Ta'ziyeh; Karbala Drag Kings and Queens
By: Professor Negar Mottahedeh
At the time of the popularization of the ta'ziyeh dramas in Qajar Iran, Shi'ih religious scholars were forced, albeit reluctantly, to deliver a decision on the religious performances. One would assume that this was because the representation of animate forms were usually forbidden in Muslim traditions. Flandin comments that the mullas were against the ta'ziyeh for other reasons, however. They did not approve of the representation of their Imams on the dramatic stage. But, as the director and theatre scholar, Bahram Beiza'i, argues the resistance of the clerical class to ta'ziyeh performances may have been more professional than ideological. The ta'ziyeh provided an outlet that, though religious, was more [popularly] favorable than the religious instruction given by the mullas (120). The first famous judgement was given by Mirza Abul-Qasem ibn Hassan Gilani who died in 1815-16 CE. He was one of the most important religious authorities of the Qajar period and well respected by the Shah and his ministers. In answer to the question of whether it is "lawful on the days of Ashura to play the roles of the Imam or the enemies of the Family of the Prophet in order to induce the people to weep? " Gilani issued a fatwa.
A Ta'ziyeh scene of Qajar era
Ta'ziyeh was, in the words of one of the leaders of religious thought, given full range on the condition that it would cause weeping and pretending to weep for Imam Husayn and his family. Such license created the grounds for the emergence of sacred pictorial depictions in Persian popular art during the nineteenth century. "Once it had been accepted, to the dismay of the orthodox, that the roles of the martyrs and their adversaries were enacted by devout Muslims, the step toward the public's acceptance of religious paintings depicting the same narratives had already been made." "After hundreds of years of censure," Samuel Peterson writes on the advent of folk-art in Iran, "during the nineteenth century there appear paintings of religious subjects which specifically were intended for the Iranian public at large" (75). The paintings depict the events of Karbala as a translation of ta'ziyeh performances into the visual and pictorial arts.
Evidences of this can be seen in the loose relations between these dramatic representations and the ta'ziyeh style depictions of the Karbala massacres that appear on the tile panels in various takiyehs throughout the country under Qajar reign. Covering the walls of the takiyehs, these tiles cite the ta'ziyeh's performance as a translation of Muslim history.
When pictorial arts began depicting history in imitation of the actions performed in these ta'ziyeh representations, the main lines of history lost their essentialized form. The translation of the historical into the present of the ta'ziyeh performance made the usage of veiling arbitrary on stage.
Historians of the ta'ziyeh claim that the introduction of veils into the drama was meant to cover for the fact that only men and children took part in the representation of the Karbala tragedy. Women, in other words, did not participate as actors on the public stage. So to depict female characters such as the daughter of the prophet, Fatimih, mortal men donned the veil. This minor 'twist' has had major consequences for the ancient traditions of painting in Qajar Iran. Peterson again:
During the last half of the fifteenth century and until the Qajar period, the veil was an exclusive attribute of holy personages and was not used to cover the faces of women. However, once it became in Ta'ziyeh productions a standard part of the costume of women-- a sign of their modesty...it becomes in Kerbela paintings a standard feature of Alid women. No longer used so consistently as the sacred symbol it formerly had been, in Qajar religious painting the veil is ascribed somewhat arbitrarily to holy figures; thus the faces of the Shi'a Imams appear veiled and unveiled. (Peterson 79, my emphasis)
On the stage, the grain of the voice and the tint of the veil determined the gender of the character in the ta'ziyeh performances. Young men with soft voices portrayed female characters and young girls under the age of nine (the age of maturity) performed certain minor roles. One of the early Qajar performers of women's roles, Haji Mulla Husayn from Peek Zarand-Saveh, played female characters so well that each year he had to leave his farm for the months of Muharram and Safar in order to perform at the Royal Takiyeh (Takiyeh Dowlat). Haji Mulla Husayn and Gholi Khan Shahi were two of the most famous female role carriers in the late Qajar period and were specifically hired to play the role of Zinat (Beiza'i 143-144). According to Beiza'i, the female role carrier would wear a long black shirt which was sometimes decorated with flowers and which reached down to the back of the leg. A second black piece of textile would cover the head, the arms and the hands. A third would cover the face, so that only the sliver of the eyes and the fingertips of the actor would be visible. The women belonging to Yazid's camp would wear the same costumes, but in red (Beiza'i 145).
A Ta'ziyeh company of Late Qajar era
Western observers of the ta'ziyeh during the modern period, those travelers and diplomats used to the European tradition of drama as fictional but historically real entertainment, comment frequently on the lack of attention paid to the historical accuracy of costumes in the dramatic presentation of the ta'ziyeh. Edward G. Browne observes that the performance of the ta'ziyeh on the 7th of Muharram 1888 CE. was "spoiled in some measure by the introduction of a number of carriages, with pastilions barbarously dressed up in a half-European uniform, in the middle of the piece." He goes on to observe that this absurd piece of ostentation seemed typical of Qajar taste (Browne, Year 604). Writing in the 1860's Flandin records that the players who represented Europeans on the stage, borrowed his troupes' triangular hats and (military?) uniforms in order to represent themselves as real farangis (foreigners). But Flandin was moved by the realism, if not the historical accuracy of the ta'ziyeh performance, much like Drouville who, some thirty years earlier, could not fathom how the realistic and chaotic battle of four thousand performers left no one hurt or wounded (Beiza'i 119-120). For Gobineau, the simplicity of clothing seemed to recommend itself to the production of the ta'ziyehs. In order for the spectacle to work, Gobineau maintains, the holy men wore turbans, and the feminine characters, the present day veils used in Baghdad and Damascus (Gobineau 389).
The ta'ziyeh of the Christian girl performed at the Shah's Niavaran palace and then at the Royal Takiyeh in Tehran a year later, struck Gobineau as one of most powerful ta'ziyehs performed in the Muharram sequence. In this performance the clothes of the Christian girl are said to have been based on European paintings, so that in the passion play, the Christian girl appears as a stereotypical European woman in a straw hat, a fanning skirt and an apron, performing his part in tall black boots. This ta'ziyeh which Beiza'i says may be the ta'ziyeh known as the "Majlis-i zan-i Nasrani" is noteworthy, in that it is one of the only known mourning ta'ziyehs with a female lead character. It is uncharacteristic, too, in that it opens with a curtain around the otherwise open circular stage.
The scene is set on the barren plains of Karbala and the coffins bearing the remains of the third Imam and his followers are visible. Lit candles above a few of the coffins signify the holiness of the personages within. Weapons are scattered about on the ground, signifying the bloody end to a battle that has just been fought. Gobineau muses that the stage gives the audience the sense that it can see both above and below ground. The girl enters with her entourage, riding a horse. Not knowing where she has arrived, she dismounts and asks her party to put up tents. But with every nail that penetrates the ground, blood gushes out as if from a fountain. Everyone in her party is perturbed. Eventually asleep on one of the upper rooms of the takiyeh, the girl has a dream. Christ enters and tells the girl about the battle of Karbala. Meanwhile an Arab thief enters the stage and unaware of the Imam's status, opens his coffin. Looking for weapons and valuables he attacks the body. The Arab is so evil at heart, Gobineau observes, that he does not notice the candles or the doves that encircle the holy corpse. He is suddenly frightened by the voice of the martyred Imam who speaks to him. And angered, too. After dismembering the body, the Arab thief leaves the scene. Then all the prophets of the past and the Fourteen Infallibles enter with veiled faces. They walk towards the Imam's corpse. As the performance ends, the Christian girl, moved by the tragic fate of the Imam, converts to Islam.
Though female characters in ta'ziyehs were rare, their appearance on the public stage indubitably created the desire amongst the multitude of female ta'ziyeh enthusiasts to perform in ta'ziyehs and to convene exclusive performances for women. One of the daughters of Fath 'Ali Shah Qajar (1797-1834), Ghamar al-Saltanah, arranged to have the full ta'ziyeh sequence performed at her house to an all-female audience in the first ten days of Muharram each year. Ta'ziyehs were performed in the evenings following female-only rauzeh-khanis (Karbala eulogies). In these performances, female rauzeh-khans such as Mulla Nabat, Mulla Fatimih and Mulla Maryam would often take on the leading roles.
Because the Persian women of the day were largely illiterate, the process of performing for the female-only ta'ziyehs was slightly altered. Unlike the men who usually held a slip of paper in the palm of their hand and looked down on it as if to remember their lines and to gesturally create a distance between themselves and the characters they played, the women recited their lines from memory, making identification complete. Literate castrates would go to Mu'in al-Baka's home and learn the various lines by heart. They would also learn the musical scores for each part. Then the eunuchs would search the andaruns and the harems and collect a variety of female mullas and then teach them their designated lines for the female-only performances. The eunuchs themselves would perform the music on stage and at certain times a blind kamanche player, "Nadman-i koor", would also get on stage to play the kamanche. When she directed the female-only ta'ziyeh, Fath Ali Shah's daughter, would also appear on stage and give her directorial instructions to the musicians and the actors with a walking stick. When necessary, she would slap a mulla across the face in order to get the desired effect for the mourning ta'ziyehs. The performer would start crying, imbuing her part with a sense of reality (Munis al-Dawlah, 105).
Ta'ziyehs performed in these female-only gatherings, though sometimes selected from among the more traditional scripts, were more often those with female leads. The ta'ziyeh of Shahr-banu or "The wedding of a Koreyshite daughter" are among the most popular female ta'ziyehs. Munis al-Dawlah's memoirs tell us that "The wedding of a Koreyshite daughter" was so popular that women came from far away towns and villages to participate in it when it was staged in Tehran.
A Ta'ziyeh player of Late Qajar era
In this ta'ziyeh, the Gharish (Koreyshite) women prepare a sumptuous wedding for an ugly bride. They decide on inviting Fatimih as a way of endearing themselves to the prophet's daughter. Fatimih, busy at home with housework, decides that she does not have the time, nor, typical of female narcissism, the clothes to go to a wedding. A tall female beauty decked with wings, representing the angel Gabriel, appears in the sky, (or rather, the roof of one of the nearby buildings) singing aloud to the houris that they need to clothe and prepare Fatimih for the wedding. Each of the twelve houris arrives at Fatimih's threshold, bearing gifts and treasure chests. We must assume that Fatimeh was convinced that she could be appropriately decked, because she finally decides to attend the wedding.
At sight of Fatimih's beauty, the ugly bride falls to the ground and passes out. The Gharish women beg Fatimih to pray for the bride. She does, and the bride immediately comes to. The Gharish women, idol worshippers one and all, convert to Islam. (Munis al-Dawlah, 104)
Munis al-Dawlah writes that the more cheerful ta'ziyehs, such as the ones representing the wedding of the Koreshite daughter, were performed in the month following the months of mourning, in Rabii al-Awal, while mourning ta'ziyehs by women and for women were more frequently produced in the months of Muharram and Safar.
Although women characters would appear without the veil in these female-only performances, women appeared as lead male characters in drag and with applied facial hair. Playing male roles, women often carried swords and rode on horse back on stage. A particular breed of horse, the tatu, was bred for the occasion and castrates walked along side and guided them during the ta'ziyeh performance. (Munis al-Dawlah, 98)
Beiza'i maintains that these performances by and for women were reactions that not only showed women's appreciation of the art-form, but which also showed their desire to gain the right to perform women's roles in the larger and more traditional arenas. Women's ta'ziyehs did not reach the public, however. Rare and far less documented, they were only occasionally performed in larger private spaces, in the homes of the wealthy and powerful until the mid-1920s. (Beiza'i 151-152).
Though the ta'ziyeh tradition has lost the popularity it once had under the reign of Nasir al-Din Shah, the Islamic Republic has found dramatic performances useful tools for religious, moral and national propaganda. Not surprisingly, the tropes of the ta'ziyeh and especially its focus on the recollection of history in light of the living present, seem to appear most forcefully on the screen of the Post-revolutionary Iranian cinemas. Bahram Beiza'i, whose earlier work for the theater was renowned for incorporating indigenous and Eastern dramatic techniques, has introduced some of these elements to his work for the screen. A ta'ziyeh performance appears, for example, in his Legend of Tara and time folds to awaken the dead for a festive wedding in the film The Travellers. The bride in The Travellers effectively enacts a gender reversal and plays the role of the bridegroom, from a classical wedding taziyeh, The ta'ziyeh of Qasem. This occurs in the film's final sequence.
I opened this paper by cataloguing some of the most pronounced ways that the ta'ziyeh tradition has effected the historical recollection of Islam, suggesting that the introduction of ta'ziyeh's version of that history into the pictorial arts shifted the main lines of history, transforming its essentialized form. The ta'ziyeh tradition also influenced other cultural and political realms: music and cinema are instances of this. As Mary Hegland has shown, the Karbala story has been used prolifically in the political realm, as well, shifting contemporary political struggles through a fabulated recollection of the struggles in Karbala. The ta'ziyeh has been, in other words, a revolutionary medium, capable of transforming rigid, reified and fixed cultural and political practices.
If the ta'ziyeh has influenced so many realms of cultural production over its years of popularity in Iran, one should wonder in what ways the ta'ziyeh has transformed notions of selfhood, as well. Beyond the realm of producing a sense of national belonging and a conception of ethnic identity based on a twist in the performance of Shiite history, one must ask if the ta'ziyeh also produced new configurations and alignments of gender and sexual identity, being that these too are products of culture and ideology. Did the female mullas, for example, do other kinds of performances for women, dressed in male drag? How about the male role carriers of the ta'ziyeh's female roles? Did the performances of drag generate other kinds of playful entertainment behind private walls? How did these performances affect and generate other understandings of gendered identification and sexual orientation? How, in other words, did the ta'ziyeh unhinge static notions of identity and proliferate new public or private ways of perceiving gendered and sexual taxonomies in late 19th century Iran?
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---, "Bahram Bayza`i's Maybe Some Other Time: The un-Present-able Iran" (Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture and Media Studies 43, 163-191).
---, "Bahram Bayza`i: Filmography" in Life and Art: the New Iranian Cinema ed. R. Issa and S. Whitaker (London: BFI 1999), 74-82
Translated into Persian in Zindihgi va honar: sinama-yi novin-i Iran trans. Parvanih Faridi and Omid Rawhani (Tehran, 1379), 101-110.
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