Azerbaijan International

Spring 2005 (13.1)
Pages 24-27

Nizami's "Seven Beauties"

Ancient Wisdom for the New Millennium
by Laurel Victoria Gray

Left: Laurel Victoria Gray

Written in 1197, "Seven Beauties" ("Haft Paykar" in the original Persian, and "Yeddi Gozal" in Azeri) tells of the adventures of Bahram Gur, a prince destined to become the ruler of the world. Nizami, the creator of this epic poem, was born in Ganja, a town in Azerbaijan where he spent his entire life. Today Nizami is celebrated as a national poet throughout Azerbaijan, as well as in Iran since the poem was written in Persian, the court language of the day throughout the region.

In Seven Beauties, the young warrior Bahram Gur enters a mysterious, locked room to discover the portraits of seven beautiful princesses, each from a different land. When he wins a kingdom and achieves great wealth and power, he remembers the maidens and summons each of them, commissioning the architect Shideh to build seven domed structures - one for each bride.

Shideh designs each of the domed structures, or "gonbasian", to be astrologically linked with a specific planet, color and day of the week. After two years, the buildings were ready, and the king sent for the princesses.

Bahram Gur then visits each bride on her day of the week, dressing with care in her signature colors. Each maiden tells the king a tale, an engaging story containing a moral lesson. Thus Bahram Gur progresses from Saturday to Friday, from black to white, from darkness to illumination. When he finally emerges from the palace of the Persian Princess of the White Dome, it is the first day of Spring - Novruz - the beginning of the New Year.

Left: The Indian Princess of the Black Dome, portrayed by Monica Ullagadi, uses Kathak dance story to teach the moral lesson of Patience.

My first encounter with Nizami's hero Bahram Gur came while researching Persian miniature paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The theme of the legendary king visiting each of his seven princesses was a favorite subject for Eastern artists, and the paintings were ornamented with such exquisite detail of architecture and dress that they transport the viewer into another world. Later, I discovered the ballet Seven Beauties with an evocative score by the famous Azerbaijani composer Gara Garayev written in 1952.

On more than one occasion my dance mentor, People's Artist of Uzbekistan Qizlarhon Dustmuhamedova, suggested that I consider the theme of Seven Beauties for a new dance piece. In the past, the Uzbek ensemble "Bakhor" had used the concept as a way for seven dancers each to have a solo in a different regional style. I found myself strangely repulsed by the idea, even though it would provide a charming way to spotlight the talents of the dancers in my own professional group, the Silk Road Dance Company, which performs dances from Central Asia and the Caucasus.

Frankly, the idea of glorifying a monarch who had seven wives troubled me. My own Mormon great-grandfather had been a polygamist and my great-grandmother had suffered because of this - their private lives becoming the subject of newspaper stories in Utah. But then I came up with the happy notion of simply omitting Bahram Gur altogether and keeping the focus on the women. Having removed the offending ruler from the concept, I comfortably began to delve into the poem.

At first, Haft Paykar seemed like a fairy tale, brimming with magical beings, beautiful maidens, and splendid treasures. Then, slowly, Nizami's philosophical depth and sophistication revealed itself. The poem contains layer upon layer of nuance and symbolism.

Below: 1. Slav Princess of the Red Dome inspired by recent excavation of Amazon graves in the Russian steppes. The dance of this princess, portrayed by Joanne Giaquinta, revesals a marital spirit. 2. Slav Princess of the Red Dome - Joanne Giaquinta - a marital dance with Kevin Ryan.


Seven Beauties has become a literary classic in both the East and West - an erotic allegory about the quest for human perfection steeped in numerology, geometry, astrology and color symbolism. Not only does each of the seven princesses come from a different country, or "clime", but also each is associated with a different color, planet and virtue. "Seven" has long been a sacred number, especially in the ancient Middle East. It resonates on many levels: seven colors of the rainbow, seven chakras (energy centers) of the human body, and seven planets - known in medieval times as the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, the Sun, Jupiter and Saturn.

It soon became apparent to me that the original tale of these seven princesses had often been trivialized; Bahram Gur had somehow morphed into stereotypical Hollywood sultan with his slave girls. Seven Beauties actually celebrates ethnic diversity, extols the beauty of other cultures and praises the wisdom of women. The marriages of Bahram Gur echo the ancient pre-Islamic ritual of the Sacred Marriage between the King and the land.

Seven Virtues

Left: Turkish (Rum) Princess of the Yellow Dome Demet Jabbar, right and her handmaiden Sema Muslu share a sunny dance with Kevin Ryan.Each of the seven maidens tells a tale to her bridegroom that imparts a specific moral lesson. From these wise women, the hero learns Patience, Truth, Faith, Passion, Serenity, Fairness and Devotion to God. Since Bahram Gur is destined to become Ruler of the World, he must learn these lessons in order to govern wisely. The king's spiritual journey is a reminder that only through self-knowledge and self-mastery can humans find perfection.

Rather than exclude Bahram Gur from the stage production, it became crucial to highlight his role as spiritual pilgrim. The king is transformed by his interaction with the Princesses; he sends to the far reaches of the known world to bring them and the knowledge of other lands to his court. When, at the end of each episode, Bahram Gur embraces a princess, he also embraces her culture, her traditions, her teachings. According to Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissa, the practice of women giving moral instruction to princes was well established in the Islamic world; Nizami reflects this tradition by using the Princesses to teach the King.

Staging Seven Beauties
Originally, I submitted a proposal for Seven Beauties to the 2004 Kennedy Center Local Dance Commissioning Project competition but did not expect it to be accepted; I had just won the $7,000 award in 2003 for my ancient Egyptian production, Egypta. Still, I felt it was somehow important to express my concept on paper, to shape it into a more substantial form.



Above: 1. Dancers depict the Amazons, part of the scene from the Slav Princess of the Red Dome. 2.Khorasm Princess of the Green Dome - Cindy Connelly Ryan - performs an authentic Khorasm dance from Uzbekistan, winning the admiration of Bahram Gur - Kevin Ryan.

When Seven Beauties was not chosen, I did not give up the idea but kept talking about it. I noticed that when I began to repeat Nizami's tale, listeners became enraptured. Such is the power of story telling. On an impulse, I approached Christel Stevens, Performing Arts Specialist with the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (MNCPPC). Armed with examples of the miniature paintings and costume design, I sat in her office and began to tell the tale of Bahram Gur and the Seven Beauties. Stevens immediately recognized the potential of the work and scheduled its premiere in the Washington, D.C. area for April 2, 2005, at the 3rd World Dance Showcase with a special theme of "Dancing in Islamic Lands".

Choreographic Challenges

Left: The Persian Princess of the White Dome is linked to the planet Venus. The Persian Princess is represented by Parastoo Ghodsi.

Now that we were all committed to the production of Haft Paykar, I had to address the choreographic issues. Unlike ballet interpretations of the Seven Beauties, my interpretation uses traditional music and movement from each of the princesses' land of origin. I wanted each maiden to "speak" in her native language, to dance in her national style.

This meant that each princess and her handmaidens not only had to master a distinct dance style, but that their costumes had to reflect a specific ethnicity as well as match Nizami's original color scheme. Over 60 costumes needed to be created since each Princess was attended by handmaidens and Bahram Gur also had to be properly attired for each scene. Much more difficult, the abstract virtues of each of the Princess' tales needed to find expression in dance.

The more I worked with the material of Seven Beauties, the more I came to appreciate Nizami's genius, the depth of his thought and intent behind every detail. Even elements that seemed strange or out of place eventually showed their meaning upon analysis.

For example, the Indian Princess is linked to the Black Dome. Yet Indian dress is so vibrantly colorful; how could I dress my Indian Princess in black? It was unthinkable. What was Nizami thinking by this choice? But this first princess is linked to the planet Saturn. Her day is Saturday; and her color, black, represents the void from which all is born. It is through her that Bahram Gur begins his initiation.

The Princess of the Yellow Dome teaches the value of Honesty to Bahram Gur. Nizami perfectly links this virtue with the princess' planet, the Sun. In sunlight there are no shadows or secrets. Everything is out in the open. Or consider that the color Green, long associated with Islam, perfectly matches the moral lesson of Faith, just as passion is tied to the color Red, and serenity to Blue.

Choosing Music
It took over 18 months for me to find just the right music for each maiden - music that not only reflected her land of origin, but also expressed her character. For the Moroccan piece, I was able to arrange for a Master Class with North African dance specialist Amel Tafsout. Since this dance needed to reflect serenity, I selected Moroccan Sufi music with a text by the mystic poet Ibn al-Arabi, who was a contemporary of Nizami.

Discovering this music was quite coincidental: I feel I was guided to it. The Princess and the handmaidens of the Blue Dome perform a dance inspired by the Sufi ritual of Zikr, a spiritual practice, which truly leads to a sense of inner peace.

Left: Chinese Princess of th Sandal Dome. Cynthia Lin performs a Taiwanese dance inspired by depiction of the Celestial Apasaras depicted in the cave paintings in Dunhuang, China.

Classical Indian dance artist Jayantee Paine assisted me in the creation of the North Indian style piece of the Princess of the Black Dome, "daughter of the Indian Rajah". The maiden's tale focuses on Patience or, more specifically, to mastering one's physical desires. I was thrilled to discover a haunting "ghazal" that was ideal for the piece. Jayantee loved the music from the first time I played it for her and added the necessary gestures and steps to accurately give the dance Kathak styling. In the song, Radha pleads with Lord Krishna to let go of her wrist and not pursue her so ardently. This text perfectly mirrors the tale of the Indian Princess and her story of a lustful young man who loses everything because he tries to force himself on his beloved.

For the martial Princess of the Red Dome, I was able to draw upon my field research in Tbilisi, Georgia. The aggressive sword dance of this princess and her handmaidens was inspired by the ancient Georgian war dance Khorumi, a traditional men's dance. The Red Princess is all about passion, and her story is about a fiery Warrior Maiden who cannot find her equal in a man. When Bahram Gur duels the princess, he shows himself to be a true match for her just as the hero in the tale proves himself worthy of the maiden.

Staging Seven Beauties has proven to be an even more ambitious project than I initially envisioned. Yet at each step, someone has caught the excitement of the vision and added their talents. Russian born set designer, Yevgenia Salazar, came up with her stunning concept just hours after I first shared the vision of Seven Beauties with her. Her textured white and gold hangings suggest architectural columns, but also the veiled faces of women. Lighting Designer Cheryl Lee also immediately began to envision special colors and effects from the moment I described the project to her.

Left: Maghrebi (Maroccan) Princess of the Blue Dome portrayed by Anetta Burger, flanked by handmaidens Sandra Litwin (left) and Cindy Connelly Ryan (right) perform a serene piece inspired by a Sufi ritual.

More than 800 years after its creation, Nizami's literary masterpiece reaches beyond the intervening centuries to inspire all of us, especially the members of Silk Road Dance Company, who will bring the Seven Beauties to life on stage.

The exquisite beauty of the dance, poetry, and music of the Islamic world, reveals a different face than the austere fundamentalism known to most Americans. Haft Paykar invokes love, color, words, music, scent and taste to express deep mystical concepts. And this is the genius of Nizami. Here, in the hidden gardens of allegory, beauty that appeals to the senses becomes a way of finding oneness with God.

Instead of falling prey to the false notion of a 'clash of civilizations,' we need to remember that East and West have interacted for millennia, often crossing cultures with positive results.

The story that frames the tale of the Seven Beauties - the education of a ruler who has achieved great wealth and power, but is in need of wisdom from other cultures - gives the medieval epic an eerie immediacy. It is a tribute to Nizami's stature as a world artist that he can still speak to our hearts from another age, imparting wisdom that is so crucial in this present day.

Founder and Artistic Director of the Silk Road Dance Company, Laurel Victoria Gray is the recipient of the Kennedy Center 2003 Local Dance Commissioning Project Award and the International Academy of Middle Eastern Dance (IAMED) Awards for Best Choreographer (2003) and Best Ethnic Dancer (1999). Gray's research has taken her to five continents. Her articles have appeared in academic and popular publications. In 1984, she founded the Uzbek Dance and Culture Society ( In 1994 she established the annual Central Asian Dance Camp. Gray teaches dances of the Islamic World as Adjunct Faculty at George Mason University and George Washington University. For activities related to Seven Beauties, visit

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