The Bakhshi

In Khorasan as in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, the word bakhshi means instrumentalist, singer, and storyteller. The origin of the word bakhshi comes from Turkish which in turn comes from a Chinese word po-shih meaning erudite. It was through the Turkish Ouigours that certain elements of Chinese language infiltrated 13th and 14th century Mongol literature). The word bakhshi appeared in Iranian and Turkish literature with the advent of the Mongols. At the time, the role of the bakhshi seems to have been sometimes that of the healing shaman, and at other times that of a Buddhist priest.

As for the bakhshi of Khorasan, they claim that the origin of their name can be found in the word bakhshande (donor, bestower of gifts) because of the musical gift that God has bestowed upon them. This is a title of respect in northern Khorasan and among the Turkmen of Torkaman-Sahra.

The bakhshi can also be found in almost all of Central Asia, among the Kazakh, Kirghiz, Uzbek, and Turkmen people as well as in Afghanistan, Tajik-Arab and in Xinjiang. Among other ethnicities, on the other hand, the term bakhshi, throughout centuries has designated a bard, a story-teller, and singer of legends and epics.

As a singer, the bakhshi is more precisely a narrator of dastan (story) and an instrumentalist who plays the dotar (long-necked two-stringed instrument) and who, in most cases, fabricates his own musical instrument. The majority of the great bards of Khorasan, regardless of their ethnic origin, sing in three languages (Turkish, Persian, and Kurdish). Whether professional or semi-professional, nowadays the bard doesn't usually earn his living solely through playing music. Most often, he is also, for example, a farmer, a barber, or a teacher. With his instrument, the dotar, he usually sings and plays by himself. However, the Turkmen bards prefer to play in groups of two or three. In this case, the bard is accompanied by another dotar player and a person playing the kamanche.

The right to assume the title of bakhshi is subject to specific conditions. A bakhshi should not only be a good musician and have a good voice, he also needs excellent diction for telling stories. Ideally, he learns his art from his father or his uncle while living under the family roof. Some acquire their apprenticeship under the tutelage of a master (ostad). The learning process evolves in three stages: 1) learning the dotar technique, 2) learning vocal techniques, 3) memorizing the stories. In the last stage, the master teaches his student a fragment of a dastan on a daily basis, so that he can memorize and recite it the next day. The bakhshi is renowned for his prodigious memory.

Traditionally, the bakhshi plays at village ceremonies such as weddings and circumcisions, but he also performs at private gatherings and in ghahve-khanes (coffee houses) of the bazars. Unfortunately, nowadays, television has taken the place of the traditional bard in the Ghahve-khane. Fortunately, today we can also hear the bakhshi performing in concerts often within the context of festivals.

Ameneh Yousefzadeh, August 1995