When the six members of the all-woman Ghazal Sufi Ensemble stepped on stage to perform in Kolkata over the weekend, it was the first time that men were a part of their audience. Their performance at home in Iran has been only in front of an all-female audience, in accordance with the country’s rules on women musicians.
The group’s concert at the ongoing festival of Sufi and traditional music, Sufi Sutra, was their first international performance, although its members have individually performed abroad on earlier occasions.
Ghazal Sufi Ensemble breaks no laws, only conventions. For though there are many women who learn music — the number of women who study music in universities is probably three times that of men, according to the group’s daf (similar to an Indian dafli) player Sara Fotros — not as many become concert musicians.
According to the law, there is a prohibition on solo performances by women musicians, but they may be members of a group that has other male musicians. If they choose to form an all-woman ensemble, it must have at least three members.
The group was formed in 2010 by Sahar Lotfi and Maryam Gharasou, who were close friends and were already in the performing circuit with their husbands. They enrolled santour (the Iranian version of the santoor) player Roshanak Nouri and later other women musicians joined the mix.
“We picked Ghazal as a name not only for the form of the songs in traditional Iranian lure, but also because in Persian it represents a woman, which was in tune with our theme,” Ms. Lotfi told The Hindu on Sunday.
Although some of its members are familiar with other genres of music, Iran’s folk traditions are a passion for them. All the instruments they use are traditional.
“We picked out seven songs from the Kurdish Sufi tradition for this festival, but in Iran we also perform classical Iranian and folk music,” Ms. Lotfi said.
Stepping outside the veil
Ms. Lotfi and Ms. Fotros do not even observe the Hijab at their foreign concerts, although other members of the group prefer to retain their veils.
“For me, wearing the veil is a part of my personal beliefs… Religion, after all, is about the individual,” said Elmira Mardaneh, who plays the kamancheh, a bowed string instrument, which she describes as “an Iranian violin.”
Overcoming the obstacles of rules, norms and even distance (Ms. Fotros is currently studying music in London and some of the rehearsals were conducted on the internet over Skype), the group has persevered with their passion for folk music.
“Music has nothing to do with politics… We want to encourage other women players,” said Ms. Fotros.