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.

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A Brief Comparison of Art Forms of the Shahnameh

I began this project by investigating the origins of the Shahnameh Manuscript painting tradition. Based on my preliminary understanding of the topic, the production of these paintings seemed to be the primary and most significant art form related to the Shahnameh. However what I have found reflects a contradiction with this early understanding. While the Shahnameh manuscript painting tradition does indeed hold a great deal of significants related to the Shahnameh and history of Iran, this is mostly due to its use as a political tool by various rulers.

After grappling with the fairly limited role of this tradition in ancient Persian culture, I began to research other art forms related to the Shahnameh until I found the performance arts of the Shahnameh-Khani and the Naqqali of Shahnameh. While traditions these respectively involved the practice of singing and narrating the verses of the Shahnameh, it became clear that not only were these art forms among the oldest dedicated to telling these stories, but they were also the most representative of how the Shahnameh entered the lives of common people on a day-to-day basis.

Whereas the third focus of my research was into the writing style of Ferdowsi and its effect on the art of the Shahnameh, this helped me in confirming my developing understanding that many of the visual art forms in fact had less in common with Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh than their performance art counterparts. This was due to several factors including a lack of visual detail in Ferdowsi’s writing that made the process of visually interpreting the Shahnameh rather difficult with much being left open to the imagination of the artist.

To briefly summarize the conclusions that I have drawn from this project, I believe it is necessary to identify the differences in what makes the Shahnameh manuscript paintings an performing arts significant. In the case of manuscript paintings, I believe that much of the significance that is attributed to them is characterized by their existence as physical relics of ancient Persian culture, and their role as political tools. The performing arts relating to the Shahnameh can be seen as the more “organic” iteration of Ferdowsi’s epic and their significance is derived from the action of propagating the stories that have made the Shahnameh so influential and important within Iranian culture.

The Influence of Ferdowsi’s Writing Style on Visual Art

The “Shahnameh” or Persian Book of Kings, is an epic poem by Ferdowsi that comprises various myths, legends, and histories of Iran in some 60,000 verses. Completed in 1010, the Shahnameh has continuously played a significant role in characterizing the culture, moral structures, and sense of national identity in Iran largely by inspiring various artistic traditions dedicated to telling its stories. While the most distinguished among these is the art of illustrated manuscript paintings (a.k.a. book paintings) that depict various scenes of adventure, war, and feats of heroism, other traditions include different forms of performance art, decorated ceramics, textiles, metalwork, and carvings.

Whereas the Shahnameh is easily among the most influential poems ever written, the lasting significance of this work can be partially attributed to the poetic skill of Ferdowsi. However, as this single poem came to inspire (quite literally) centuries worth of subsequent art, and sentiments of national unity within Iran, the relationship between Ferdowsi’s work and all that it inspired is understandably complicated. In attempting to understand this relationship, it seems necessary to ask two questions:

How did Ferdowsi intend his work to be used?

How does Ferdowsi’s writing lend itself to artistic expression?

In an essay titled “Ferdowsi and the Illustration of the Shahnameh”(1) Jerome Clinton asserts that Ferdowsi’s primary goal in writing that Shahnameh was to create something that was to be read or recited. That is, a work of pure poetry that didn’t necessarily lend itself so extensively to the visual interpretations continuously produced centuries after the poems completion. While Ferdowsi does not say this directly, Clinton makes this argument by closely looking at the master poet’s writing style.

In Ferdowsi’s writings, adjectives, adverbs, and visual descriptions are somewhat scares, and when poetic imagery is employed Clinton asserts that it is always in pursuit of furthering the audiences understanding of the actions taking place, the emotions involved, and the moral landscape of the given scene. In this way, an object, creature, or person in the Shahnameh is known by its effects on the story rather than a description of what it appears to be(2). An example of this can be seen in the story of “Zal and Sam” in which the infant Sam is at one point abandoned on a mountainside to die. Soon after, the mythical bird Simorgh depends upon Sam with the intention of feeding him to her young. In Iranian mythology the Simorgh is usually described as a large and majestic multicolored bird who is an incredible sight to behold. However, here Clinton notes that Ferdowsi utilizes no such description. Instead, for the purpose of telling this story, the mythical bird represents a threat to Sam and as such Ferdowsi predominantly describes it only by the features that make it most menacing (outreaching talons, large wingspan, etc.), but even here these features seem to be more defined by their actions than their appearance (ex: OUTREACHING talons).

While this example clearly shows how Ferdowsi writes in a manner that favors the ends of the storytelling process over the detail of the visuals, stylistic traits like this are often seen as indicators of Ferdowsi’s unique poetic mastery. The Scholar Shafi’i-Kadkani asserts that another one of these traits is Ferdowsi’s “stylistic economy” which is characterized by a conservative use of similes, metaphors, and other literary devices often overly utilized in the crafts of poetry and storytelling (3).

In a similar manner, Jerome Clinton calls attention to the use of color in the Shahnameh, saying that “for the most part Ferdowsi’s palette is limited to six colors: black, white, gold, silver, red, and blue, all of which have strong metaphoric content.”(4) The concepts represented by these colors are fairly intuitive and easily to understand as many can be found in modern Western culture as well. For instance, Ferdowsi commonly uses gold and silver to represent wealth or prosperity, while red usually symbolizes blood or the ferocity of war often in contrast with blue which frequently represents the stillness of night. Whereas Ferdowsi’s use of color can be seen as more of a poetic device than a descriptive one due to the nature of this color-based symbolism, the naturalness and ease at which these metaphors are grasped seems to point to the authors desire for his writing to be understood by a broad audience. In essence, by making use of the relationships between specific colors and ideas (ex. red = blood), Ferdowsi plays on the natural associations of people to make the Shahnameh more easily accessible to a larger audience.

 

Footnotes:

1. Jerome Clinton, “Ferdowsi and the Illustration of the Shahnameh,” in Islamic Art and Literature, edited by Oleg Grabar, and Cynthia Robinson (Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2001), 57-78.

2. Ibid, 63.

3. Ibid, 62.

4. Ibid, 62.

Image from Wikimedia Commons. This photo is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years of less.

The Origin of the Shahnameh Manuscript Painting

The stories contained in the Shahnameh have inspired various works of decorative art from textiles and stone carvings to glazed ceramics. The manuscript painting or “Persian miniature” however is often regarded as the most iconic and historically significant of these illustrative art forms. The oldest illustrations of stories related to the Shahnameh have been identified in wallpaintings of the hero Rostam, that date back to the early eighth century, and predating the completion of Ferdowsi’s poem by about 400 years (1) (note that this is possible because Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh compiled and refined pre-existing stories). By comparison, the production of Shahnameh manuscript paintings is a far younger tradition with the oldest existing illustrative manuscripts originating in the late thirteenth century after the annexation of Persia into the Mongol Empire (2).

The historical prominence of the Shahnameh manuscript painting among its fellow art forms can be better understood for the role that it played as a circumstantial political tool used by various rulers of different dynasties. Following the 1258 sack of Baghdad in which the Abbasid Caliphate was conquered by Mongol invasion, the subsequent Il-Khanid dynasty gradually sought out ways to legitimize their rule by becoming closer to their Persian subjects (3). Much of this was facilitated by the advice of native Iranian ministers such as the Joveynis who would often guide the Il-Khan rulers towards fulfilling the roles of traditional Persian monarchs. Under their influence, the Il-Khanid dynasty began to produce written manuscripts of the Shahnameh sometime around 1276 as a means of consolidating and celebrating a sense of Persian cultural identity that would bring them closer to their subjects (4). This effort was continuously expanded, particularly under the ruler Ghazan Khan (r. 1295-1304) who after initiating the dynasty’s conversion to Islam, began to produce illustrated Shahnameh manuscripts at the turn of the fourteenth century.

The attention that subsequent rulers displayed in patronizing cultural arts was particularly well received because it replaced much of the cultural content (literature, arts, etc.) that had been destroyed in the Mongol conquest of Persia, where various libraries and palaces . However because of this mass destruction of cultural artifacts, scholars also note that this limits our ability to speak with much certainty about the origins of Shahnameh manuscripts as earlier copies may have once existed (5). Similarly, as many collections of Shahnameh manuscripts have been separated into individual pages over the course of time (as discussed in a different post), this further limits our understanding of these early manuscripts and makes their study immensely more difficult.

While rule by the Il-Khanid dynasty ended around 1335, their practice of patronizing arts celebrating the Shahnameh to legitimize their imperial rule of Persia was adopted by other imperial dynasties such as the Timurids and Safavids whose rules colored the centuries that followed. During these subsequent dynasties, while the production of illustrated manuscripts remained at the forefront of these art forms, the rulers who funded their creation became increasingly concerned with using them as a means to reflect their personal majesty. In essence, these rulers regularly tried to outdo their predecessors by creating the most comprehensive, detailed and magnificent illustrated manuscripts to honor their legacy. However as this trend became more prominent, we can also infer that there was a gradual step away from the original intention of these manuscripts which was to foster a connection with the common people of Iran. Instead the production of illustrated manuscripts became more about conveying the image of a given ruler, and as the artists who created them were often employed solely in the courts of these rulers, it seems that the production of these manuscripts became increasingly less relevant to the way the average Persian would take in the stories of the Shahnameh.

Therefore, while the manuscript painting may be considered the most prominent art form related to the Shahnameh at face value, the reasoning behind this perception seems to be primarily based on the manuscript painting’s ability to function as a beautiful historical relic that was used as a political tool by various imperial powers. These marvelous illustrative book paintings created as symbols of status certainly represent the sense of cultural identity generated by the Shahnameh, but they have little relevance to how the Shahnameh was actually observed in the majority of Persian culture, and this fact must be taken into when comparing the art forms that Ferdowsi’s epic poem inspired.

 

Footnotes:

1. Barbara Brend and Charles P. Melville, and the Fitzwilliam Museum, Epic of the Persian Kings: The Art of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh (London ; New York: I.B. Tauris, 2010), 31.

2. Ibid, Melville, 13.

3. Ibid, 12.

4. Ibid, 13.

5. Ibid, 14.

Image from Wikimedia Commons. This photo is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years of less.

Introduction

What is the Shahnameh?

The Shahnameh, or Epic of Persian Kings is a poem written by the Iranian poet Hakim Abul-Qasem Ferdowsi Tuosi (A.K.A. “Ferdowsi”) under the patronage of Mahmud of Ghazni(1) between 977 and 1010 AD(2). Commonly heralded as the “National Epic of Iran”, the Shahnameh has played a significant role in consolidating a sense of national and cultural identity within the region by putting forth a distinct code of moral and ethical values. Because of this quality, the Shahnameh has been continuously celebrated by various dynasties as a means of evoking a sense of national unity. This endorsement by various monarchs has played a significant role in cementing the Shahnameh’s popularity, influence, and cultural legacy long after the time of Ferdowsi.

The body of some 60,000 verses that comprise the Shahnameh is often divided into three sections: the mythical, the legendary or heroic, and the historical. It is notable however that the boundary between the first two of these sections is often regarded as “rather blurred”(3), and as a result they are occasionally grouped as a single section.The mythical section, which makes up about four percent of the Shahnameh(4), begins with the creation of the universe and covers a variety of stories leading up to the early legendary section. The most famous among the stories of the mythical section is the reign of the Arab king Zahhak, whose evil was physically embodied by serpents growing from his shoulders after being kissed by the devil. The legendary section of the Shahnameh comprises nearly two thirds of the poem’s body and contains many of its most famous stories, such as the adventures of the hero Rostam who served seven kings, and conquered various foes over the course of his life. The historical section begins with the fall of the Achaemenid dynasty which was conquered by Alexander the Great (A.K.A. Eskandar, Iskandar) in 330 BC, and concludes with the Arab conquest of Sasanian-ruled Persia in the 7th century(5).

The popularity of the Shahnameh through the centuries after its completion has led to its study and observation by various cultures outside of Iran, which has resulted in innumerable transliterations of the poem. Consequentially, the title of the poem, as well as various other names mentioned in its pages have had various “correct” spellings (ex: Shahnameh, Shahnama), and as this blog draws on a variety of scholarly works, one should note that there may be inconsistencies between posts with regard to certain words or names.

This project is dedicated to examining the cultural dimensions of the Shahnameh through its existing relationships with religion, women, and art. In researching these topics we have drawn on a variety of scholarly sources, all of which are cited collectively in the bibliography section of our blog, or individually in the footnotes of posts referencing specific sources.

Footnotes:

1. Barbara Brend and Charles P. Melville, and the Fitzwilliam Museum, Epic of the Persian Kings: The Art of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh (London ; New York: I.B. Tauris, 2010), 11.

2. 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): 76.

3. Ibid, Barbra, 4.

4. Ibid, Mitra.

5. Ibid, Barbra, 4-10.