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British Museum Opens New Exhibition, Takhti: A Modern Iranian Hero
Takhti. ⓒmixed media 2007.

LONDON.- This exhibition focuses on a single, recently acquired work by Iranian contemporary artist Khosrow Hassanzadeh. The display coincides with the major exhibition Shah ʿAbbas: The Remaking of Iran.

Hassanzadeh lives and works in Tehran and is an artist drawn very much to his Iranian heritage, which provides him with his principal sources of inspiration. The work offers a contemporary perspective on Iranian history, religion and culture. At the heart of this vibrant and colourful work is an image of the wrestler Ghulamreza Takhti who is encased in a shrine-like structure, surrounded by gently flashing lights and a series of deliberately placed objects, each one of which links into the Iranian past.

Takhti was no ordinary person. He was a Jahan Pahlavan, a ‘World Wrestler’, who won Olympic medals and who died tragically young at the age of 37 in 1968. His death was officially listed as suicide, but there is still some mystery attached to it. Idolised during his lifetime, his memory is cherished by all Iranians and every year the anniversary of his death is commemorated at the cemetery in southern Tehran where he is buried.

The affection that Iranians feel for him rests not only on his prowess as a wrestler but on his personality, his courage, his sense of fair play and his kindness. He is particularly remembered for his activities following the earthquake of Buyin Zahra near Qazvin in 1962 when he and his friends loaded up trucks with blankets and food and distributed these, together with money they had collected, among the poor. An often repeated story concerns his fight with the Russian Alexander Medved during which Takhti nobly avoided touching Medved’s leg because of a recent injury. For Iranians this kind of heroic behaviour epitomises chivalrous qualities known as javanmardi.

Hassanzadeh emphasises the reverence felt for Takhti by placing him within a structure that echoes the hejleh, temporary shrines that are put up all over Iran to commemorate the dead. As a young man Hassanzadeh fought in the Iran–Iraq war (1980–8), a terrible war in which many died on both sides and which had a profound effect on the artist. Those who died are revered as martyrs, this connects to the very heart of Iranian Shi’ism in which martyrdom plays a central role. Khosrow Hassanzadeh said: "Takhti represents a time that has passed in Iran, a time that I miss, a time destroyed by war, economics and politics".

The pahlavan tradition, which is a favourite theme in Hassanzadeh’s work, is again deeply imbedded in Iranian history. It has ancient roots stretching back to the age of the epic heroes of the pre-Islamic era. One of the best known of these is Rustam, a man of great stature, who could slay beasts with a single blow and whose tales of bravery and heroism are found in the Shahnameh, the King’s Book of Kings. He is the Jahan Pahlavan of the ancient world.

A part of the rituals surrounding pahlavan is the wearing of specific items. One of these is an armband known as a bazuband which Takhti always wore and which is visible in the portrait. This was a bracelet worn on the upper arm containing protective amulets. As Rustam was the Jahan Pahlavan of the ancient world, Mahmoud of Kharazm, better known as Pouria-ye Vali, was the Jahan Pahlavan of the Islamic era. He was a Sufi and a poet (d.1322) and to this day wrestlers and those practising in the zurkhaneh swear an oath of allegiance to Pouria-ye Vali and sing his verses.

Although the practice of wrestling and exercises has a long tradition, the place where the training took place, the zurkhaneh, literally the House of Strength, seems only to have come into being as an institution in the Safavid period (1501–1722) around the time Shah ʿAbbas ruled. It was under the Safavids that Shi’ism became adopted as the official religion of Iran and from then on the rituals of the zurkhaneh are intricately woven with Shi’ism. In Hassanzadeh’s art work, the strength of the connection with Shi’ism is emphasised by objects which include, at the base of the work, the split sword of ‘Ali known as Dhu’l Faqar. There are also plaques with the names of ‘Ali and his eleven descendants (known as Imams) revered by the Shi’a. There is a hand with the names of the Prophet’s family. Takhti himself felt powerful reverence for ‘Ali about whom he said: "I learnt from Imam ‘Ali that one has to stand up to any injustice and that one has to make an effort to gain victory... and to rely on God when entering the platform".

Takhti is therefore a hero in a land of heroes and Hassanzadeh’s magnificent work offers a powerful insight into the culture of a country whose ancient traditions form such a key part of life today.

The acquisition of this work adds to the growing collection of modern and contemporary Middle Eastern art in the Museum. This collection was showcased in the 2006 exhibition Word Into Art: Contemporary Artists of the Modern Middle East. The British Museum is committed to contemporary collecting and seeks to acquire works that relate to the existing collection and speak of their time.

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