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Layla and Majnun: The Love Story That Inspired Eric Clapton, Yo-Yo Ma, and Mark Morris

He had already given his heart to Layla before he understood what he was giving away. . . . And Layla? She fared no better. A fire had been lit in bothand each reflected the other.

Nizami Ganjavi (trans. Dr. R. Gelpke)


Onstage the dancers swirl in and out of complex formations on a multilevel set, filing around the musicians, who are grouped in the center of the stage. The women wear long dresses of coral flecked with white, the men tunics of marbled cobalt blue over white trousers. The singers are seated dead center on a raised platform, their continuo musicians, on tar and kamanche, next to them. The voices of the singers, Alim Qasimov, the renowned master of mugham singing from Azerbaijan, and his daughter and protege, Fargana Qasimova, rise above the dance, pure and clear as cold water, wrenching as a knife to the heart. Their upraised hands and faces, torn with emotion, seem to echo their words, as do their bodies, swaying in the aftermath of the sung poetry. Around them, the musicians conjure a caravan of sound, familiar and exotic at the same time. Behind them all, a huge abstract painting by the late painter, Howard Hodgkin, jagged lines of electric green and salmon, seems to shift colors as the piece goes on. The painting is titled Love and Death, a fitting backdrop to a recent collaboration between the Mark Morris Dance Group and the Silk Road Ensemble based on the ancient love story of Layla and Majnun.

This story, of would-be lovers doomed to separation and death, has transfixed humanity for millennia, enduring over the centuries as a symbol of overwhelming, ecstatic, crazy, tragic love. From Jedda to Isfahan, Baku to New Delhi and beyond, Layla and Majnun has been reinterpreted over the centuries through epic poems, paintings, dramas, movies, ballets, operas, pop songs, and television shows. This latest multinational reimagining of the story draws on a 1908 Azerbaijani opera by the composer Uzeyir Hajibeyli that combines mugham, a style of modal, improvisatory singing from Azerbaijan, with orchestral sections in the style of European opera. Since its debut, Hajibeyli’s opera has opened each season of the Theater of Opera and Ballet in Baku and was led for two decades by the revered singer Alim Qasimov, considered a Living National Treasure of Azerbaijan for his preservation of the art of mugham vocal tradition.

Some years ago, Qasimov proposed a shorter, more universally accessible version to Yo-Yo Ma of the Silk Road Ensemble, which resulted in a 45-minute chamber music version that toured the world in 2008 and 2009. Yo-Yo Ma envisioned a version with a dance component and invited the choreographer Mark Morris to direct and choreograph it. The result was a 70-minute dance drama that premiered in 2016 in Berkeley, California, toured to several U.S. cities in 2016 and 2017, and had its New York premiere at Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival last fall. The production has several U.S. engagements in March 2018 and then will tour to Australia and London for its final performances.

I’ve always known about Layla and Majnun, even though the story is not well known in the United States. As a child, my family lived for several years in India and Pakistan, before moving to Chapel Hill in the early 1990s. Layla and Majnun is a cultural touchstone in South Asia, where the very names of the legendary lovers are conjoined, “Laila-Majnu,” and “Majnun” is used as a description of someone hopelessly in love. Layla and Majnun are even believed to be buried in Rajasthan, contrary to historical probability and the narrative consensus of centuries; their purported tombs draw thousands of newlyweds each June for an annual pilgrimage.

I don’t remember an exact moment when I became aware of the story; Laila-Majnu was soaked into cultural references, and I absorbed it by osmosis. I finally read the story as a teenager, when an elderly Parsi gentleman gave me an English translation on a later visit to India. I remember being surprised by my response as I read—like everyone else, I knew the inevitable outcome. But I couldn’t stop reading, drawn to the gorgeously written tragedy like a moth to the flame, to quote the Sufi poets whose works continually reference Layla and Majnun.

Most versions of the story follow a similar narrative arc, an episodic, slow-motion tragedy, shot through with madness and longing. The would-be lovers, Qays and Layla, meet as children in school and fall deeply in love. When they are young, their single-minded devotion passes under the radar. But as Layla’s beauty grows, and Qays’s devotion becomes more extreme, he becomes known as “Majnun”—literally “possessed by djinns.” Majnun wanders the desert, composing poetry for his beloved. His father tries to intervene and arrange a marriage with Layla’s tribe, but her family has heard too much about Majnun’s erratic behavior. Layla is forced into a marriage with a wealthy man but refuses to consummate the marriage. Majnun retreats to the wilderness, surrounded by wild animals, as his love poetry becomes known far and wide. Majnun’s father takes him on a pilgrimage to Mecca to try to get him back on track, but Majnun prays only for his love to become stronger. In some versions a sympathetic nobleman wages an unsuccessful war against Layla’s tribe on the lovers’ behalf. Nothing works out. Eventually, Layla dies of a broken heart, and Majnun rushes to her grave and dies. In death, the lovers finally unite.

The story is believed to have originated in the Bedouin storytelling traditions of seventh-century Arabia. The earliest versions were loosely connected anecdotes characteristic of the Udri genre of Arabic poetry, which focuses on stories of unrequited, platonic love. There is some evidence that Majnun may have been based on a real person, Qays Ibn al-Mulawwah of the Banu Amir tribe, but whether the legend reflects real events may never be known. The definitive version of the story was written in the twelth-century by the poet Nizami Ganjavi, writing in Persian in present-day Azerbaijan. Nizami took the many fragments from the Arabian stories and wove them into a cohesive narrative, embellished with touches characteristic of Persian epic poetry like lush descriptions of nature and gardens. He also consciously layered in Sufi motifs and allegory—wine as a metaphor for divine intoxication and the candle that consumes itself in the fire of longing.

Indeed, the story of Layla and Majnun can be interpreted entirely as a metaphor for spiritual love in the Sufi tradition. Seen in this light, Majnun’s single-minded devotion to Layla, which is interpreted as madness by society, becomes instead the expression of the seeker, one who is intoxicated with God. The ostensibly tragic end then becomes an allegory of the longing of the soul to be reunited with the beloved (God). Layla and Majnun are reunited only after death, just as the soul is believed in the Sufi tradition to unite with God. Later Sufi poets such as Rumi and Hafez make frequent references to the story and its interpretation as an allegory of spiritual love in their poems.

From its earliest incarnations, Layla and Majnun has provided a supple narrative template that can be easily embroidered to suit local tastes. Because it can be interpreted on different levels—as romantic or spiritual love—it continues to inspire fascination up to the present. The story has proved remarkably durable over the centuries as different cultures have found novel ways of reimagining and adapting it as their own. The Bedouin camps of the original Arabic oral poems became embellished with Persian gardens by poets writing in Persian; Majnun’s poetry, scattered to the winds, found later expression as Hindi film songs.

Layla and Majnun was translated from Persian into English in 1788 by Sir William Jones, the philologist who lived in Calcutta and wrote Persian poetry under the pen name Youns Uksfardi. In the nineteenth-century Lord Byron called it “the Romeo and Juliet of the East” despite the fact that the legend predates Shakespeare’s tragic lovers by nearly a thousand years. From there, Layla and Majnun filtered into the edges of European and then American cultural discourse, but often without an understanding of the spiritual dimensions of the story. Lacking the cultural shorthand built over centuries in the Middle East and Central and South Asia that created a structure for interpreting the story on multiple levels, Layla and Majnun came to represent the idea simply of hopeless love or the experience of being driven to distraction by love. This motif is evident in Eric Clapton’s song, “Layla,” which he wrote in 1970, reportedly after falling in love with Pattie Boyd Harrison, the wife of his good friend, George Harrison. A friend had given Clapton a translation of Nizami’s poem, and he saw the parallels between the story and his own hopeless love: “Layla, you’ve got me on my knees. Layla, I’m begging, darling, please. Layla, darling won’t you ease my worried mind.”

The Mark Morris Dance Group’s production contextualizes Layla and Majnun through its link with the Azerbaijani opera and mugham singing, placing it within a cultural context that contains the full spectrum of interpretations. Working within the structure of the Azerbaijani opera, based itself on a notable poetic version by the Azerbaijani poet Fuzuli, the production centers the story within storytelling and musical structures that uphold the cultural shorthand of the story, while also allowing those who are unfamiliar with the legend to experience it in an authentic way.

The dance is a marvel of choreography that evokes emotion through execution and timing. The dancers are expressive, but the movement leads them, providing a structure for their emotion. They move crisply, their movements recalling folk dances we think we’ve seen but may have only imagined, groups loping through grapevines and daisy chains. The men jump and leap in the masculine posturing of Eastern European wedding dances, while the women filter in on seamless steps, as though floating on water. At other times they embody pure emotion, the ecstasy of love, the agony of separation, in the sway of a torso, the sideways lift of a leg, a dancer standing there with arms down, heart open.

Morris has made an unusual decision to parcel out the roles of Layla and Majnun to four pairs of dancers, thereby universalizing the experience of the lovers. In the early sections, each pair, identified by their scarves, represents the lovers at a different stage—as children innocently in love, youths trying to elude their disapproving families, adults lost in the wilderness of their impossible love, and finally in a dramatic tableau at Layla’s unwanted wedding. In the last section, all four pairs of lovers dance together before dying. They could be any of us, lovestruck and shunned from our community, longing for union with the beloved.

Most people can relate to the feeling of madness and obsession that love can inspire, even if their own lives are more prosaic. The story of Layla and Majnun invokes a love that transcends the lovers’ experience of themselves, representing the potential of a spiritual love beyond human expression. The legend continues to be reborn in new forms and expressions. We all know the ending but, like Majnun, we can’t help but return to the intoxication of love. The temptation is too great, the desire too strong, the outcome always inevitable. As Nizami says (translated by Gelpke), “A fire had been lit in both—and each reflected the other. What could they have done against it?”