Remembering Sergei Parajanov, the Bard of the Caucasus

The revered Armenian cinema auteur both embodied the region’s ethnic and cultural diversity and sought to capture it on celluloid

Remembering Sergei Parajanov, the Bard of the Caucasus
Parajanov on a 1999 Armenian stamp. (Wikimedia Commons)

A wandering minstrel, Ashik Kerib, presents himself within the frescoed walls of Nadir Pasha’s “divan” (reception hall). “I am a humble minstrel. My lute and I are ready to sing praises for you,” Ashik Kerib states. Nadir Pasha, a small-time nobleman, is a picture of pantomime pomposity, sporting a curly mustache and quivering jowls. He is bedecked in velvet and brocade; on his head bobs an oversized turban. Seated cross-legged to his right, his wives coyly secrete themselves beneath colored silk “kelahagyi” (scarves). When Ashik Kerib, in a sign of deference, bows his head to the carpet at the pasha’s feet, the women cast their kelahagyi aside, brandishing toy machine guns that they fire with abandon toward the ceiling.

This is one of several unexpected moments in Armenian director Sergei Parajanov’s final movie, “Ashik Kerib,” shot in Azerbaijan. Those familiar with his work know Parajanov had a penchant for inserting confounding objects, often infused with obscure symbolism, into pivotal scenes. In Parajanov’s movies, beach umbrellas, nautilus shells and two-headed papier-mache tigers appear in the mountain landscapes of the Caucasus. “The Color of Pomegranates,” his interpretation of the life of the Armenian bard Sayat-Nova, features a cameo role for a llama. In “The Legend of Suram Fortress,” a tale of medieval Georgia, modern oil tankers float on the Black Sea.

Through these films, sometimes referred to as his “Caucasian Trilogy,” and others, Parajanov built a reputation as one of the most inventive filmmakers in cinema history. Born 100 years ago in Tbilisi, Georgia, then part of the Soviet Union, and working under the auspices of the Soviet State Committee for Cinematography, Parajanov created a relatively small body of work, but he articulated a highly idiosyncratic artistic vision, winning numerous festival prizes and worldwide acclaim. The French auteur Jean-Luc Godard declared him master of the “temple of cinema,” while the American director Martin Scorsese likened a Parajanov movie to entering “another dimension, where time has stopped and beauty has been unleashed.”

Aside from symbolism, dazzling color and eye-catching fusions of innovation and archaic motifs, Parajanov’s films stand out for their depiction and celebration of the Caucasus region as one where diverse peoples commingled and where aesthetic, literary and artistic traditions informed one another. This may be puzzling to contemporary readers. Just as a pasha’s wives pulling toy guns from their robes is incongruous, in this modern era of geopolitical tensions across Eurasia it seems inconceivable that an Armenian director could shoot a film in Azerbaijan. The year after Parajanov shot “Ashik Kerib,” conflict broke out between Armenians and Azerbaijanis and the two peoples have been at loggerheads ever since, culminating in the flight of the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh after Azerbaijan’s military marched on the previously Armenian-administered territory in late 2023.

Yet Parajanov worked in and portrayed a realm — from Ukraine’s Carpathian region, through Moldova, to Georgian mountaintops and Armenian monasteries — that was not circumscribed by narrow national boundaries or nationalist enmity. The wider Caucasus region is one of extremely rich folklore and vibrant storytelling, traditions that have been informed by pre-Christian Armenian and Georgian epics, myriad indigenous as well as Greek and Persian mythologies, and Zoroastrian, Scythian and, later, Turkish and Russian influences. It is the setting for tales as diverse as the Golden Fleece and the Turkic epic of Dede Korkut, home to the Azerbaijani “ashik” (minstrel) tradition (“ashugh” in Armenian) and Ararat, at its southern fringe, is the mythical resting place of Noah’s Ark. Parajanov was steeped in the lore of the Caucasus and alert to its diverse cultures and traditions, creating a storytelling style that was generous, animated and ecumenical.

Born into an Armenian family, raised in Tbilisi, and creating early works in Ukraine, Parajanov famously stated, “Everybody knows that I have three motherlands.” His declaration of allegiance(s) is reciprocated by each of his designated “motherlands.” Yerevan, the Armenian capital, is home to the Sergei Parajanov Museum; a street in Old Tbilisi is named after him; and the Ukrainian World Congress, noting the 100th anniversary of his birth, claimed him as “the Ukrainian-Armenian film director.” This magnanimous identification with multiple “motherlands” arises from a time when perhaps national boundaries were not as clear-cut as today’s nationalists would have us believe, and when ethnically homogeneous nation-states (as popularly imagined at present) did not exist.

Parajanov grew up in the artistic milieu of Tbilisi, a city that has been a meeting place of peoples for centuries. Georgian art critic Giorgi Gvakharia describes Tbilisi “as a bridge between Asia and Europe,” where cultural cross-pollination has created a city akin to “a carpet that transforms an eclectic pattern into an artistic image.” James Steffen, in his seminal examination of Parajanov’s life and work, contends that Tbilisi’s “cosmopolitan atmosphere” and “the rich intersection of cultures in Transcaucasia” were formative influences on the man as an artist and storyteller. Parajanov demonstrated an artistic predilection from a young age. He once remarked, “From the time I was a child, people were always screaming that I was talented.” His first forays were in music; he enrolled at the Tbilisi State Conservatory, studying voice and violin, before he moved to Moscow in 1945 and won a much-sought-after place at the State Institute of Cinematography.

While Parajanov and his work may often be associated with the artistic and cultural milieu of the Caucasus, his eye was attuned to stimuli from a much wider domain. Shot on location in Moldova, his diploma movie at the Institute of Cinematography was based on a fairy tale by Moldovan author Emilian Bukov. In an essay published some years later he wrote that the catalyst was reading this story of a “shepherd who had lost his flock — the symbol of love and success — in Georgia, Armenia, and … the Carpathians.” No version of the original diploma film has survived, but Parajanov later reworked it into a feature film titled “Andriesh,” in which the titular character, guardian of the village’s sheep, receives a gift of a magic flute. Black Storm, an evil sorcerer enraged by the “joyous music” of the flute, steals the flock and Andriesh sets out to retrieve them.

Parajanov was able to complete this diploma movie despite the murder in Moscow of his first wife, a Tatar woman named Nigyar Kerimova, allegedly at the hands of her own family. It seems that Parajanov very rarely talked about these events, although Steffen notes that he occasionally visited her grave in Moscow in later years. Perhaps in order to deal with his devastation, Parajanov departed Moscow for Kyiv, where he encountered new artistic idioms. He later wrote that he found inspiration in “folk carving, sewing, metalwork. Ancient songs of the Ukraine. I wanted to convey the world of these songs in all its primeval fascination.” This spurred in him a quest to devise a medium that conveyed the “poetics” of folktales and mythology.

By his own estimation, however, he initially fell short of this goal. From the late 1950s he directed several documentaries and features, but admitted, “[The] little picture, Moldavian Fairy Tale, is the only one of my [early] works whose imperfection I am not ashamed [of].” He lamented that one film betrayed “an absence of experience, craftsmanship and good taste.” Film studies scholars broadly agree. Although Parajanov is now widely touted as a visionary, his early works are regarded as run-of-the-mill productions that contain some hints of his future but are unremarkable in themselves.

Consensus has settled on “The Color of Pomegranates,” released in 1969, as Parajanov’s masterpiece. This is ostensibly an account of the life of the 18th-century ashik Sayat-Nova. However, the film lacks a clear narrative, linear or otherwise, and dialogue is almost entirely omitted. Rather, the ashik’s childhood, when Sayat-Nova attended the court of the Georgian king and later entered a monastery, is portrayed through what one Soviet journalist described as “cinematic miniatures.” This was, in effect, Parajanov using the “poetics” of myth, symbolism and allegory to sustain and propel a tale. The movie established a new cinematic aesthetic, with the story conveyed through a series of highly stylized scenarios and still-image compilations of apparently mundane objects rather than a conventional narrative. “Handicrafts, clothing, rugs, ornaments, fabrics, the furniture in their living quarters — these are the elements. From these the material look of the epoch arises,” Parajanov wrote. His all-embracing attitude toward cultures and artistic stimuli was also apparent in the “Oriental” ambience of “Pomegranates.” In discussing the film he said, “The whole basis of my art is Persian miniatures, enamel from Byzantium … very simple but which possess their own depths and beauty.”

Tellingly this is also the most “autobiographical” of Parajanov’s films. Sayat-Nova was an Armenian born in Tbilisi, just as Parajanov was. Parajanov shot episodes of Sayat-Nova’s life in Tbilisi’s historic churches, mosques and Turkish baths, claiming that he had frequented the same places during his own childhood. A bathhouse scene in which Sayat-Nova as a boy observes bathers — male and female — through a skylight suggests the adolescent’s sexual awakening and perhaps a fascination with both genders. Some scholars contend that the framing and conceptualization of this scene mirrors Parajanov’s own experiences and alludes to his own sexuality. He was widely understood to be bisexual and was imprisoned on charges related to homosexuality in 1974. Elsewhere in the film, notions of gender and identity are at times fluid, most apparent in the casting of Georgian actress Sofiko Chiaureli as both the young Sayat-Nova and his beloved Princess Ana, among other roles.

“Pomegranates” may also be categorized as Parajanov’s most pan-Caucasian production, in that Sayat-Nova, who wrote poetry and songs in Armenian, Georgian and Azerbaijani, is the most widely loved of the ashiks. Valery Bryusov, a translator of Sayat-Nova’s works, lauded him as a poet “who by force of his genius … ceases to be the property of an individual people but becomes a favorite of all humanity.” Armenian scholar Karen Kalantar contended that Sayat-Nova “embodied the idea of the friendship of peoples [‘druzhba narodov’],” and it is tempting to regard Parajanov in the same light. James Steffen argues that Parajanov saw himself, like Sayat-Nova, as a “poet of all Transcaucasia.”

The coexistence of peoples has been reality in the Caucasus for centuries. Tbilisi was not alone among cities of the Caucasus in having a multicultural history. Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, had a Muslim majority until World War I, while the strongly Azerbaijani identity of Baku has emerged only since the end of the Soviet era. The early 20th century saw enormous upheavals and the displacement of whole communities, which go some way toward explaining modern-day interethnic resentments. However, historically, everyday intercommunal engagement in the Caucasus saw material and spiritual lives overlapping as different peoples shared rituals, holy figures and holy places. Emigre Circassian historian Aytek Namitok observed in 1935 that “common shrines revered by followers of both [Islam and Christianity] are by no means rare,” and Soviet ethnographer Ivan Meshchaninov noted that “a single pir [Muslim holy man] might find together among [his] worshippers the Turk, Armenian, and Georgian.”

Scholar of the Caucasus Thomas de Waal depicts the region as poised, at times uncomfortably, between continents, political systems, empires and spheres of Christian and Muslim influence. From the 16th century, Ottoman Turks and Persians tussled for control of the region. The Russian Empire conquered and subdued it through the course of the 19th century, with rule passing to the Soviet Union in the 1920s. During the Soviet period, ethnic minorities were recognized in the Caucasus, as elsewhere within the USSR, and assimilation of non-Russian populations was actively discouraged. De Waal notes that from the 1960s the Caucasian republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia enjoyed an artistic heyday as Moscow loosened creative restrictions. One Azerbaijani poet described it as a “period of small renaissance in the Soviet Union.”

Following the success of “The Color of Pomegranates,” Parajanov, who was in his artistic prime, should have benefited from such a “renaissance,” but he was to enter one of his most challenging periods. He had long incurred the wrath of Soviet authorities. Earlier, living in Ukraine, he had become involved in local politics, notably advocating for Ukrainian intellectuals who had been arrested, which led to the Soviet security apparatus viewing him as a dissident. This was not helped by his insistence during the production of his 1965 feature movie, “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors,” that dialogue should be in a dialect of Ukrainian, rather than dubbed into Russian, as generally happened in the USSR. The movie, a tale of doomed love among the Hutsul people of Ukraine’s Carpathian Mountains, had been his first critical success. It was also the first time he had successfully amalgamated the “poetics” of folk mythology into an appealing cinematic idiom. Screening across Europe and North America, the film won several festival prizes and was applauded by one French newspaper as “a museum of folk arts and traditions transformed into a Chagall painting” and described in Le Monde as a “pure poem.”

International acclaim, however, did not make for an easy time at home. Even though Parajanov was Armenian, one of his colleagues recalled him quipping, “There’s a meeting of Ukrainian nationalists at my place. … I’m obliged to receive them! … For them I’m the head Ukrainian nationalist!” Such a comment illustrates Parajanov’s cheeky personality and antiestablishment bent. This, inevitably, led to confrontations with Soviet authorities.

After the breakout success of “Shadows,” his next project was to have been a long-dreamed-of film about Kyiv. He completed a literary scenario, entitled “Kyiv Frescoes,” and screen tests that reveal innovative techniques and vivid color and imagery, but the project never won requisite approval. Parajanov’s headstrong personality and the controversies that he aroused eventually made his position in the Kyiv film studio untenable and he moved to Yerevan, the Armenian capital, where he made “Pomegranates.” Yet despite the acclaim this film won, it, too, raised the ire of filmmaking establishments in Moscow and Armenia. Officials initially welcomed the project on the understanding that Sayat-Nova embodied the friendship of the Caucasian peoples, an idea compatible with the doctrine of Soviet Realism, which guided all artistic endeavors in the USSR and stressed the propagation of unambiguous revolutionary messages. The end product, however, was described by one script editor as “incomprehensible and unclear,” with another official lamenting that it would fail to inform audiences of “the real life journey of the great poet of Transcaucasia,” thus entirely missing an opportunity to build brotherhood in the wider Soviet community.

Parajanov was wilful and capricious and ensuing clashes with authorities significantly hindered his career, apparent in a string of unrealized scripts: “Confession” (a largely autobiographical evocation of Old Tbilisi), “Ara the Fair” (based on an ancient Armenian legend), “The Slumbering Palace” (from a Pushkin poem about the Crimean Tatar capital of Bahcesaray) and “The Demon” (an adaptation of Mikhail Lermontov’s self-described “Oriental tale”). This list highlights Parajanov’s characteristic embrace of diverse cultural and artistic sources, but none of these projects went into production. He was arrested, on largely concocted charges, in 1973. He remained in prison in Ukraine for over four years, only gaining his release after French communist poet Louis Aragon petitioned Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. Even then, his tribulations did not end. He returned to Tbilisi, remained without work for some years and was imprisoned again in 1982, but this time was swiftly released.

As the reform era dawned in the USSR, however, Parajanov was readmitted into the fold. He was invited to direct a production of the much-loved Georgian tale, “The Legend of Suram Fortress.” The film was released in 1985, over 15 years after “Pomegranates.” In a parable about a youth being immured in a citadel that continually collapsed during construction, Parajanov threaded a plethora of symbols, artifacts, motifs and characters from across the Caucasus, from Christian, Muslim and pagan traditions. This regional tour de force featured rugged mountain landscapes, jugglers, the mythical Georgian city of Gulansharo, oriental carpets, minstrels brandishing the “tar” (Azerbaijani lute) and “kamancha” (Persian violin), entreaties to St. Nino, Georgia’s patron saint, and puppets of Amiran, whom the Greeks know as Prometheus. As James Steffen argues, Parajanov related a distinctly Georgian tale but highlighted the many overlapping cultural influences that inform Georgian identity.

After “Suram Fortress” Parajanov was to make only one more film, “Ashik Kerib.” The idea came from an eponymous Turkish fairy tale that Parajanov remembered hearing as a child. In characteristic style, he evoked a range of moods and aesthetics in his treatment of the story. It moves through moments of pantomime-like farce to contemplative shots of Persian miniatures and elements of Sufi lore (“Minstrels only die on the road”). Alone among Parajanov movies, it has a happy ending, with the titular ashik returning home after 1,000 days of wandering to win the bride he had previously been denied. In an interview with the art magazine Film Comment, Parajanov joked, “It ends like an American movie!”

The film was shot on location in Azerbaijan and the dialogue recorded in Azerbaijani, but, as was his wont, Parajanov revealed a diverse palette of cultural influences, from the joined “Persianate” eyebrows of female characters to the soundtrack that juxtaposed Georgian church music with Azerbaijani “mugham” (improvised modal melodies). Scholar of Russian literature Peter Orte observes that the Azerbaijani government has attempted to exercise ownership over the tale of “Ashik Kerib,” moving to “control its distribution and representation outside Azerbaijan’s borders.” The idea that a tale can be commandeered or possessed by a single people or state would surely be anathema to Parajanov. Indeed, the endeavor is questionable at best because, as Orte highlights, the story exists in many iterations — Azerbaijani, Armenian, Georgian, Turkish, a Russian retelling — meaning it is “ultimately of mixed, or shattered, origin” and thus repudiates “any attempt to claim it for a ‘pure’ national … tradition.”

Issues of ethnic and national identity came into sharp focus as the filming of “Ashik Kerib” was nearing completion. In 1988, rising civil strife between Armenians and Azerbaijanis eventually led to hostilities in Sumgait, Azerbaijan. Parajanov was said to have been shocked by these events. Ongoing conflict made all the more poignant certain scenes that he insisted on including in the film, in which a group of children offer the Muslim hero shelter in a church before an icon of St. George and protect his “saz” (lute) from marauding Turkish horsemen. This seems like Parajanov’s plea for tolerance and intercommunal engagement and fully displays his ecumenical instincts.

Like the earlier Caucasian films, “Ashik Kerib” won widespread international acclaim. And for the first time ever, Parajanov was able to travel outside the USSR to attend film festivals across Europe. Increasing tension in the Caucasus led to the outbreak of conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan and delayed the release of the film in Armenia until well after Parajanov’s untimely death from lung cancer in 1990. We might claim, however, that Parajanov had the last laugh: A year earlier he had been invited to Turkey, Azerbaijan’s staunchest ally, where he attended the screening of “Ashik Kerib” at the Istanbul Film Festival, winning the affections of Turkish cinephiles and a special jury prize for “contributions to contemporary art.” And some 30 years later, an exhibition of his collages, costumes, drawings and photographs at Istanbul’s Pera Museum drew enormous crowds.

His popularity among Turks is noteworthy given ongoing tensions between Turkey and Armenia, which stem from the genocide of Armenians in the latter years of the Ottoman Empire. Turkey denies that a genocide occurred, while nationalist circles commonly revile Armenians. The Nagorno-Karabakh war of the 1990s only heightened acrimony; Turkey closed its border with Armenia in solidarity with the Azerbaijanis, whom they look on as ethnic kin. Yet Parajanov’s art inspired and delighted across borders and political divides — perhaps because he was innovative and ebullient but perhaps also because he was open-hearted in his embrace of diverse cultures, rituals, symbols and mythologies, and benevolent in sharing them with his audiences.

The centenary of Parajanov’s birth affords a vantage point from which to reappraise, within the context of sociopolitical changes that have unfurled across the Caucasus, his status as a visionary cinema auteur and teller of tales from across the region. Ultimately, Parajanov’s artistic output was exceptional in vision and creativity but circumscribed by the rigidities of Soviet political circumstances. Like Parajanov’s very life, his work absorbed and was influenced by and reflected the kaleidoscopic artistic conventions of Eurasia. We might argue that he should be anointed a modern-day Sayat-Nova. Both created much-loved works in Armenian, Azerbaijani and Georgian, works that illustrate how the cultures, traditions and daily lives of the peoples of Transcaucasia were once interwoven to an extent that is hard to imagine currently. As Parajanov once stated, “The cultures of peoples, especially of neighbors, are vessels for communicating with each other. Art, and first of all cinema, as the most popular art form, should further the mutual drawing together of people.” With his generosity of spirit and his startling artistic vision, Parajanov surely succeeded in this.

The strictures of Soviet control have since been lifted, but the Caucasus is now marked by closed borders, nationalist rancor, polarized communities and disputes over “ownership” of what should be shared cultural legacies. This is the very antithesis of Parajanov’s world and creative vision. Given current geopolitical realities, it is highly unlikely anyone could ever follow in his footsteps, drawing from diverse cultural touchstones and winning applause across international boundaries. Perhaps this makes him — if he wasn’t already — inimitable.

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