Shiraz Festival of Arts: A Point of View

By Mohammed Ghaffari

Ta’ziyeh is a form of traditional theatre from Iran. As a child, I saw many Ta’ziyeh plays on different occasions, some lasting twelve hours. It was so much a part of our childhood that we used to play at Ta’ziyeh as children, wielding sticks as swords and imitating the characters. From an early age I had decided I wanted to be in the theatre. When I finished high school I went directly to the School of Dramatic Arts in Tehran to study Western theatre. During that period of my life, I had forgotten all about Ta’ziyeh until the Shiraz Festival of Arts came along.

The Shiraz Festival of Arts, which ran from 1967-1977 was an annual event that brought together Iranian artists and students with international artists in Iran to present work from various performing arts disciplines. The festival, a brainchild of Queen Farah Diba that was developed and executed by of Reza Ghotbi, director of the National Iranian Radio & Television (NIRT) and Farrokh Gaffary, head of the Festival itself, was the meeting place of East and West, tradition, modernity and the avant-garde.  I was a student at the School of Dramatic Arts when the Festival began. I spent the first two years of the Festival as an audience member exposed to theatrical work from across the globe.

The festival ushered in an unprecedented time of creativity in Iran. It was during that time that the Theatre Workshop, which supported four theatrical troupes, was founded in Tehran with the backing of the festival. As a young actor I began working with NIRT drama director, Khojasteh Kia.  Later on, I joined the Theatre Workshop and was a member of Arby Ovanessian’s group.

Mrs. Khojasteh Kia and I began to collect the texts for various Ta’ziyeh plays for preservation at the NIRT Folklore Center. During a Spring vacation in my hometown of Naishapur, I visited an old Ta’ziyeh performer whom I had known since childhood. He always played the role of the antagonist, Shimr.  As children we were terrified of him.  Once a towering figure who would ascend the stage and bellow in a thunderous voice, he  was now an old man who had gone blind. I sat with him in his living room drinking tea.   I asked him about the texts he used, and his wife brought out twenty hand written texts in calligraphy that were passed down to him from the time of the Qajar Dynasty. He gave them to me and said he had no use for them anymore and that they would be safe at the Folklore Center. This was just one instance of the many encounters that I had as I started my lifelong pursuit of working on Ta’ziyeh.

At the time that the Festival of Arts began, Ta’ziyeh was banned in major cities for fear of inciting public fervor. Artist Parviz Sayyad mounted several Ta’ziyehs in the Festival, breaking this taboo and opening the door for further exploration of the form.

Ta’ziyeh is a powerful traditional theatre that has not been fully presented and understood. Some of the confusion arises from the name itself, Ta’ziyeh, which means “mourning”. But there is another name for this style of theatre which I believe is closer to what it really is and that is Shabih or Shabih Khani which means “alike” or “to sing alike”. The aspect of ritual and mourning is only a part of the tradition. The Shabih canon consists of over two hundred plays, copies of which are kept in the Vatican Library. Only nine of these plays are about Karbala and the martyrdom of Imam Hussein. Amongst these two hundred plays are the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, King Solomon’s marriage to the Queen of Sheba. There is a trilogy of plays about Joseph and Jacob, and Joseph’s brothers and their life in Egypt. And there is also a play about Jesus. These plays range from tragedy to comedy and the grotesque. In my opinion, the most important aspects of Ta’ziyeh or Shabih are the music and the form itself. There were times in Iranian history where classical Iranian music was banned and it was in the Ta’ziyeh that the Radif tradition was preserved. The style of acting in Ta’ziyeh which gives rise to the “Shabih” tradition is very similar to the theatre of alienation that Bertolt Brecht borrowed from the Peking Opera.

In 1970, Peter Brook and Micheline Rozen, having just founded the International Centre for Theatre Research in Paris, came to Iran to mount “Orghast” at Persepolis with an international group of actors of which I was a part. I was asked by Reza Ghotbi to take Mr. Brook to my hometown to see a Ta’ziyeh. We arranged a Ta’ziyeh and a group of us including Mr. Brook, Mahasti Afshar, Anthony Page, Hossein Ziai and Arby Ovanessian traveled to see a Ta’ziyeh in its own element. This experience inspired Mr. Brook to write an article for Parabola Magazine about the theatrical significance of Ta’ziyeh.

It was for the Festival of Arts in 1976 that I was asked by Mr. Ghotbi to present Ta’ziyehs. At the time I was not aware of the state of Ta’ziyeh in the entire country. A majority of people in the theatre community believed that Ta’ziyeh did not exist outside of Tehran. My experience in Naishapur led me to believe otherwise. Over the course of one year I traveled all over Iran to see for myself and I found that scattered across the country, Ta’ziyeh was alive and well. I started to gather my troupe of actors for the Festival performance from the finest performers I encountered on my travels in the villages and towns across the country. We gathered in Shiraz to prepare, working for three and a half months, ten hours a day, six days a week. I had 75 actors, musicians and extras, ten horses, camels and sheep. We performed seven plays in two settings; the Hossenieh Moshir in the city of Shiraz and a garden in the village of Kaftarak just outside of the city for audiences numbering over ten thousand. I had the opportunity to mount the Shabih Moses and the Wandering Dervish, which is a story from Rumi’s Mathnavi and The Capturing of the Jinni, which is a comedy about Solomon’s wedding to the Queen of Sheba, utilizing masks to represent the birds and animals in Solomon’s Court.

Also, in 1976 Professor Mehdi Soraya discovered a Shabih in a library in Albany, New York and Professor Peter Chelkowski sent it to the Festival. It was a Shabih of The Martyrdom of Mansour Hallaj, a fascinating story about Rumi and how he became a sufi by meeting his mentor, Shams. This play was virtually unknown in Iran. I chose the music for it with the help of my Shabih musicians and we mounted it at the Tehran City Theatre.

There are four schools of Shabih-khani with different texts, different music, different styles of sword fighting and gestures. The significance of the performances at the Festival in ’76 was that I was given the opportunity to bring together the finest performers, texts and styles from across the country under one roof, so to speak. Running concurrently with these performances was an International Symposium on Ta’ziyeh. If it were not for the Festival itself, none of these events would have been a possibility.

As a result of these activities, we were able to establish the Iranian Center for Traditional Performance. Professor William Beeman from Brown University was brought in to consult and research as part of a team that traveled the country in search of Traditional Improvisatory Theatre in Iran in order to document and bring together different groups of performers under the auspices of the Festival of Arts. This also spawned the formation of the Festival of Popular Culture where a team, including Khosro Shayesteh and Professor Reza Khaki, conducted research on popular performance art forms. It was a group effort to establish our national artistic heritage.

The Festival of Arts was a golden era in Iranian history. It brought together artists from around the world of many different disciplines and viewpoints along with the support and guidance of people such as Reza Ghotbi, Farrokh Gaffary, Bijan Saffari (head of the Theatre Workshop), Abbas Nalbandian (the manager of the Workshop Theatre and one of the greatest playwrights of Iran) and the official head of the Festival, Queen Farah Diba, along with many others who supported and participated year after year. 

For me, personally, the Festival was an opportunity to be a part of a group who attempted to document and bring together our national performing arts heritage. It was our intention to establish schools for teaching and recording these traditions for future generations. This massive endeavor was cut short by the 1979 Revolution. In exile, I have managed to mount Ta’ziyehs with troupes from Iran in festivals in Paris, Avignon, Parma and New York City. And my hope is that the new generation of Iranians in Iran will be given the opportunity to look to their past, preserve that which is of value to their heritage, as they turn to their future, just as we were with the Festival of Arts.