The role of public religious and popular performances

Many studies of Iran at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries have focused on social and political issues and the role of the press in literary development and political change, but further questions considering the public communication culture in Iran and the role of entertainment in special popular events still remain unanswered. Considering the fact that the large majority of the city’s inhabitants were illiterate there was a clear effort to extend social influence to mobilize the masses via readers who were asked to inform those who were unable to read.56 Traditional mass communication at public events and performances played a crucial role in this respect. These events and performances are ritual or ritual-like activities in religious or non-religious contexts with a high symbolical character. Public feasts, ceremonies, political rites and even theatre performances are multiple and redundant rituals with more than one message or purpose. They are a means for defining and reaffirming the full extent of human community and a medium for expressing values and appropriate responses for instance to the demands of tradition and history, and status and destiny.57 Ritualized events are symbolic representations of the social and spiritual unity of the participants and make direct information flow between the different social levels. Besides the crucial role for communication beyond social borders ritualized events can combine popular culture with religious representation. Performance theory models suggest active roles for ritual participants who reinterpret value-laden symbols as they communicate them. Non-intellectual dimensions with emotive, physical and even sensual aspects dominate the performative medium. Religious performances in particular serve as a revitalization of religious experiences.58 As a sensual form religious performances are part ‘of a particular religious aesthetics, which governs a sensory engagement of humans with the divine and each other’.59

When we see the relatively high number of traditional public spaces that existed in the 1920s it becomes clear that communication at these places was the common method of people’s interaction. In the capital Tehran for instance, in the year 1922, traditional public spaces were still prevalent, with 514 coffeehouses, 155 public baths, 180 mosques, 30 madrasehs and 295 karavansarays, in comparison with modern public spaces, in which there are a relatively high number of modern schools (99), only 35 coffeeshops, 15 restaurants and 8 cinemas.60 Apart from military and administrative professions, traditional jobs still dominated. There were 180 employees in mosques and emamzadehs, 140 professional ta‘ziyeh performers, 80 traditional singers and instrumentalists (motreb), 391 narrators of the tragedies of Karbala (rowzeh- khvan) and 211 religious teachers and prayer leaders (pishnamaz), in relation to modern professions such as 47 teachers of music, 15 official teachers, 18 journalists and 4 newspaper vendors,61 from a total number of 196,255 registered inhabitants.62

However, public performance and entertainment was a very important factor in Iran not only since Safavid times. These ritual events brought people from all social levels together in one public place at a certain time. The public event served the cohesion of the community and reaffirmed social, religious and moral values, and was therefore also used for political propaganda. Already under the Qajar reign (1796-1925) many of the old traditions were revived, in particular the rowzeh-khvani and ta‘ziyeh passion plays, but also the naqqali tradition and the performance of comedy plays (shabih-khvani, mazhakeh, taqlid).63 The Qajar rulers who had no religious legitimization supported the popularization of religious customs like rowzeh-khvani and ta‘ziyeh performances, and built particular theatre buildings for them, the tekiyehs. They tried to proclaim themselves as legitimate descendents of ancient Iranian monarchies. Thus they also supported the print of the Shah-nameh and the oral naqqali tradition in coffeehouses. Also in Qajar times the naqqali tradition developed from an aristocratic entertainment in exclusive coffeehouses into a popular performance tradition in public places.64 All of these forms have two things in common: they were mainly oral, transmitted from one generation to another, and they were to a great extend improvisations.65 The pieces were performed everywhere all over the country and had an enormous audience.66 The humorous passages of ta‘ziyeh, the so-called gusheh and the religious parody and farce ‘Omar koshan were of special interest to all social strata in urban and rural spaces, both the intellectuals and the common people, and directly criticized the real social and political situation.67

At the end of the Qajar reign, new media like the press, telephone and telegraph were still not available to the masses. In the predominantly agricultural and nomadic Iranian society with a high amount of illiterates and very limited access to the new media, easily memorable forms of transmission like poetry, short stories and theatre performances played a crucial role in the prevalent oral mass communication. These forms have had a great appeal to the conventionalized, codified and culturally shared emotions of the people.68 This was the best way for the transmission, reception and reflection of knowledge and political messages that could motivate an individual’s actions. As naqqali performances were accused of instigating riots they were forbidden in the late 1920s. Some years later, only a few naqqals were allowed to recite the Shah-nameh to promote the Pahlavi regime.69

The rowzeh-khvani, the stationary Shi‘i commemorative ritual and important parts of the ta ‘ziyeh plays in particular were specialized in the manipulation and emotionalization of the assembled crowd of all social strata. The prose narration in combination with illustrating lines of poetry gave the rowzeh- khvani a timeless quality. Thus, its religious chants, symbols and poetry were often exploited for political purposes.70 The rowzeh served to articulate the scholastic learning of the ‘olama’ with popular belief. It was a lesson for moral and righteous living, and the interpretation of belief occurred ‘in a social dialectic, informed in part by the dramaturgic ordering of the Karbala story’.71 Under Reza Shah, rowzehs, still a key medium of popular religion, were monitored and around 1935 laws against rowzeh-khvani preachments should limit its influence.72

The ta ‘ziyeh drama performance was a living tradition for which new plays and local variations on the traditional themes were composed; but in the 1930s, it was considered a backward religious and social ritual, and restrictions were imposed on its performance in urban centres. In 1932, the performances of passion plays were forbidden, whereas on the rural periphery these plays were still performed for a while, until their official prohibition in 1935. In 1936, Reza Shah outlawed the carrying of the naql in the city.73

Comic improvisational theatre with music, songs and performance still must have been present under Reza Shah. Especially popular improvisation theatre was still performed in small towns and in rural areas at wedding feasts. Beeman reports a decrease in popular entertainment only since the 1960s when the number of theatre groups began to diminish. Maybe this type of entertainment was no longer considered to be modern, the mode of financing weddings changed, and in particular the policy of the Ministry of Culture and

Arts under Mohammad Reza Pahlavi had a significant impact on its gradual disappearance. The groups had to get licenses, but did not know how, and they were required to submit their scripts to the relevant officials for censorship. The main point Beeman does not explicitly consider is the increasing role of Iranian TV and cinema, with domestic film production as a means of entertainment spreading a change in public taste and an acquaintance with the urban lifestyle to the provinces.74 Since the 1940s, people’s interest in traditional entertainment has decreased with growing access to the new mass media like radio, television and cinema.

The mainly secular performances of naqqali, taqlid or ru-howzi aside, European theatre was gradually introduced and performed in Persian towns. However, this was not as widely popular as the traditional performances were. The impact of Azeri-speaking writers on the development of Persian drama is undeniable. The writer Jalil Mohammad Qolizadeh published his critical plays in the influential Azeri paper Molla Nasr al-Din. Despite the lack of success of these plays on Iranian stages, the first step toward a modern form of Persian drama was made. Later, the drama further developed as a means of criticising the ruling class.75 A successful representative of Iranian playwrights in the 1920s was the nationalist Sayyed Mohammad Reza Mirzadeh ‘Eshqi (1893-1924). His plays were known for their powerful criticism of the new Pahlavi regime, which made him the first victim of that regime.76

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