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Ta’zieh Performance (On the Occasion of Ashura)

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Compiled By: Firouzeh Mirrazavi

Ta’zieh is a traditional Persian theatrical genre in which the drama is conveyed predominantly through music and dramatic narration.

In Persian tradition, Ta’zieh (meaning condolence theater) and Pardeh-khani (dramatic narration that accompanies events depicted on painted curtains), were inspired by religious and historical events, symbolizing epic spirit and resistance. The common theme is the heroic tales of resistance against the evil, love and sacrifice. It is a play on religious rituals, which is especially performed in Iran during the holy month of Muharram concurrent with the anniversary of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein (AS) and 72 of his companions in Karbala.

These rituals date back to the pre-Islamic period. In the year of the death of mythical hero, Siavash, Iranians mourned his martyrdom by staging this ritual. Later, when Iranians embraced Shiism, the tragedy of Karbala served as a suitable framework for keeping alive the memory of Imam Hussein (AS) and disseminating his message of fighting oppression to future generations.

Siavash is sent by his father Kaykavus, king of Iran, to fight Afrasiab of Turan. When Afrasiab agrees to a peace treaty favorable to Iranians, Siavash sends word to his father suggesting cease fire. However, because of the intrigues of his step mother, who does not want him returned, Siavash is ordered by Kaykavus to reject the peace treaty.

Siavash is disillusioned and disheartened and seeks refuge in Afrasiab’s camp. However he is eventually killed by Bidarafsh, the wily brother of Afrasiab. The news of Siavsh’s murder makes the Iranians including their hero Rostam very sad. Rostam is said to have stood in mourning for a week. Eventually Siavash’s murder is revenged, but a song commemorating his death is said to have been sung until the Iran invasion of Mongols.

While in the west the two major genres of dramas have been comedy and tragedy, in Persia (Iran), Ta’zieh seems to be the dominant genre. Considered as Persian opera, Ta’zieh resembles the European opera in many respects.

Persian cinema and Persian symphonic music have been influenced by the long tradition of Ta’zieh in Iran. Abbas Kiarostami, famous Iranian film maker, made a documentary movie entitled "A Look to Ta’zieh" in which he explores the relationship of the audience to this theatrical form. Nasser Taghvaee also made a documentary entitled "Tamrin e Akhar" on Ta’zieh.

The appearance of the characteristic dramatic form of Persia known as the Ta'zieh, in essence an expiation ritual, coincided with the emergence of Shiism. According to Ibn Kathir, it appeared in the reign of Mu'izz ad-Dawla, the king of Buyid dynasty, in 963. As soon as the Safavid Dynasty was established in Persia in 1501 and the Shiism of the Twelvers adopted as the official sect, the State took interest in theater as a tool of propagating Shiism.

Like Western passion plays, ta'zieh dramas were originally performed outdoors at crossroads and other public places where large audiences could gather. Performances later took place in the courtyards of inns and private homes, but eventually unique structures called takias were constructed for the specific purpose of staging the plays.

Community cooperation was encouraged in the building and decoration of the takias, whether the funds for the enterprise were provided by an individual philanthropist or by contributions from the residents of its particular locality. The takias varied in size, from intimate structures which could only accommodate a few dozen spectators to large buildings capable of holding an audience of more than a thousand people.

Often the takias were temporary, having been erected specially for the mourning of Muharram. All takias, regardless of their size, are constructed as theaters-in-the-round to intensify the dynamic between actors and audience. The spectators are literally surrounded by the action and often become physical participants in the play. In unwalled takias, it is not unusual for combat scenes to occur behind the audience.

Takia-ye Dawlat, the Royal Theater in Tehran, was the most famous of all the ta'zieh performance spaces. Built in the 1870s by Naser al-Din Shah Qajar, the Royal Theater's sumptuous magnificence surpassed that of Europe's greatest opera houses in the opinion of many Western visitors. This takia was later destroyed by Reza Shah.

The plays devoted to the tragedy at Karbala, Iraq, and its surrounding events form the core of the Ta’zieh repertory. Although the massacre of Imam Hussein (AS), the grandson of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and his followers historically took place on one day--the tenth of the lunar month of Muharram, the battle is divided into many different episodes and performed on separate days.

The only fixed day and play in the Muharram repertory is the martyrdom of Imam Hussein (AS) on the tenth day or Ashura; others can be performed in varying sequence. Imam Hussein’s (AS) death does not always conclude the essential Ta’zieh repertory. Performances may continue after Ashura to depict the sorrowful destiny of the female members of Imam Hussein’s (AS) family who were taken as captives to Damascus.

New plays that depicted the sacrifices of Shiite martyrs before and after Karbala were added to the Ta’zieh fold over time. Based on the Qur’an, narrative, legends and current events, these productions provided an excuse to extend Ta’zieh dramas throughout the year.

Even these non-Muharram plays, however, retain a connection to the tragedy at Karbala through a dramatic device known as Goriz or digression. Within a particular play, Goriz may be a direct verbal reference to Imam Hussein’s (AS) martyrdom or a brief scene depicting an aspect of his tragedy, or both.

The number of Ta’zieh works is vast with new productions and local variations of established dramas constantly being added to the canon. The Cerulli collection at the Vatican Library contains over 1,055 Ta’zieh manuscripts.

Ta’zieh, as a religious epic theater, continues to be performed in areas of the Middle East with large Shiite populations in Iran, Iraq, South Lebanon and Bahrain. Processional forms of this drama are also seen in India, Pakistan and even places far removed from Asia where Shiite Muslim populations exist, such as Jamaica. However, dramatic performances of Ta’zieh originated in Iran.

Performances of Ta’zieh are given both by ‘professional’ troupes of players and by villagers in amateur performances. Many small towns and villages have erected special buildings Husseinieh specifically for the performance of mourning ceremonies during the month of Muharram.

It is most often in buildings that Ta’zieh is performed, although an open-air playing space may also be constructed to accommodate large crowds, live animals and dozens of players, some on horseback.

Whether the performers are amateurs or professionals hired for the occasion, the staging of Ta’zieh is a community affair, with cooperative funds committed for the purpose.

Performances may be long or short, but they often take place all day, particularly on the ninth and tenth days of the Islamic month of Muharram, called Tasua and Ashura respectively, the latter being the day of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein (AS).
A noon meal may be provided for spectators and the performance may be preceded or followed by communal mourning ceremonies, consisting of processions, religious chanting and self-flagellation.

Often persons leave a bequest in their wills to contribute financially to the annual support of these rituals. 

Participants and spectators do not view Ta’zieh as theater, but rather as part of ritual mourning. Nevertheless, Ta’zieh has many theatrical conventions.

The players do not, by convention, memorize their roles (though many have memorized them through years of repetition); rather, they read them from strips of paper held in their hands called tumar.

It is important to note that ta’zieh scripts are rarely intended for reading, but solely for performing. Each part is written out on loose narrow sheets of paper which the actor can hold in the palm of his hand.

The theatrical context of the script, in conjunction with setting, costumes, action, and musical and verbal elements, provides a standard for judging its value.

The parts are not welded together in a common script, but are maintained as separate scripts with cue lines for each role, akin to ‘sides’ used in western theater.

The ‘good’ characters, on the side of Imam Hussein (AS), chant their lines in classical Persian musical modes, and wear the color green.

The ‘bad’ characters declaim their lines in stentorian tones and wear the color red. Women’s roles are taken by men, who wear black, and veil their faces.

The performances offer a number of roles for children, played by young boys, who are also dressed in black, but are unveiled, whether they portray male or female characters.

Several forms of staging exist, but most observe the convention of having one area for the camp of Imam Hussein (AS), and another area in the same open playing space for the camp of the enemies.

A third space may represent Damascus, the seat of the Umayyid caliph, Yazid, who ordered the death of the martyrs. A fourth area usually contains props.

When characters are not performing, they often do not leave the playing area, but merely retire to their playing space, drink tea and converse. When moving in the playing area, spaces traversed in circles or arcs represent long distances and straight lines are short distances.

Taizieh is one of the most highly developed and powerful examples of passion play of Shiite Muslims. The influence of this religious epic performance is deeply felt in the modern theatrical tradition of the Middle East.

Ta’zieh has been one of the means of preserving the classical Persian music (radif). Although no formal study of ta’zieh music has been undertaken, references have been made in some books, e.g. Religious Music of Iran, by Hassan Mashhun and History of Iran"s Music, by Ruhollah Khaleghi and My notes on Music, by Abol-Hasan Saba.

The musical instruments used in ta’zieh are primarily those of the battle field in the middle ages, such as trumpets and drums. As ta’zieh s became more sophisticated cymbals, horns, and clarinets were added. Gradually a carefully developed system was used taking advantage of the classical Persian music, with the variety of moods its pieces could invoke. 

Music that had been frowned on in Iran since the Safavids era, found more interest under Nasser-edin Shah (1848-1896). He appointed Agha Aliakbar Farahani to the position of chief musician, and also established the position of Mir Azaa, or director of religious music. The latter chose music for and organized the singing of ta’zieh performers. They used gushehs of classical Persian music with some subtlety so that the audience was unaware of it. A version of this music, now known as radif of Persian music, was passed down through Mirza Abdollah, Agha Alikbar’s son, and has been documented in recent years.

In general each character of the entourage of Imam Hossein was assigned a dastgâh or a gusheh according to the degree of melancholy its role required. Abbas, the brother of Imam Hossein, who was killed while trying to fetch water from Euphrates River for the thirst starved family, sang in Chahargah.

Hurr, the young Umayyad commander who was sent to fight Imam Hossein, but joined him, and was the first casualty of the war, sang in Aragh. Abdollah, the teenage nephew of Imam Hossein, sang in Rak. A version of Rak in dastgâh Mâhoor is now called Rak-e Abdollah. Zaynab, the sister of Imam Hossein, sang in Gabri or in gushehs of Dashti.

As mentioned earlier in ta’zieh the role of women was played by men, who sang in a high pitch in order to simulate women’s voice. It may be worth mentioning that azan, the piece chanted for calling Muslims to prayer is usually in ruhol-arwah, a gusheh of Bayâte Tork, although at times it is also sung in Bayate Kord.

At the height of ta’zieh performances a large number of ta’ziehs were composed. Enrico Cherulli, Italian ambassador to Iran during the 1950’s, collected over a thousand different ta’ziehs, which are kept at the Vatican Library. This collection includes some interesting mystic or Sufi ta’ziehs as well, such as Majles of Mansur Hallaj.

Hallaj is one of the most interesting sufi figures who crusaded all his life for the down trodden folks. He was hung by Muslem zealots for his belief of unity of being, and the ability of humans to reach godliness. Another Sufi ta’zieh is titled Shamse Tabrizi and Jalal-edin Rumi. The latter reconciled Sufism with Islamic beliefs.

Another collection is one with 260 ta’ziehs at the Library of Majles (Parliament) in Tehran. There are documentations and discussions of ta’zieh. Ta’zieh titles include, ta’zieh of Ali-Akbar, Imam Hasan, and ta’zieh Shahr Banu.

Shahr Banu, daughter of Yazdgerd the third, the Sasanid king during the Arab invasion, is said to have been taken as a prisoner (slave) when Arabs overran Tisfune, the Sasanid capital. Subsequently she was married to Imam Hosein. Many of ta’ziehs are variations of one another. Nevertheless, there is a significant number of independent ta’ziehs.

The popularity of ta’zieh led to some variations of it. These so called gushehs were often performed before the main ta’zieh for warming the audience. They were performed at a corner of the hall. This may be the reason for the term gusheh (corner). Such pieces may depict the story of a more minor figure in the Karbala events such has Hurr, or Qasem. Sometimes they included stories other than those of Karbala, such as Yousef (Joseph) and Zolaikha.

The story of Zolaikha trying to seduce Joseph and when he refuses her advances she blames him for trying to seduce her. Because victimization of innocent in this story bears similarity to those of Karbala it was appealing to the audience. A similar story is Abraham trying to sacrifice his son Ishmael to show his devotion to God. In this case a lamb is sent by God as a substitute sacrifice, and loyalty of Abraham is not compromised. Other popular gushehs are Ta’zieh of Imam Ali and The Death of Prophet Mohammad.

More By Firouzeh Mirrazavi:

*A One-day Delicious Excursion in Tehran with Iran Reviewhttp://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/A-One-day-Delicious-Excursion-in-Tehran-with-Iran-Review.htm

*UNESCO Honors Legendary Vocalist Shahram Nazerihttp://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/-Atlan-Wins-US-Best-Documentary-Award.htm

*Chelo-Kabab: The National Dish of Iranhttp://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/Chelo-Kabab-The-National-Dish-of-Iran.htm

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