Ta’zieh: The Iranian Opera

About 50 years had passed since the death of Prophet Muhammad and the Muslim Empire was sliding into corruption under a tyrant from the Ummayad dynasty, Yazid. Yazid ruled with an iron fist, and demanded Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad who was admired and respected by society at large, pay him allegiance to lend credibility to his own rule. Husayn who witnessed the basic rights and dignity of his people being violated, and good values from his society being drained took a stand against Yazid’s illegitimate rule. He chose to stand against Yazid and was forced to leave his home along with his family and companions. It was on this journey that Husayn, his family and companions were forced to stop by Yazid's army, on the hot plains of a land called Karbala. Ultimately after three days of no water in the scorching heat, Husayn stood and fell valiantly whilst standing for his principles and defending those around him being oppressed. What makes Husayn’s stand extraordinary is that he chose to stand against a mammoth army despite having only 72 companions with him. Husayn ibn Ali made the ultimate sacrifice for social justice in the face of corruption and tyranny. He gave everything he had, including his life, to keep Islam alive. Well over a millennia has past from the Battle of Karbala, but this epic battle between good and evil continues to inspire individuals and communities across the globe. Today millions of people from all over the world pay homage to Husayn ibn Ali for his stand against injustice and annually mourn the tragic Battle of Karbala. Inspired by this historical and religious event, a unique form of theatre has evolved in Iran over the centuries. With its roots in Persian culture and Islamic values, this form of theatrical performance called Ta'zieh or Shabih Khani is performed for the commemoration of the martyrdom of Imam Husayn in the Battle of Karbala. In this ritual of mourning the actors and spectators all gather to remember Imam Husayn and his values, and it is still practiced throughout Iran’s cities and towns. With its many unique characteristics Ta'zieh or Shabih Khani is seen as the only form of serious drama to have developed in the world of Islam. It is also considered as a traditional Iranian Opera.

TIME CODE: 00:00_05:00

Narration: Around 1,400 years ago, Husayn ibn Ali, the prophet of Islam’s grandson, refused to swear allegiance to Yazid, the caliph at the time as he regarded the caliph an oppressor who didn’t follow Islamic rules.

Hussein believed that dying with dignity was better than living under oppression. He was travelling along with his family members and followers to Kufa, in Iraq to help the freedom seekers there when he was confronted by a larger contingent forces loyal to Yazid, the Umayyad caliph.

Imam Hussein tried to avoid war but the enemy insisted that he should either pledge allegiance to Yazid or fight. On the day of Ashura, an unequal war erupted between Imam Hussein's 72 companions and Yazid’s 4,000 contingent.

The Imam and his companions braved certain death and voluntarily fought the last breath.

The enemy did not respect the rules of war. They prevented Imam Hussein and his companions from accessing water. They even murdered Imam Hussein's six-month-old baby and charged their horses over bodies of the martyrs, as the Arabs had done in the pre-Islamic period.

The battle handed Yazid a victory, and the bodies of the murders were captivated and run over by enemy horses, and women and children were taken prisoners, but none of that buried

the imam’s massage in the sands of Karbala.

More than a millennia later, imam Hussein's name continues to symbolizes justice seeking and resistance against oppression.

Imam Hussein is not only a role model for Shia Muslims but also a source of inspiration for the world's great men and freedom seekers who have learned lessons from him.

When India was a colony of the UK, the leader of movement independence movement Mahatma Gandhi said ' for me it's obvious that if India wants to attain victory, it must follow in Imam Hussein's footsteps.

Every year, Shia Muslims hold mourning ceremonies on the day of Ashura to perpetuate Imam Hussein's massage, a special form of drama called Ta’zieh or Shabihkhani has been created by the Iranians over the past centuries to depict the fate of Imam Hussein and his companions in Karbala.

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Mohammad Hossein Naserbakht, Researcher and Theater Instructor: “We have knowledgeable orientalists like Alexander Choshko, who had a good command of the western theater, but was so deeply influenced by Ta'zieh who said that Iranian Ta'zieh is unique among the world dramatic arts.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Davoud Fathali Beigi, Researcher and Theater Instructor: “(Ta'zieh) is a ritual drama whose main subject matter is the conflict between good and evil, its argument centers around the fight against oppression.”

TIME CODE: 05:00_10:00

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Sadeq Ashourpour, Researcher and Theater Instructor: “In Ta'zieh, we are putting a story on stage which we already know how and when it really has happened. But we perform it any way. Why? Because there is a strong connection and link between me and the story.”

TIME CODE: 05:00_10:00

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Davoud Fathali Beigi, Researcher and Theater Instructor: “Ta'zieh has continued to exist thanks to its paying homage to and remembrance of the Ashura Uprising and the self-sacrifice of martyrs of Karbala who lost their lives for the Islamic cause. If it was not for this ideological basis, Ta'zieh may have ceased to exist throughout the years.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Behrooz Qaribpour, Libretto Designer and Director: “Ta'zieh has its roots in pre-Islamic rituals in Iran. The most important of these rituals, which were related to mourning ceremonies and were found in various parts of the country, are Chamari in Kordestan and Sovashun or Siavashun in Persian-speaking regions. Both of these forms were related to simulating the life of a deceased person or a particular individual, who was either a war commander, a lord or a king.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Davoud Fathali Beigi, Researcher and Theater Instructor: “Naturally people change this content. Now Instead of Amaari or Siavash's black coffin which was carried by people over their shoulders during Siavash's mourning ritual, you see a coffin which belongs to Imam Hussein.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Sadeq Ashourpour, Researcher and Theater Instructor: “In this dramatic structure, the mythological figure of Siavash is replaced by the historical figure of Husayn Ibn Ali (AS), without causing the slightest damage to beliefs, values and also the authenticity of the matter. This is how Ta'zieh was brought to existence.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Behrooz Qaribpour, Libretto Designer & Director: “Ta'zieh uses visual arts and our religious Parde Khani which is based on paintings related to the Ashura Events. They all find a three-dimensional form here. The actor in fact wears the clothes already there in the paintings. Ta'zieh needs three things; first a text in verse which is mostly taken from the writings on the death of characters, second music derived from the traditional Iranian music and third actor-singers who can sing according to the melodies (Radifs) of traditional Iranian music.”

TIME CODE: 10:00_15:00

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Mohammad Hossein Naserbakht, Researcher and Theater Instructor: “Ta'zieh is a ritual, narrative and musical drama in verse which has been born out of Iranian people's mourning ceremonies for the third Shia imam, Imam Hussein (AS) and structured around events of the Day of Ashura.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Behrooz Qaribpour, Libretto Designer & Director: “What we have at hand is a long history of formation and also creativity of Ta'zieh singers and those working with them. This shows that Ta'zieh is a genuinely Iranian art form.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Sadeq Ashourpour, Researcher and Theater Instructor: “Ta'zieh gives me warning, but it also gives me knowledge, solidity and steadfastness. Why does it give me steadfastness? Because I know who the hero of Ta'zieh is.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Behrooz Qaribpour, Libretto Designer & Director: In this depiction of the world, (Ta'zieh) has been adjusted to the public life and social beliefs. The places where Ta'zieh are performed haveturned into our religious opera houses. From this perspective, Ta'zieh is comprehensive and full, both in terms of its historical formation and style of performance as well as its preparation and development.”

Chardin says that at Isfahan's Naqshe Jahan Square, a Ta'zieh was performed in which some 2000 people were fighting and “I couldn't believe that no one was killed or injured there, but when the play ended, I noticed that all these people fighting each other were actually actors.””

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Mohammad Hossein Naserbakht, Researcher and Theater Instructor: “Its ritual function enables us to consider this part of Ta'zieh as a sacred form of art. And sacred art is, by definition, an art form whose form, content and function has its roots in the public beliefs.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Sadeq Ashourpour, Researcher and Theater Instructor: “Our viewpoint on the Iranian drama should be monotheistic and unique. Only this kind of outlook is in conformity with Ta'zieh.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Behrooz Qaribpour, Libretto Designer & Director: “It's interesting to note that we had two forms of Ta'zieh, Ta'zieh in motion and stationary Ta'zieh. Sometimes, people stood at their seats and various events from the creation of Adam and Eve down to the events of Karbala were staged before their eyes. These events actually moved in front of you. But often times, people were sitting at special places called Tekyeh and watched the events.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Morteza Saffaryan, Ta’zieh Performer: “These are transcriptions of Ta'zieh which have been written over 100 years ago.”

TIME CODE: 15:00_20:00

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Mohammad Hossein Naserbakht, Researcher and Theater Instructor: “Ta'zieh or Shabih Khani is the only traditional Iranian drama with a written text. Our other traditional forms of drama are created impromptu around a particular narrative. But in Shabih Khani, there is a written text from the very beginning, because its subject matter is related to sacred issues.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Davoud Fathali Beigi, Researcher and Theater Instructor: “The oldest transcript available dates back to the year 1,134 After Hegira.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Mohammad Hossein Naserbakht, Researcher and Theater Instructor: “Melodies of our traditional music are a main element and component which are used for producing various texts for Ta'zieh.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Voice of a man reading Ta’zieh poems: “Oh mother! May I sacrifice myself for you, may I sacrifice my life just to keep your name alive, Remorse will take hold of me but hopefully I will meet you in the Hereafter, Oh mother where are you, alas of the sorrows of separation.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Davoud Fathali Beigi, Researcher and Theater Instructor: “When we examine the oldest Ta'zieh text, what we see is a kind of poetry which is considerable, solid and rigid. It is not layman's poetry, though it is comprehensible to all people.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Mohammad Hossein Naserbakht, Researcher and Theater Instructor: “With the passage of time, some other stories were selected to be incorporated into the Ta'zieh format and thus performed before audience. Adaptations from literature, history of the life of prophet of Islam and other prophets, history of noble persons and even some ethical and social issues found their way into Shabih Khani.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Morteza Saffaryan, Ta’zieh Performer: “There are as many Ta'ziehs as there are days in a year. I have heard here and there that there are over 300 Ta'ziehs.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Davoud Fathali Beigi, Researcher and Theater Instructor: “Ta'zieh ceremonies are organized in either of the two forms; sometimes every individual actor has a small booklet in his hand on which the sentences which he should recite have been written. He uses this booklet to recite while performing his role. He may have memorized these lines. In the second form, all dialogues are written in a single book called Jong.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Morteza Saffaryan, Ta’zieh Performer: “In the Ta'zieh called "Bazar of Levant" there are around 15 transcripts for actors. They are all included in this Jong. In order to have a Ta'zieh, the person who is responsible for writing should arrange these texts for separate individual actors.”

TIME CODE: 20:00_25:00

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Mohammad Hossein Naserbakht, Researcher and Theater Instructor: “We have various roles in Ta'zieh; but all the roles can be categorized into two major groupings: the holy people and the villains. The holy people are ideal models of virtue and the villains are models of evil. All kinds of Ta'zieh, even the ethical and social ones that I mentioned, usually depict the battle between good and evil. This has its roots in ancient Iranian way of thinking and existed in both Islamic and pre-Islamic Iran.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Davoud Fathali Beigi, Researcher and Theater Instructor: “These characters, positive or negative, are marked by the color of their clothes. The positive characters who are closer to the ideal human being speak with the use of melodies, vice versa; negative or evil characters speak using a violent and forceful language.

Actors of Ta'zieh are pious-performers in the sense that they have a particular stance on characters whom they are impersonating. They have a sense of closeness and proximity towards positive characters especially the Prophet of Islam, Imams and other holy people, similarly they have a sense of alienation and grudge towards negative characters.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Sadeq Ashourpour, Researcher and Theater Instructor: “I play the role of Horr. Although I am a Shia but I lack this great character's holiness. I don't have his attitude but I am a follower of his and want to continue on his "red path of martyrdom." I am willing to continue his noble thoughts and wisdom. How can I do that? I should distance myself from the character and tell the audience that "I am not Horr, I am just playing his role."”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Morteza Saffaryan, Ta’zieh Performer: ““I look like Shimr, but My name is Morteza and surname Saffariyan/ I recite elegies for your Master Imam Hussein (AS), I'm like that because I am full of hatred for Hazrat Abbas/ But before the presence of the Son of Prophet, I am a humble person.” This is sung by the actor to convey to the audience the message that he is an ordinary person like them.”

TIME CODE: 25:00_30:00

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Sadeq Ashourpour, Researcher and Theater Instructor: “In the European drama, player uses "immersion" as a technic to immerse himself in the role he or she is playing. But in the Iranian Ta'zieh, the actor should distance him/herself. The player in the Ta'zieh performs a role before their audience, e.g. playing the role of Shimr but after the role is over, he goes to a corner to sit and weep for Imam Hussein.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Hassan Barakati, Ta’zieh Performer: “As a Ta'zieh player, I am a Shia who lovers Imam Hussein. When I take a dagger to behead Imam Hussein, I have conflicting feelings. At surface, I should convey a sense of violence so that the audience admires the play but at the same time my blood and all my body cells are crying for Imam Hussein.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Mohammad Hossein Naserbakht, Researcher and Theater Instructor: “Even when the actor playing Shimr addresses the actor playing Imam Hussein, he speaks with respect but when he speaks about himself, i.e. the character of Shimr, he uses a damning and derisive tone. It means that the actor is interpreting his role, he brings the interpretation of a pious-player into his role-playing.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Ali Saeedi, Ta’zieh Performer: “From an intellectual point of view, in Ta'zieh we don't have positive or negative roles. Although we have such roles at a formal level. I think, in Ta'zieh even a negative character can stir the sense of mourning which is going to be created and also the expected emotions and spiritual mood. We believe that we are holding a mourning ritual and that what we're doing is something spiritual and religious.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Mohammad Hossein Naserbakht, Researcher and Theater Instructor: “Essentially here we don’t have any boundaries between the audience and the acting team. Here all people, the actors and the audience, go by the name of “attendants of the meeting”. The viewer sometimes even joins the players, for example by singing elegies, beating on their chests and carrying the bodies of holy people. This way, the audience joins the process and here we have a partner-viewer.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Sadeq Ashourpour, Researcher and Theater Instructor: “As a western expert has put it, Ta'zieh is the greatest human drama; because when you go to a square at any given village or town and you see a Ta'zieh ceremony going there; all local residents are in attendance to watch. All these people are regarded as both actors and viewers.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Hassan Barakati, Ta’zieh Performer: “What do mourners at Husseiniyeh want? What do the people who have traveled thousands of kilometers to watch Ta'zieh, want to say? They tremble in cold weather and wait for us actors to perform in front of them for 4-5 hours. What is the driving force here? What kind of attraction is this? We can only call it people's love for Imam Hussein.”

TIME CODE: 30:00_35:00

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Sadeq Ashourpour, Researcher and Theater Instructor: “Both the actors and the audience are after a similar goal; the subject matter of Ta'zieh is considered sacred for both groups, for me as the viewer and also for the actors.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Davoud Fathali Beigi, Researcher and Theater Instructor: “Our stage is located right in the middle of the circle of viewers. In foreign and western drama, the arrangement is one-sided; you have the stage on the one side and the audience on the other. This "one-sidedness" creates a separation between the audience and the actors, while in Ta'zieh there is no such distance.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Behrooz Qaribpour, Libretto Designer & Director: “Someone who watches Ta'zieh and joins the mourning ceremony, is shedding tears in order to have his or her sins absolved. Or as an actor he makes other people cry in order to have his own wrongdoings forgiven.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Davoud Fathali Beigi, Researcher and Theater Instructor: “In Ta'ziehs related to martyrdom and the events of Karbala, the viewers have come to establish a spiritual connection; they have come to refresh their souls. They have come to partake in a religious activity which merits God's reward.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Ali Saeedi, Ta’zieh Performer: “Once we had a performance when a woman in deep mourning stirred such a big sense of sorrow in the population that everyone was influenced. Even we as the performers paused for a while to let her push ahead with her creating a sorrowful mood.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Ta’zieh’s Custom Producer: “I am interested in this work, and because of my love for it, I have devoted all my life to catering Ta'zieh clothes. I have readied everything in case someone will need them, from boots and clothes to body armors, swords, lion masks and etc. I have prepared all these material in order for Ta'zieh players to be able to have their performance. This helmet (KolahKhud) is worn by the actor playing Hazrat Abolfazl's role. This has been made in Isfahan with verses from Quran engraved around it. This is for those who play major roles like the role of Ali Akbar, Imam Hussein's son. Black feathers are worn by actors who play negative roles like Shimr. Sometimes Shimr can use red feathers on his helmet.”

TIME CODE: 35:00_40:00

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Behrooz Qaribpour, Libretto Designer & Director: “Colors have symbolic values here, noble and holy people use white or green colors but villains use red.But a character like Horr who is in between and is moving from wickedness to nobility uses yellow colors.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Ta’zieh’s Custom Producer: “These feathers are worn by Horr, his brother or his son. This belongs to Horr's Ta'zieh ceremony.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Behrooz Qaribpour, Libretto Designer & Director: “Various artistic or industrial professions come together to make a glorious play possible.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Ali Asghar Torabzadeh, Ta’zieh Costume Designer: “In my field of work, I have tried to understand what kind of services I can render. I have used items in Ta'zieh which would create a better image in the minds of the viewers.

Parents would like their children to have even a minor role in the Ta'zieh, considering this a small part in a big religious event.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Davoud Fathali Beigi, Researcher and Theater Instructor: “This is an Iranian narrative of that event. Besides that, you have language, music and popular Iranian rituals, you have all of them. They all come together to form characteristics of a major Iranian art form.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Behrooz Qaribpour, Libretto Designer & Director: “Take a step and now turn around. Ok ok again. Now the horse's muscles are contracted. See. Now the mourners enter. I have created some works. I have written works on Molavi, Saadi and Hafiz which are all based on the Ta'zieh form. These works have been well-received by the Iranians. This shows that the form used in Ta'zieh has a history of thousands of years among the Iranian people. This form could have continued its existence but somehow was neglected. because I love Ta'zieh and have worked on it for so many years, I revived it. See how these turnings could help you. Ok. Now move your body like a horse-rider. Move yourself. Now dismount. Neighing. Come down. Leave the state galloping.

The language used in a puppet show, especially where puppets are controlled by strings, is like the language of Ta'zieh capable of serving seveal functions. There is no reason for us to use it just for a particular story type.I wanted to prove that we can show events that are impossible or really hard to show on a theater stage. Turn rapidly!

-move… it has no weight as if you're moving in the air.”

TIME CODE: 40:00-48:22

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Behrooz Qaribpour, Libretto Designer & Director: “I have used all versions of Maghtal writings. I have also used Ta'zieh texts both published or unpublished. Looking at the Opera of Ashura, on the one hand, I try to revive this local form of drama in my country and expand on the language of puppet shows and also use music within the Ta'zieh. I also try to depict the events of Karbala in such a way that you as the viewer are flown from your seat and taken to Nineveh. This experience happens for viewers not only inside Iran but in the western countries where we have staged our plays. The viewers forget themselves and have a flashback to hundreds of years ago. They see themselves on a field where Goodand Evil, and Right and Wrong are battling each other. Therefore from a certain perspective, this is a modern Ta'zieh.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Behrooz Qaribpour, Libretto Designer & Director: “When we performed in Krakow in Poland or in Italy where the audience lacked any knowledge about the events of Karbala, and in France where the viewers have not even heard Imam Hussein's name, they came forward and said" we have gotten the message of your play. Your work calls everyone to peace and warns against war." In fact, this was my original idea and I managed to get it across to people with no historical knowledge or religious affiliation.

Our national opera or Ta'ziehhas commonalities with all other national operas across the world such as the German or Italian operas, the text is in verse, actor-singers play roles and music has a strong presence throughout the play. These common points prove that Ta'zieh is a national opera.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Mohammad Hossein Naserbakht, Researcher and Theater Instructor: Peter Brook in parts of Mahabharat which he has worked on, or in The Conference of the Birds, which is based on (Iranian poet) Attar’s The Logic of the Birds, used some techniques from Ta'zieh. Roberto Ciulli, a German artist who has travelled to our country in the past years, in staging one of Shakespeare’s plays, has used music and other Ta'zieh techniques.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Davoud Fathali Beigi, Researcher and Theater Instructor: We people had a worldview with some beliefs and values. Based on these beliefs we have created a dramatic form which is what the people of the country really like.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Sadeq Ashourpour, Researcher and Theater Instructor: To tell the truth, even we Iranians have not been able to offer a definition of Ta'zieh, or even get to know it. Why? Because, it is very extensive and has its roots in five thousand years of history.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Behrooz Qaribpour, Libretto Designer & Director: Contrary to what appears on the surface, it revives tenderness, affection and kindness in the human heart. Ta'zieh has a hidden message which is the avoidance of war. It has a message of peace.”

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