeping an audience thirsty for elegant, delicate Persian music continually sated.

Although Mohammad Reza Shajarian’s work is now depicted by the state as politically charged, which plays into the narrative that he is a protest singer, the truth is that the epic vocalist belongs to all those whose hearts beat for a peaceful world, in which literature and good poetry are held in high esteem, and all those who enjoy inspirational classical music.

He is an artist who has rarely been involved in political quarrels and is cherished by a nation for what he has achieved and his use of words and harmonies to make the world a more sustainable place to live.

Kourosh Ziabari is a journalist based in Iran. He is the recipient of a Chevening Award from the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He is also an American Middle Eastern Network for Dialogue at Stanford (AMENDS) Fellow.