The Performance Arts of the Shahnameh

The stories contained in the Shahnameh have historically inspired the creation of numerous works of art in a diverse and often visually focused collection of mediums. However, whereas  a great deal of scholarly work on the Shahnameh has been focused on visual art forms such as the tradition of manuscript paintings, this, in some cases has overshadowed the significance of the performance art traditions that have long been used to tell the stories of Ferdowsi’s epic.

In the the article The Most Important Performing Arts Arisen from Shahnameh of Ferdowsi (1), Mitra Jahandideh, and Shahab Khaefi describe the traditions of “Shahnameh-khani” and the “Naqqali of Shahnameh” as the most historically significant performing art forms dedicated solely to expressing Ferdowsi’s epic poem. The Shahnameh-Khani is essentially the singing of Shahnameh verses from memory or from a book, with perfect word-for-word dictation. During certain points in history, the practice of Shahnameh-Khani was accompanied by music, however this was subject to change, particularly under the laws of Islamic regimes which imposed restrictions on music in public spaces. The Naqqali of Shahnameh involves the dramatic storytelling or narration of the Shahnameh’s various stories with specific inflections, movements, and emotions that distinguish it as a unique art form. The performer who tells these stories is called a “Naqqal”, and during a performance they might play several different roles, and accompany their narration with musical instruments or painted scrolls (2).

Historically, these two art forms have been somewhat differentiated by the background of their audience and the circumstances that their performances would occur under. Mostly, this division manifested along the lines of class, education, and the formality of performance. While performances of the Shahnameh-khani were frequently reserved for the courts of rulers or formal events, the light narrative style of the Naqqali of Shahnameh was often performed specifically for the lower classes lacking in education and advanced verbal skills. While this distinction between these art forms should not be seen as absolute, the frequent designation of the Naqqali of Shahnameh for lower classes allows us to understand the role of performance art forms in circulating the stories of the Shahnameh among common people. In essence, this characterizes the performance arts related to the Shahnameh as seemingly more accessible than their visual art counterparts such as manuscript paintings which were often only created on the commission for individuals of considerable wealth.

While lacking the historical prominence of traditional art forms related to the Shahnameh such as manuscript painting, it is clear that these performance art styles are among the oldest traditions dedicated to telling the stories contained in Ferdowsi’s writing. In fact, the tradition of telling these stories through performance seems to be at least as old as the Shahnameh itself, as regular performance of the Shahnameh-Khani before the king seemed to have been a part of Ferdowsi’s process over the thirty years it took him to write his epic poem (3). In this sense, performance can be understood as the intended delivery mechanism for the Shahnameh, and the continued tradition of performing these stories might be seen as contributing to its influence within Persian culture more than any other factor. As performance art forms, the significance of the Shahnameh-Khani and the Naqqali of Shahnameh is largely contained in their most basic cultural function: “familiarizing Iranians with their national narratives” (4), which they seem to do more of than any other art form dedicated to telling the stories of the Shahnameh.

 

Footnotes:

1. Mitra Jahandideh, and Khaefi Shahab, “The Most Important Performing Arts Arisen from Shahnameh of Ferdowsi: Shahnameh-khani and Naqqali of Shahnameh,” Journal Of The Indiana Academy Of The Social Sciences 16, no. 2 (June 2013): 75-86.

2. Ibid, 77.

3. Ibid, 78.

4. Ibid, 84.