One of Uzbekistan’s most inspiring national icons, dancer Tamara Khanum was a hugely influential artist and a pioneering force in bringing Uzbek dance and culture to the world stage. Here’s what you need to know about her extraordinary life and legacy.
She lived through a period of incredible change in Uzbekistan.
Tamara Khanum was born as Tamara Artyemovna Petrosyan in 1906 in the city of Margilan, and died in 1991 at the age of 85. Her life therefore spanned an exceptional period of turbulence and upheaval in Uzbekistan’s history, including two World Wars, the Soviet regime, and the country’s eventual independence the year of her death. Naturally, these political and social events had a profound impact on arts and culture in Uzbekistan: as old traditions were replaced by new ideas, the country struggled to find its place both within the Soviet Union and internationally. Against this backdrop, Khanum’s work proved to be an important part of Uzbekistan’s development of a contemporary cultural identity.
She made history as the first woman to perform without the veil.
In the mid- to late-1920s, the Soviet government in control of Uzbekistan launched a campaign aimed at eliminating some of the country’s longstanding religious and cultural practices, including the custom for women to wear the paranja (a type of outer robe that completely enveloped the wearer from head to foot) and a face veil in public. While some Uzbeks embraced this as part of an “ideological revolution,” many traditional Uzbeks strongly resisted these changes. When Khanum, a young graduate of the Moscow Theatrical College, made the decision to perform publicly without wearing a veil, she was therefore taking a courageous risk in defying centuries of tradition: other women had been shunned and even killed for abandoning the paranja.
She helped bring about many other “firsts” for Uzbek dance.
In 1924, Khanum was selected to join the USSR’s delegation of artists to the World Exhibition in Paris. While there, she performed Uzbek dances and songs, marking the first time that Western audiences had viewed Central Asian dance. Towards the end of the 1930s, she created the first Uzbek ballet in collaboration with composer Evgeny Grigoryevich Brusilovsky, and she established Uzbekistan’s first ballet school in Tashkent.
She was known as a “chameleonic” performer.
Khanum’s solo performances were astonishing feats of virtuosity. A passionate collector of folk songs and dances, she asked for a song in the local language every time she arrived in a new country, eventually building up a repertoire of songs and dances spanning more than 50 languages and nearly 90 nations. She matched each song with a detailed costume from the corresponding country: as part of her act, Khanum would sometimes change costumes as many as 20 times, embodying a new character with each change, from a farm girl in a Russian village to an Indonesian bride. Her transformations were so detailed and her performance so skilled, that many audience members had no idea that the same person was playing all the different characters.
She toured to conflict zones during World War II.
During the Second World War, Khanum was a member of the theatrical companies that toured the front, offering entertainment and diversions to boost the morale of Soviet soldiers. All told, she gave more than 700 performances, and she donated 300,000 roubles (at the time a huge sum of money) to the war effort through the Fund of Defense.
She received international acclaim and recognition during her career.
Ever since her performance in Paris at the World Exhibition during the 1920s, Khanum was a favorite on the international stage. At the International Folk Dance Festival in London in 1935, she was awarded the top prize by Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother). Her tours during the war were followed by hugely successful international tours throughout the 1950s, during which she traveled extensively throughout Asia and northern and eastern Europe. In 1958, she received the title of People’s Artist of the USSR.
You can visit the home where she lived during her last years.
In the capital city of Tashkent, tucked away in a quiet neighborhood, the house that Khanum called home for the last years of her life now serves as the Memorial House Museum of Tamara Khanum. Here, visitors can explore a wide range of artifacts from the life of this extraordinary performer, including old posters and publicity material; a huge archive of photographs; and, most remarkably, 75 of the costumes that Khanum wore during her performances. Beautifully restored thanks to a grant from the US Ambassadors’ Fund for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage, the costumes are not only a compelling illustration of Khanum’s artistry, but also one of the most comprehensive collections of traditional clothing from regional and ethnic groups all over the world.