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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


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.


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

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.

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