Azerbaijan International

Winter 1997 (5.4)
Pages 34-37


Shovkat Mammadova, Audacious Challenge
The First Azerbaijani Woman on Stage

by Fuad Akhundov

On April 13, 1912, Baku was in shock. For the first time in the Muslim world, a 15-year-old girl appeared publicly on stage in European dress, without covering herself with a veil. Shovkat Mammadova (1912- 1981) had just returned from studying opera in Milan and was performing at the Taghiyev Theater. The audience loved her charming operatic melodies, but they couldn't deal with her appearance. Shovkat chose this one symbolic act to challenge a society fettered by religious traditions.

No Veil
Up to this time, women's roles in operas had always been sung by men dressed as women and singing in high tenor voices. And the female members of the audience always had to sit in separate sections screened off by dark netting so that they could not been seen by others.

That night, the audience reacted to Shovkat in both astonishment and outrage. Some of the more progressive members admired her youthful courage; others, rigid in their beliefs, were angered and indignant.

Meanwhile, backstage at the Taghiyev Theater,
Uzeyir Hajibeyov was peering out from behind the curtain and sensing the audience's hostile reaction. He tried to motion to Shovkat to flee the stage. He knew the seriousness of the threats coming from the "gochis" (Baku mafia). It wasn't the first time that he had organized events challenging society's norms.

Shovkat Mammadova, the first Azerbaijani woman on stage

Left: Shovkat, 15, at her debut on April 13, 1912. She was the first woman to perform on stage in Baku without wearing a veil.

Shovkat Mammadova, the first Azerbaijani woman on stage

Above: As teacher at the Academy of Music in Baku (1970s)

But Shovkat remained poised and determined. She courageously performed until the end of her program. Many years later she would boast with pride that she had completed her performance despite how much the crowd had tried to intimidate her.

Realizing that the entrance to the theater had been blocked by the "gochis," Uzeyir Hajibeyov and his friends quickly pushed Shovkat out the back door with instructions to a driver awaiting with horse and carriage to speed away as fast as they could "so that the sparks would fly from the horses' hooves." And so they did.

For the next several days, Shovkat remained hidden in the oil fields away from those fanatics. Soon afterwards, she left Baku to return to Georgia. Eight years later, she would reappear in Baku as an accomplished, educated opera performer and musician, who would dedicate the rest of her life to helping establish formal music instruction in Azerbaijan. That evening had left an indelible impression on her just as it did in the annals of local history.

100th Jubilee
This year [1997] marks the 100th anniversary of Shovkat's birth. The story of her life illustrates an important era in the history of Azeri music. Thanks to the courage that Mammadova and others demonstrated in challenging powerful taboos, Azerbaijan became the first country in the Muslim world where women performed on stage and where they could pursue studies in artistic disciplines such as opera and ballet.

Early Life
Shovkat Mammadova was born on April 18, 1897, in Tiflis (now Tbilisi, in present day Georgia ). Since early childhood, she was known for her musical gifts. Her father, a shoemaker, had a wealthy client who was particularly impressed with Shovkat's voice and who decided to introduce her into Tiflis high society. In March 1910, the 13-year-old girl was invited to perform at a reception hosted by Vorontsov-Dashkov, the vice-regent of the Caucasus. She succeeded in impressing everyone.

Shortly afterwards, she came to Baku where she met Sona Taghiyeva, the wife of a famous oil-baron and philanthropist. The Taghiyevas were so excited about her talent that they offered to fund music lessons in Milan with Doti Ambrozio. And so, Shovkat headed off to Italy.

Eight months later, however, the financial aid was stopped unexpectedly, and Mammadova was barely able to scrape together enough money to return home. She never did understand the reason why her patrons had discontinued their support, and she was too proud to ask.

It was during this uncertain period that she met Uzeyir Hajibeyov, already well-respected in the music community as the composer of the first Azerbaijani opera. He suggested that she perform some of her favorite pieces following a performance of his own musical comedy, "Ar va Arvad" (Husband and Wife). The evening would be organized as a benefit in her honor. All proceeds would go towards her musical education in Italy. Potentially, the ticket sales from that single night could pay for several years' worth of tuition. If the night proceeded as planned, her dream to return for education would come true.

But Shovkat never did get to collect the ticket money that evening. The "gochis " got to it first. And her return to Italy was delayed for 15 years. Such was the background of that fateful night. However, even though the young singer was forced to flee the theater, the intellectual community considered the scenario a significant victory and a milestone in the cultural history of Azerbaijan.

Back in Tiflis, she studied at a local music school for three years. Then in 1915, at the age of 18, she enrolled in the Music Conservatory of Kiev and married Jakob M. Lubarsky, an engineer who had a strong interest in music and theater. The two had met earlier in Milan, and Lubarsky soon became one of Mammadova's closest friends and supporters.

In Kiev, her most important professional acquaintance was her mentor, Reinhold M. Gliere, an accomplished Russian composer. Mammadova was the first to introduce him to Azeri folk music and invite him to visit Azerbaijan. Gliere decided to go and meet with numerous professional mugam performers of the Karabakh region. It had a profound effect on him. Later, he went on to write the powerful opera, "Shah sanam " (a girl's name) based on the musical motifs he had grown to love. The opera premiered in Baku on May 4, 1934, and was dedicated to Mammadova, who along with Bul-bul, Azerbaijan's most famous male vocalist at the time, performed the principal arias.

Recitals and Operas
Beginning in 1921, Mammadova's stage career took her to Paris, Milan, Moscow, Leningrad (St. Petersburg) and Tbilisi. She performed arias in "La Traviata" (Verdi), "Barber of Seville" (Rossini), "Rigoletto" (Verdi), "Lakme" (Delibes), "Les Huguenots" ( Meyerbeer), "Hoffmann's Tales" (Offenbach), the "Snow Maiden" (Rimsky-Korsakov) and "Nargiz" by Azerbaijani Muslim Magomayev.

In 1925, Mammadova was invited to Paris to take part in the World Exhibition of Decorative Arts. Her selection of native Caucasian songs created such a stir among musicologists and ethnographers that they invited her to Sorbonne University and asked her to record songs for their folklore courses. She chose familiar Azeri songs such as "Kuchalare Su Saparam" (I'll Splash the Water in the Streets), "San Ki Bela Deyildin" (You Weren't Like This) and "Yeri Ha Yeri" (Keep Moving).

In 1927, Mammadova returned to Italy to continue her studies. Even though she was considered to be a professional opera singer by then, she felt there was still so much more to learn. In 1930 she returned to the Opera Theater in Baku.

Although Shovkat Mammadova was known as a splendid performer, she played other roles that were even more important in laying the foundation for composed music in Azerbaijan. In 1923, she founded the Musical Notes Publishing House in Baku the first of its kind. Her goal was "to publish and issue popular melodies and tunes not only of the Turkish people but from the entire Muslim world."

In 1923, she also founded the Theatrical College in Baku which was later transformed into the Theatrical Institute and is now called the Arts University. Her extensive experience in theater gave her ample material for writing the book, "The Development of Azerbaijani Musical Theater."

Mammadova was awarded the title of "The People's Artist of the USSR" in 1938 during the Ten-Day Festival of Azerbaijan Culture in Moscow. This was the highest award bestowed upon artists in the former Soviet Union. Uzeyir Hajibeyov and Bul-bul were also among the musicians honored on that occasion for their extraordinary work with Hajibeyov's masterpiece, the opera "Koroglu" (Blind Man's Son). Eighteen years had passed since the establishment of the Soviet system, and these three superb musicians were the first from Azerbaijan ever to receive this award.

After 1939, Shovkat Mammadova became the Director of the Opera & Ballet Theater in Baku where she also was one of the theater's primary soloists. A year later, "The Maiden's Tower," a ballet by Afrasiyab Badalbeyli, was performed another first for the Muslim world.

During World War II, Mammadova actively organized musical programs for soldiers at the front. In 1942, she performed in Tabriz (the capital of the province known as Eastern Azerbaijan in Iran).

In the midst of all these performances and responsibilities, Mammadova found time to concentrate on what she loved most teaching. Though she was still capable of performing on stage, she decided to dedicate herself completely to her students. And so she became the Chair of the Vocal Department at the Music Conservatory in Baku where she emphasized both the operatic traditions of Italy as well as Azerbaijan.

Many of her students went on to become honored as "People's Artist of the USSR" including Vagif Karimov, Firangiz Allahverdiyeva, Julia Yakubovich and Ludmila Platonova.

Above all, Shovkat Mammadova is remembered as being a sensitive, tactful, wise and dedicated teacher. Even when she was unable to go to the conservatory, she continued teaching at home. During the night of June 11, 1981, at the age of 84, she died quietly in her sleep. Unaware of her passing, students arrived the next morning for their regular lessons.

Fuad Akhundov, the history enthusiast who wrote this article, specializes in the biographies and architecture of early 20th century oil barons in Baku.

Aida, the daughter of Shovkat Mammadova, contributed greatly to this article by sharing personal anecdotes about her mother, providing photos from the family archives and supplying samples of her mother's singing.

From Azerbaijan International (5.4) Winter 1997
© Azerbaijan International 1997. All Rights Reserved.

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