by Mohbaddin Samad
This comic/romantic operetta concerns a rich, young businessman who is looking for a wife in Shusha, Karabagh, in the early 1900s. This is difficult, because women are kept at home and when allowed out are heavily veiled. But Asker wants to see and choose his bride himself before marriage. His friend Suleyman suggests that Asker disguises himself as a fabric peddler - a sure way to meet women. Asker agrees and goes round the houses selling fabrics. One day he meets Gulchohra; they fall hopelessly in love with each other, even though she thinks he is only a peddler.
Asker then asks Gulchohra´s father - the wealthy Sultan bey – in his true position as the rich businessman, for permission to marry Gulchohra. Sultan bey accepts but when he tells his daughter, she objects - she can only love the peddler. Gulchohra, of course, eventually learns that the ‘rich businessman’ is really her beloved peddler.
The story actually ends with four couples getting married at the same time – all have met and chosen for themselves.
Innovation gets a mixed reception
The operetta “Arshin Mal Alan” (‘The Cloth Peddler’ – ed) was composed by Uzeyir Hajibeyov in 1913 while he was studying in Petersburg. Although the operetta, which was a form and genre new to the musical theatre of Azerbaijan, was exposed to reactionary attacks it soon overcame all obstacles and was staged in the same year, on 25 October.
“The way must be shown to a nation which has been buried in superstition for so long. Instead of this, inculcating these kinds of activities and inclinations into people honestly does not satisfy us”.
Nevertheless, “Arshin Mal Alan” won the love of its audience and became one of the best-loved operettas. Huseyngulu Sarabsky, realising the affection held for the operetta, staged it for the third time in Zeynalabdin Taghiyev’s theatre on 8 November 1913.
The first performances of “Arshin Mal Alan” in Baku also went down well with intellectuals of other nationalities. On 12 September 1916 the operetta was staged in the Georgian language for the first time in Baku. Abbas Mirzah Sharif-Zadeh directed the production, while Uzeyir Hajibeyov conducted. The best actors from Tiflis (Tbilisi) played in the show. A famous Georgian actor of that time, Vahan Yakovlev, played Soltan bey, Chamburadze played Asker, Armenian actress Knarik played Asiya, Yolidze played Telli, Abovyan played Vali and Suraya Gajar was Gulchohra!
People´s Artist of Azerbaijan Suraya Gajar said of the operetta: “Most of all I liked the roles of Gulchohra and Asiya in the operetta. I wanted to play one of them. Very soon my dreams came true. With the advice and insistence of that distinguished master of the stage Abbas Mirzah Sharif-Zadeh, I began to perform in “Arshin Mal Alan”. I played the parts of Gulchohra and Asiya at various times.
Scene from the film “Arshin Mal Alan”; Alekber Huseinzadeh playing Soltan Bey, Rashid Behbudov – Asker, Lutfali Abdullayev – Veli. 1945The late Uzeyir Hajibeyov always told me when he saw me: “Suraya khanim, it is as if you were born to play these characters. I am always happy with your performance”. I was cheered by those words from the great composer and was inspired to play much better in the next show. I played “Arshin Mal Alan” many times. We were often on tour: to Ganja, Irevan, Nakhchivan, Iran... However, I never felt upset or distressed when playing, because I liked both the operetta and the roles I played.
I must acknowledge that not only I, but the colleagues who performed with me – Huseyngulu Sarabsky, Mammadtaghi Baghirov, Aziza Mammadova, Dadash Sharabli, Mirzagha Aliyev and Ahmad Anatollu - also played their parts very skilfully. In general, “Arshin Mal Alan” captured hearts from its first staging and it became a favourite with audiences. What made it such a favourite for both actors and audience? Of course, first of all it was because of Uzeyir Hajibeyov’s miraculous music. We have to admit that the operetta’s music, based on folk music tunes, is still highly original and particularly helps us discover the characters’ inner features. Briefly, the operetta “Arshin Mal Alan” is the most valuable gem in the history of musical comedy theatre. I am very happy that I was one of the first performers of this brilliant composition”.
Uzeyir Hajibeyov continued the traditions in “Arshin Mal Alan” that he had established in his preceding compositions, like “Er ve Arvad” (“Wife and Husband”), “O Olmasin bu Olsun” (Not This One, then That One). Although in the main the musical dramaturgy of “Arshin Mal Alan” is a complete change from the dramaturgy of the comedies “Er ve Arvad” and “O Olmasin bu Olsun”. While in the preceding two operettas the music plays an auxiliary role, in “Arshin Mal Alan” it is important in gradually opening the main ideas of the composition, as well as in the development of events. The composer displays his creative individuality in this work in a brighter manner by basing the comedy on a platform of folk music tunes.
From the compositional standpoint, “Arshin Mal Alan” is a comedy of lyrical and everyday life. Everything centres on two young people who are struggling for their love. The composer expresses the comedy’s lyrical line in the parts of the work’s two heroes, especially in the part of Gulchohra.
The musical description of Gulchohra is attractive and interesting. Uzeyir Hajibeyov generally targeted issues of freedom and the defence of the human rights of Azerbaijani women in all his comedies. Maybe because of this, and in spite of the fact that Asker is the main hero of the work, Gulchohra’s music is more effective and passionate.
Both charm and challenge
With its dramatic qualities, too, “Arshin Mal Alan” is a complete work of art, which does not depend solely on the freedom of its music. Human senses and feelings dominate in the content, the staging of the plot and in the character types. The actions and behaviour of the characters, and their interrelations, are rooted in strong logic and authenticity. There is self-control in the opinions of the heroes and sincerity in relationships. All of them: Asker, his friend Suleyman, Gulchohra and Asiya, are young people striving for novelty; they accept progressive tendencies willingly. Asker’s actions and initiative have to be seen as expressions of progressive moral views. Asker’s and Gulchohra’s characters display great strength of will. They think: “it is better to die than to live without love”. They possess charm, tenderness and they are attractive. As a matter of fact, even in the character of Sultan bey who represents an outmoded morality: - he tries to marry his daughter by force and wants “to get married to a widow” under “sharia law”, conservatism comes adrift and loses its balance. The characters of Vali and Telli khala (aunt Telli) are also not immune to novelty.
Uzeyir Hajibeyov’s strong aesthetic beliefs are reflected in the principal ideas, inner meaning and essence of the work. The operetta is rich in the shades of national characteristics, ideological content and realism and all constitute a unity.
One feature that established the conditions for success and brought the work so close to humanity is the organic unity between text and music. The libretto itself is perfection, and the maturity of the music has a strong aesthetic effect, independent of the text. This unity is created with skilful mastery. The arias and duets of the different characters exactly express their character, psychology state and current situation. Gulchohra, who becomes sorrowful after an argument with her father Soltan bey, and is, moreover, moved to tears because she is separated from her beloved, sings an aria with the words “Everyone is sad because I am complaining” which excites the soul and touches the heart. In a word, the music of “Arshin Mal Alan” has perfect shape and content: in the true sense of the words, grandeur, fascination and tenderness permeate a music based on folk melodies and enriched with shades of classical music. This alone makes the operetta a favourite with viewers and listeners.
After its appearance on the Azerbaijan stage, “Arshin Mal Alan” ventured across the borders and appeared in theatres in Tiflis (Tbilisi), Irevan (Erevan), Ashgabat, neighbouring Iran and also Turkey.
It was first staged in the city of Marand (Iran) in the Shujain-Nizam Palace in 1917. The performance was a great success. “Arshin Mal Alan” was performed for women and assumed great significance in theatre in Iran. People´s Artist of Azerbaijan, the late Mustafa Mardanov, who participated in that performance, wrote in his memoirs: “In the second act of the operetta “Arshin Mal Alan”, when Gulchohra was bemoaning her fate and singing a ghazal (a kind of eastern poem) by Fuzuli “Everyone is sad because I am complaining” I glanced at the young harem women. Most of them were crying plaintively to this lyrical melody composed with such inspiration by Uzeyir Hajibeyov. The character of Gulchohra, created by a great composer, was so close to them, because Gulchohra represents millions of eastern women who are oppressed and deprived of love. In the last act when Gulchohra hugged her beloved Asker, there was such thunderous applause in the auditorium that we were all astonished. Although we have been playing this for a long time, we had never heard such applause. It was natural and whole-hearted. These unhappy women, deprived of all the blessings of life, wanted to feel as free as Gulchohra even for a moment”.
The first performances of “Arshin Mal Alan” in Turkey were staged by Azerbaijani actors who left Tiflis (Tbilisi) in 1918-1919. It aroused such great interest from the very first performance that the actors had to play it 45 times in 1-2 months.
The play was performed repeatedly on stages in Azerbaijan and neighbouring states and achieved great fame, even before the Bolshevik occupation of Azerbaijan. The work was even more successful in the Soviet era. It was a frequent attraction at the opera house. Many well-known artistes produced incomparable performances of the operetta. It was greatly enhanced by the stimulating performances of these talented masters of stage. From this perspective, the success achieved by “Arshin Mal Alan” during the ten-day festival of Azerbaijani literature and art in Moscow in 1938 was remarkable indeed. This is clear from articles published in the newspapers published in Moscow in those days: “What skilful comedians the Azerbaijanis are.
People’s Artists of the Republic of Azerbaijan Murad Yeqizarov and Hasan Mammadov in the film “Arshin Mal Alan”. 1965There are such sharp ideas and laughter in this play, so much boundless joy in the performances of the actors, and orchestral music... that one can’t help laughing, even without knowing the language.” (‘Izvestiya’). “...With its scenes of real life, “Arshin Mal Alan” appears before the audience as a classical national comedy reflecting the morals and everyday life of the immediate past, which have passed once and for all”. (‘Sovetskaya kultura’ (Soviet culture), 1938). The work was soon staged in different parts of the USSR – in the cities of Rostov, Simferopol, Saratov and in Tajikistan. A special programme was organised about “Arshin Mal Alan” on Moscow radio during World War II. It was later staged in Bulgaria, Poland, the Czech Republic, India, China etc.
Well-known Azerbaijani journalist Gulam Mammadli said: “In spite of the fact that much time has passed since it was composed and first staged, we could talk so much about the operetta “Arshin Mal Alan”, and even then there would still be something left to say. It has been translated into so many languages and staged in so many countries that it seems “Arshin Mal Alan” has been performed on all continents apart from Antarctica.
For all time
It is as though Uzeyir Hajibeyov had foreseen this. While in Petersburg composing the operetta, he wrote to Huseyngulu Sarabsky, his friend in Baku: “It is going to be a very unusual operetta”. Indeed, “Arshin Mal Alan” did become a very unusual operetta. After one-two months of composition it was translated into Armenian, Georgian, Russian and other languages. There was more to come. In 1916 it was screened in Baku. The first time I watched this film - which was shot secretly, without Uzeyir bey’s knowledge - was in Ashgabat in January 1917. It was a very imperfect and primitive film. Shortages of technical equipment and inexperience in movie making had not allowed the director to display his talent.
The second version of “Arshin Mal Alan” I saw was screened by Americans in February 1942, in Tabriz. In comparison with the first version, the American version was absolutely perfect from a technical point of view. However, there was no sign of the reality of everyday life and environment of Azerbaijan. There was nothing left except the distorted plot. The Americans aimed to earn a lot of money by showing the movie in Eastern countries. I should note that in this version the name of the work was also changed. I remember I mentioned this to Uzeyir Hajibeyov and it upset him very much.
The third and fourth versions of “Arshin Mal Alan” have been watched by most audiences. Both are considered to be good movies produced in Azerbaijan.
I have seen this operetta many times over the years. But I am not sated yet and it seems to me I never will be!..”
Every century is remembered for its own features and peculiarities. The XX century has gone down for the splitting of the atom and for space exploration. We are on the threshold of the XXI century, so we can’t yet deliver a rational opinion about this century. However, we can tell the simple truth that the expansion of engineering and technology, and especially the rapid development of computers and internet in this century, has completely displaced moral values. Nowadays such fields as literature, arts, music, theatre and others face threats to their existence. Notwithstanding this, we hear good news about “Arshin Mal Alan” from different countries. For example, “Arshin Mal Alan” has been staged in a new production in Vienna, the capital of Austria. It is also being staged in New York, Berlin and Beijing.
Yes, the operetta “Arshin Mal Alan” has been performed in Azerbaijan and other countries with great affection since the day of its creation. And it is always received by lovers of the art with the same affection and love.
Years will pass, generations will change. But “Arshin Mal Alan” will not change its personality. It will continue to delight audiences as before and bestow more joy, because this operetta is embellished with the words and music of Uzeyir Hajibeyov.