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Worth a read... Neither masterpiece nor particularly outstanding, yet none will bore the lover of literature. Reading them, one will always find something of value... Armenian News Network / Groong May 21, 2001 By Eddie Arnavoudian 1. Haroutyoun Sevajian - An Armenian democrat in Ottoman Bolis Sometimes even the dullest book can be read with benefit. Today, as with many other prominent pre-1915 Armenian historical figures, Haroutyoun Sevajian (1831-1875) is virtually unknown. Yet he was one of the best representatives of the mid-19th century Armenian national revival. So Assadour Assadrian's 'Haroutyoun Sevajian (Armenian Academy of Sciences, 284pp, 1967, Yerevan), albeit turgid, is of value in distilling at least the outlines of his life and work. Sevajian was gone by the time he was 44. He may not have possessed the genius and sparkle of Abovian or Nalpantian, yet in his brief life he contributed significantly to the development a modern Armenian national consciousness. As proprietor and sometimes editor of Meghou (The Bee), a task he shared with Hagop Baronian, Sevajian propounded his views on solutions to the problems confronting the Armenian people in the decaying decades of the Ottoman Empire. 'This age' he wrote 'is an age of nation-building and if Armenians remain indifferent to the task, then they are condemned to perish.' In the service of nation building Sevajian wrote prolifically on economic, social, educational and cultural issues. Meghou, one of the first Armenian satirical journals and the first among Armenians to use cartoons, also contributed to the development of Armenian theatre which Sevajian thought was 'a powerful means of refining the spirit, inspiring the heart, developing a sense of beauty and refining the sensibilities of the community. In a word, it is a means of educating and ennobling man.' Besides writing, Sevajian participated in the launching of an amazing educational organisation which recruited hundreds of ardent volunteers in a major adult literacy campaign. Simultaneously he collaborated with and remained a staunch defender of Mikael Nalpantian, a much-persecuted kindred spirit working on similar lines in Eastern Armenia. Sevajian also defended Khrimian Hayrig against obscurantist clerical assault. Needless to say, he was persecuted relentlessly by the Armenian amiras and the clergy who did all in their power to thwart him. What marks Sevajian's contribution from many of his contemporaries was his fervent pan-Armenianism. He in Bolis, like Nalpantian in the East, believed that only a pan-Armenian national political movement, which overcame debilitating colonial-imposed Eastern and Western Armenian divisions and parochialisms, could harness sufficient energy and power to secure the rights of the Armenian nation. For Sevajian, writes Assadrian, the 'process of nation building involved the unification of Eastern and Western Armenians in the name of an overall national aim - liberation both from Tsarist Russia and the Ottoman Empire.' The development of such a united, all-embracing national movement was not just a noble sounding abstraction. Assadrian shows that for Sevajian it was an urgent project without which the Armenian people would perish beneath the growing burden of poverty, ignorance and suffering. Thus the urgent call on Armenians to 'pull ourselves together - to consider the mire of misery we are sunk in, right up to our necks! If we do not forthwith free ourselves from its burden - we will soon go under.' The issue of democracy, the task of democratising Armenian life was the center of his concern. The profoundly democratic spirit that animated Sevajian's work is evident in his defence of the 1860 Armenian National Constitution. This and the formation of a National Assembly based in Bolis expressed within the Ottoman Empire the development of a degree of internal Armenian autonomy. Significantly, it also secured a degree of popular, democratic independence for the Armenian people from the tyrannical Armenian Church and the Amira elite. Despite the gross limits of both Constitution and Assembly, Sevajian defended them vigorously, arguing that those who were 'obstacles or who delayed its work, even though they be Armenians, were in fact national enemies, traitors and executioners of the nation - and of themselves.' It is in this context that Sevajian argued for a free press seeing it as 'the very soul of the Constitution'. A free press would enable the people' to keep a watchful eye on and subject to criticism those for whom they had voted.' Opponents of the free press sought to destroy the one instrument that guaranteed popular sovereignty against those who would re-impose their 'worn out and pitiable system' that was bringing the Armenian people to the point of ruin. To grasp the full stature of people like Sevajian, one needs to have a conception of the reactionary, corrupt and anti-democratic character of the contemporary Church and secular elite. Tied in to the political and economic structures of the Ottoman Empire, they had become its accomplices in the oppression of the Armenian people, ruling Armenian life with an unsurpassed tyranny, driven by nothing more than narrow self-interest. Sevajian's condemnation of this elite strikes a chord with us even today: 'Besides having seized control of the Church and its income (this small minority) has also seized control of our secular life - where it always sides with the wealthy, that is with those who give them the most money - Thus they have become the tyrants exploiting the local population.' In pursuit of his pan-Armenian project Sevajian also put ancient Armenian history at the service of the modern struggle for freedom. Not only did he encourage celebrating the Vartanantz war, but against the wishes of a hidebound Church, he sought to make it the property of the secular movement. But his recourse to the perceived glories of the Armenian past was not tainted by narrow chauvinism. As examples of national movements Armenians should emulate, he also frequently referred to the Italian movement of Garibaldi and Mazzini. To comment meaningfully on the appalling deficiencies of this volume would take up too much space. Suffice it to note that despite frequent direct quotations, Assadrian fails to bring Sevajian's character to life. The author's dispassionate discourse lacks love for his subject, leaving the reader to conclude that the book was written only to add Throughout comparing Sevajian and Nalpantian, Assadrian seems at pains to demean the former. Compared to the vivid, vibrant and colourful Abovian that jumps from the pages of a similar-style monograph by Muratian, Assadrian's Sevajian is but a ghost of a figure. But with Sevajian rapidly vanishing from historical consciousness this bad book is worth reading, even if only to encourage us to return to Sevajian's original works. 2. The musical genius of Komitas In the context of the recently published 'The Archaeology of Madness Komitas: Portrait of an Armenian Icon' by Rita Soulahian Kuyumjian, Rouben Terlemezian's 'Komitas' (Armenian Academy of Sciences, 148pp, Yerevan, 1992) written in the 1930s in Soviet Armenia is perhaps no substitute. But it has its value and highlights certain decisive themes in Komitas' work that deserve remark. Terlemezian was one of the first people to undertake a systematic study of Komitas' heritage, collating and publishing Komitas' original music and articles as well as commentaries by other people. In this slim volume, he succeeds in bringing to life this musical genius. The son of a cobbler, Komitas was propelled to the summit of national fame by his passion for the authentic sound of Armenian music. Possessed of perfect pitch he collected thousands of Armenian folk songs, arranging scores of them in brilliantly original fashion. His gigantic endeavours to preserve folk music unearthed the genuine tones of an ancient and authentic Armenian music freed of later Arabic, Turkish and Kurdish influences. So remarkable was his work that the foremost musical critics of his time declared that he had opened to Europe a hitherto hidden but fantastic musical world. Komitas's studies led him to a number of significant conclusions. Armenian Church music, he claimed, has embedded within it fundamental elements of ancient folk tradition. Psalms (Sharagan), in particular, intertwined both the content and musical forms of ancient traditions. Subsequent Persian, Arabic and Turkish influences frequently concealed what was an original tradition which, while remaining decidedly eastern, retained its own unique form. Komitas' life project, cut short by the genocide, was the recovery and the development of this unique idiom. For his efforts Komitas incurred the wrath of the Armenian establishment. He was clearly a leading and brilliant figure of the Armenian national revival for which he was vilified by all those conservative forces that opposed secular democratic developments in the Armenian community. Being himself a clergyman, he suffered particularly at the hands of the Church establishment. The book offers no clear account of the causes that underlay Church hostility to Komitas. One can infer, however, that at the root of this hostility was Komitas' popularisation of Armenian Church music and his readiness to perform it in secular environments - to, it must be said, great acclaim. With the Church's cultural heritage becoming the property of the people, of the secular world, Church music and Church culture in general ceased to be a mystical medium of reactionary Church power and control over the population. Instead it was being put to the service of the people's emancipation and enlightenment, serving as an instrument to develop national consciousness and national culture. This development clearly undermined both the cultural and the wider social power of the Church. A second significant point to emerge from Terlemezian's book is the contempt for Komitas and Armenian music displayed by a substantial proportion of the narrow-minded Armenian moneyed class of his age. This assimilationist Europhiles, with their haughty scorn for authentic Armenian tunes, preferred to listen to the latest brand of European mediocrity. Thus this elite revealed its gross philistinism and its ignorant opposition to a universal cultural heritage that was preserved in the popular tradition and recorded for posterity by Komitas. History has validated Komitas' evaluation and buried the ignorant protests of his contemporary opponents. Yet today his legacy is in danger. In danger of being swamped by the crass and commercialized music of market-globalism. We should not reject the value of international influences in the development of especially Armenian music. But a condition for genuine cultural symbiosis is the preservation of original values. Referring to the decline in performances of Komitas' work in Armenia, a commentator recently noted that in the name of globalisation 'we are being asked to perform popular American music but I can't see the Americans performing works of Komitas!' ------------------------------------------------------------------- Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in history and politics from Manchester, England, and is Groong's commentator-in-residence on Armenian literature. His works on literary and political issues have also appeared in Harach in Paris, Nairi in Beirut and Open Letter in Los Angeles.