Thursday, January 6, 2011

Featured in Vogue: Shusha Guppy

The singer, writer & composer who bridged the Orient & the West
Shusha Guppy in Vogue, February 1970

When she died at age 70 in 2008, Shusha was widely considered one of the most talented women of her generation; a writer, singer and composer of songs, who made a home for herself in three radically different cultures. Born in Tehran in 1940, she was the daughter of the Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Kazem Assar, the distinguished Shia theologian and philosopher, who held the chair of philosophy at Tehran University.

Although Assar enjoyed the title of Grand Ayatollah, he had absorbed the open-minded philosophy of the Sufi masters, was an admirer of Western civilization and sent his children to Tehran’s French lycée for their education. Shusha shared her father's love of classical Persian literature and, like him, was drawn to Sufism.

At 16 she received a scholarship in 1950, to study French literature at the Sorbonne in Paris. While there, intellectual curiosity soon drew her into a circle of artists, writers and poets that included Louis Aragon, Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. She recorded her experiences in her 1991 memoir titled, A Girl in Paris, which remains one of the most poignant recollections of postwar Paris and the Rive Gauche’s intellectual elite.

Shusha's voracious appetite for reading and conversation was matched by a deep love of music, including the folk traditions of her native Persia. Yet she also admired Juliette Gréco, whose voice she could perfectly imitate. It was Jacques Prévert who encouraged her to record albums of Persian folk songs and French chansons. A trained opera singer, Shusha soon began composing her own songs in French and Persian, and was singing professionally in Paris’ bohemian boîtes de nuit.

Shortly after marrying the art dealer and explorer Nicholas Guppy in 1961, Shusha moved to London, where she learnt to speak, write and sing in English; composing songs influenced by the folk heroes of the time such as Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. Over the years she performed in concerts throughout Europe and the United States; the most memorable of which was a performance in Westminster Abbey at the memorial service for her friend Ted Hughes.

Following her divorce in 1976, she began another career as a freelance writer, contributing to major publications in both Europe and the United States. For twenty years until 2005, she was the London Editor of the American literary journal The Paris Review. She was also a talented storyteller and travel writer. In 2001 she published a travelogue, Three Journeys in the Levant, which explored how Muslims in the Middle East balance tradition and faith in the modern world. While her last book in 2005, The Secret of Laughter, was a collection of never before published Persian fairytales from Iran’s oral tradition.

Throughout her life Shusha made it her mission to promote Persian culture and history, as well as form bridges between the West and the Islamic world. In 1967, she contributed music and the voice-over to the documentary film “People of the Wind,” which followed the annual migration of the nomadic Bakhtiari tribes of southern Iran. The film was nominated for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar, as well as a Golden Globe. Amongst her last works were two programs for British Radio in 2006, which explored the work of many of the philosophers that had inspired her father; including Ibin Senna and al-Ghazali.

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1 comment:

Nicola said...

really facinating I love these posts on interesting people.