Armenia On My Mind

Myself in Parajanov Museum 1a
Galovic in the Parajanov Museum in July 2018

Galovic in the Parajanov Museum in July 2018

BY MICHAEL GALOVIC

On Beauty, Sadness, Transcendence, Nicole Kidman, ice cream and so forth…

“I like (watching) Nicole Kidman” the monk said. “What about Cate Blanchette” asked I. “Oh, yes, Cate Blanchette, too… And Djokovic as well!” The mention of this unlikely trio occurred in Sameba, The Holy Trinity Cathedral in Tbilisi, on my last day there before returning to Australia.

My interests were the new frescoes painted by Amiran Goglidze probably the leading contemporary Georgian iconographer. His monumental Christ Enthroned was there in the apse, under the dome, completed, while the dome itself remained untouched. Why was not the dome painted first as customary in Orthodox churches? Monk John just shrugged shoulders before we said our goodbyes; he would not know and did not seem particularly fussed by the issue.

My tour of Georgia and Armenia with John Graham Tours was extended for one day after the regular 13 days to make possible yet another beautiful encounter, or information, or just to relax and partly process the immensity of what was seen in a fortnight. And, after the visit to Sameba Cathedral, in the evening I went to another performance of Revaz-Rezo Gabriadze, in his famed puppet theatre by the twisted tower which (both) became a must for any visitor to this city. More of it later.

“A good traveller does not know his destination. A perfect traveler does not know where he comes from” (Lao Tse).

The author with Armen Badalayan and Suzanna Melqonyan in Garni temple

The author with Armen Badalayan and Suzanna Melqonyan in Garni temple

Well, I thought I knew what was I supposed to see and experience in Georgia and Armenia: many churches, monasteries, museums, ancient sites, interesting landscapes, Mount Ararat, old frescoes, ancient manuscripts, the best stone-carved crosses you could find anywhere in the world… All of it was there, plus daily surprises and injections of unexpected beauty, seductive Georgian chanting and Armenian singing, long festive spreads awaiting for us pekish pilgrims, always in nice, sometimes, spectacular settings… The tour was masterly run by John Graham who combined his insider’s knowledge of the area, especially Georgia, with his openness, niceness and endless patience. He is also one of the rare tour leaders who thoroughly grasped the importance of ice cream which when consumed at right moments remove the tiredness and grumpiness replacing them with joy and the lightness of being. Our serotonin levels were kept high at all times.

Another photo of the author at the Parajanov Museum

Another photo of the author at the Parajanov Museum

The tour was practically constantly illuminated by “highlights.” The images and names tended to become a blur after a while but emotions and memories remain, all of us feeling echoes of the tour long after its finish, but some of them remain simply unforgettable. An impossibly beautiful couple of Armenian opera singers was performing for us first at the Haghpat Monastery cloister. I had impression heavens were descending upon us; then at the Garni temple they sang secular, folk songs usually performed while working the land, with oxen, we were told. The delivery was so transcendental that I wondered what kind of people have songs like that for everyday toil; how are songs about love supposed to sound then? And I should not forget the winemaker poet-philosopher extraordinaire, Avag Harutunian who gifted me his book Viticulture and winemaking in Armenia with a dedication in Russian! I would be hoping again to be enchanted with deep wine stories from this archpriest of winemaking and its sacred origins. His presentation was spell-binding, and we all felt in a presence of a master, whose objective was to educate and spread the philosophy of wine consuming, rather than to charm us into selling us some of his produce.

Armenia is obviously a country of wonderful people. Their immense suffering in the past and ever continuing struggle did not deprive them of great sense of humor. If we are talking about the beauty, we should also mention the sadness, which we experienced in the Museum of Genocide. Perhaps they are meant to go hand in hand, as beautiful Mothers of God in Orthodox iconography whose faces always carry a shade of sadness, as the Theotokos is constantly aware of the future Passion of her Son. If anyone anywhere had any doubt about the Armenian genocide and the cruel magnitude of 1500.000 lives lost in vain, they should just come and visit this place of sorrows and misbelief where Museum presenters try to be dispassionate when they talk about the deviant misdeads over their beloved people and only want you to be aware of one of the greatest crimes in the history of humanity.

Counterbalancing this, I recall wonderful Wiliam Saroyan a writer whose humor is uplifting at all times. Armenians ARE perfectly capable of making jokes, ever in face of constant adversities. Armenians consider themselves as one of the most ancient peoples in the world, apart from the fact that they were the first nation to receive Christianity. The joke says that one day, Noah’s Ark landed on Mount Ararat and surrounding villagers could see the disembarkation of animals, and Noah’s family. Their conclusion: “Circus is back in town…” Or, thinking of joining forces with Georgia and becoming one country, they also thought of a name which would accommodate both of them; in the end they came up with: “Giorgio Armani”?!

My personal highlight still has to be the visit to the Museum of Sergei Parajanov in Yerevan.

At that point, my knowledge of Parajanov’s mastery was limited to one film: The Color of Pomegranates or Sayat-Nova, on a life of a medieval Armenian poet. That film which I saw three times on Australian SBS TV channel at least some 25 years ago, is a showcase of aesthetic, cinematic mastery of the first water. Being in the league of its own, it defied any classification and although with echoes of Pasolini and even Eisenstein, it was a unique voice in the world of cinema and still is, after some 50 years. Of its creator, Sergei Parajanov, I knew nothing while desirous to know all I could, and now was the chance. The museum’s guide told me so much about this man who looked like Hemingway from Caucasus, a person of the highest possible individuality born of Armenian parents in Tbilisi where he grew up, worked later in Ukraine and died and buried in Yerevan, which he considered his source, although he, obviously belonged to the world of art without frontiers. His two incarcerations, one of 4 years and 11 days and the second of 8 months, have largely contributed to wearing down the body of this genius, but never managed to control his human and artistic freedom. Great Parajanov was born free, celebrated life and died free spirit.

The museum contains his drawings, paintings, but above all, his whimsical collages and assemblages, often realized with the least likely of materials, such as fish scales, for instance. Some of those collages are absolute gems. There are letters of support from the world-renown artists and personalities, Pasolini, Fellini, Lilya Brik, Aragon, and several posters from various world film festivals featuring his films. One of them show Parajanov with a Dadaistic hat, and two sentences in French:

Pourqoui filmez vous, Parajanov?

Pour sanctifier la tombe de Tarkovski!

(Why do you make films, Parajanov?

For sanctify the tomb of Tarkovski).

Visiting this place to me meant a tribute to the Man and his creative, indomitable and ever-free spirit and a reminder that an artist does not need a high-tec or state-of-the-art materials, or lofty manifestos for his work; just a creative spirit, constantly exploring and pushing his own boundaries.

The author with wine expert Avag Haruturian and son Franzig July 2018 Armenia

The author with wine expert Avag Haruturian and son Franzig July 2018 Armenia

In Tbilisi our group was taken to the Rezo Gabriadze puppet theatre to see the performance Stalingrad. I must admit I didn’t know what to expect as the subject matter is one of the heaviest, a gory battle where hundreds of thousand people and horses died, so why make a theatre piece on that? Fortunately, it proved to be one of the best performances, puppets or otherwise, I have ever seen. Again, it had to be true artist of the highest level, to pull this up. Revaz, or Rezo Gabriadze is one such creative genius who is also responsible for the twisted clock tower nearby, decorated with hundreds of mosaics, which became a must for every visitor to Tbilisi to see and to take a photo of. Born in 1936 in Kutaisi, Georgia, studied art, then journalism, and then scriptwriting, Rezo proved to be a kindred spirit with Parajanov, albeit without the ill-fate of the Armenian. Rezo formed his puppet theatre in 1981 which had the major reconstruction of it in 2010, and is widely known as a painter, graphic artist and sculptor. In 2016 a permanent exhibition of Rezo’s paintings, graphics, sculptures and ceramics was opened in his gallery in Tbilisi.

I have previously arranged to stay one extra day after the tour finishes, as a good traveler, not knowing where exactly I am going. Well, it proved that besides checking on local iconography scene, I was able to get a ticket (no small feat!) for another performance in Rezo Gabriadze theatre. This time, the title was Ramona, a beautiful and tragic love story of two steam engines?! How simple and yet most poetic and symbolic! Again, one does not need great and terribly sophisticated ideas to base his art on, sometimes a plain, simple love can do and do so much!

The winds were howling on the hot July night, raising dust, an eery atmosphere as we were approaching Yerevan. Just before reaching our fine hotel Tufenkian, we had a dinner feast after a long and weary day. It was after that lavish banquet that Jayashree Rao got up and delivered her kenats, or a toast Georgians and Armenians are so famous for. Partly, this is what she said: …”When we set out to go see a different place or country, we can do it in many different ways and at many different levels of experience. At best we are fortunate to learn about a new country as well as learn something new about ourselves… My wish is that at the end of this journey may each and every one of you meet a stranger who is none other than yourself.”

Indeed, I think I met myself on this magnificent tour, but certainly also a number of remarkable people.

Did I mention ice cream?

Ode To Remarkable Armenians

This text is now merely on Armenia, Armenia lingering on my mind, Armenia I had always wanted to know, the country I have visited but briefly once and would love to know more in depth…

Before I move on to other subjects, here is some more about Sergei Parajanov, a titan whose work is becoming more and more known, despite his once relative obscurity and his untimely demise at 66; Parajanov who I talked about in my previous text but not enough as there can never be enough reminiscing of someone whose life and creativity mean the “refusal of time and empire,” someone grudgingly taken by the Grim Reaper as He, the Reaper, knows only too well that great Sergei remains ever victorious until the End of Time.

The author lights a candle at a chapel in Armenia

The author lights a candle at a chapel in Armenia

Stills from the film The Color of Pomegranate with lithe, unearthly Georgian actress Sofiko (Sophia) Chiaureli notably in six male and female roles. The ethereal Sofiko passed away in 2008, age 70, in Tbilisi.

Take note of the playfulness and celebratory traits of a man who roughed it so hard in life, when he comes up with this collage: “I sold my dacia!” (summer house or weekender). Only someone of limitless inner freedom could create and artwork like this in face of persistent adversities. This looks so much more like Fellini rather than oppressed artist in the Soviet regime…

To finish this segment on Parajanov, let us read what J. Hoberman wrote in May 2018 about this dazzling film poem that “Sayat Nova” is: “Understanding is not synonymous with enjoying. The visual language of some movies is so personal and hermetic that interpreting it could be compared to reading a novel written in hieroglyphics. “The colour of pomegranates,” also known as “Sayat Nova,” made by Soviet director Sergei Parajanov (1924-1990) is one.”

Sayat Nova in Persian means the King of Song or the Hunter of Song, a name given to this otherworldly 18th century Armenian poet-troubadour (ashig). The film was made mainly in Armenia and in a lesser measure in Georgia.

At the Parajanov museum in Yerevan, an affable man, Garegin (Garik) Grigoryan told me about another genius, apart from Parajanov, a film director, whose assistant he was himself: Artavazd Peleshyan. When I checked out his work, I was also bewildered and fascinated!

So, Artavazd Peleshyan, another film master from Armenia, together with Parajanov form the Divine Duo of Armenian cinematography. What is it with this small country that produces so many talented people? As the saying goes, is it the water…?

One of my friends from Belgrade, having read my previous text on Georgia and Armenia tour, drew my attention to the theatre play “A Beast on the Moon” by Richard Kalinoski which has been playing in Belgrade for some years now. It is an intimate drama about an Armenian immigrant couple in Milwaukee whose marriage is haunted by the 1915 genocide. The play has been translated into 12 languages, produced in 17 countries around the world, and showered with awards. Although not an Armenian himself, Richard has been married to an Armenian lady for seven years…

Last night I have seen Aida, an opera staged in Sydney Opera House, drawing a lot of attention for its lavish costumes and set design. The main role of Aida was sung by an Armenian, Natalie Aroyan who was as gracious and dignified responding to ovations at the end of the opera, as she was beautiful.

Then another friend sent an article from The New York Times, again about Armenia. The journalist Peter Balakian, is a poet who returns regularly to his ancestral country and says that after the recent “velvet revolution,” the sense of a new era is palpable.

He talks about thousand-year-old lace-like carved stone crosses (khatchkars) which feature so prominently around Armenian churches, or emerge from fields of roadside poppies. They fascinate me too. I have seen terrific examples in Ethiopia, but Armenian crosses are unsurpassable.

Apart from things and places I have already visited in Armenia, I would like to check what Peter writes about and to experience it firsthand: The Cafesjian Centre for the Arts in Yerevan, the cafe-abundant Tumanyan Street, to walk the old cobblestone street off bustling Amirian Street to check on various wonderful eateries such as Anteb, Babylon, vine-trellised courtyard restaurant and art gallery on Abovian Street, try desserts at Sherep restaurant, and go back again to Republic Square with its monumental rosy tufa stone buildings, illuminated fountains, to be part of the most resilient crowd optimistic about their future in spite of all adversities.

And outside of Yerevan, I would follow in Peter Balakian’s steps and visit the Goris town and stay at Mirhav, reach the ninth-century monastery Tatev, perhaps go back again to Lake Sevan to have a “perfect whitefish soup” at the lakeside restaurant Dzovadzots, visit another Tufenkian hotel Avan Dzoraget, beneath the mountains on the Debed River. It will be lovely to catch up with my new friends, tour guide Roseanna Badalyan and philologist Artsvi Bakhchinyan and listen again to the divine singing of a tenor Armen Badalyan and his soprano wife Suzanna Melkonyan!

But, by the same token this time over I would not miss listening to the magical sounds of duduk, one of my favorite instruments.

Exactly 45 years ago, I was privileged to listen the great French-Armenian cantautor Shahnour Vaghinag Aznavourian at a concert in Belgrade. It was a memorable experience. On 14th of September this year (2018) I am going to Sydney State Theatre to see and listen to that same man and pay my homage to him. While so many of us around the age of 70 (if we are still alive and still do remember our names), “stop being arsonists (long ago!) and become firemen,” putting our feet up in cozy slippers, watching our favorite TV shows, this phenomenon is wrapping up his last world tour with this concert in Australia at the age of 94!

Oh, yes. Shahnour (or Chahnour) Vaghinag Aznavourian, a singer-lyricist-actor-public activist-diplomat. He may be only 160 cm tall but reading his biography leaves one flabbergasted, And he goes by the name Charles Aznavour. I hope he will sing: “Et moi dans mon coin…” or whatever he would, as so many of his songs are my “favorites”; once more I want to see this great man reputed the “best actor” among singers on the stage, and an excellent actor in general (remember the film “Shoot the pianist”). His diminutive stature presents no problems as he completely dominates the stage and one loses any notion of his actual height. Another high achiever of a short stature. Just don’t put him next to the long-legged Cherilyn Sarkisian as the contrast might be too stark.

The daughter of an Armenian in America goes by the name Cher, and her biography is no less vertiginous than that of Charles Aznavour. Singer-actress-author-businesswoman-comedian-dancer-fashion designer-model-philanthropist-record-producer-songwriter-television host is so much more than merely a pulchritudinous woman in fishnet stockings (at times). She is the winner of Grammy Award, Emmy Award, Academy Award, 3 Golden Globe Awards, Cannes Film Festival Award, etc; she sold 100 million records and is one of the bestselling artists in history, but, outside of her music and acting, she is noted for her political views, philanthropic endeavors, and social activism… Cher is also touring Australia at the moment.

When I think of remarkable Armenians, I’d like to mention Kosta Balabanov, an archaeologist living in Macedonia Republic of former Yugoslavia, one of the greatest experts on Byzantine icons, and especially the ones found in Macedonia. He was also an honorary consul of Japan in Macedonia, a person of huge standing in the cultural world of this country, who I was privileged to have had conversations with on a number of occasions.

To finish with, I cannot bypass Georges Ivanovitch Gurdjieff. Born in Armenia, of Armenian mother and Greek father, Gurdjieff is one of most charismatic and controversial spiritual teachers of the 20th century. He inspired the formation of many groups even after his death, all of which still function today and follow his ideas. I came across his unique trilogy some 25 years ago, read it and know a number of people who are followers in Sydney, Australia.

Gurdjieff and his teachings remain an enigma as he has as many critics and detractors as he has followers and devotees. There is an ambiguity and incompleteness about his work, but the controversies and open questions only keep fostering his legend and cult status.

I would like very much to see Peter Brook’s film “Meetings with remarkable Men” (1979), starring Dragan Maksimovic and Terence Stamp, as the book of the same title is fascinating in recounting a life so vastly different and more interesting than that one of most people….

This text was commenced and almost completed back in September. A number of distractions followed which have thwarted my intention. Firstly, I was advised that Charles Aznavour’s concert on 14th September in Sydney (one night only) has been cancelled due to “health reasons,” then the shattering news of his passing came not long afterwards, hitting me hard and leaving me drained, without any energy and enthusiasm to finish this text…

I could write so much more about this remarkable man, but many a wonderful and wise thing had already been written. Instead, I would only utter VALE, Aznavourian, the best of the Frenchmen and of the Armenian! We knew when you leave us one day it will be but to join the celestial realm in the Eternity, nothing less! I am going now to play your record with so many of my favorite songs and think of you…

Mihailo Galovic was born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia where he graduated from the Academy of Applied Arts in 1974. He travelled the world widely (and still keeps doing it, of a bucket list-kind now) and became a naturalized Australian 30 years ago. Since then, he is called Michael Galovic. In Australia and New Zealand, he is mainly renown for his icons, although increasingly for his contemporary religious art too. One can find his work in over one hundred churches and institutions in Australia alone. A free-lance artist for many years he is also keenly into languages and travelling. Michael believes he is riding his renewed wave of creativity in what he calls The Golden Autumn (Fall) before the Great Winter of my Discontent. His only hope is that the wave will last a while longer.

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