Naqqāli is an Iranian traditional theatre form, having originated in ancient Iran. This dramatic performance concerns telling of a story, history or non-history based, in a variety of genres. It is done either in verse or prose and accompanied by gestures and movements appropriate to the event related.
Iran enjoys a long tradition of Naqqāli. This tradition was called “Gowsān” during Parthians (3rd BC-3rd AD). “Gowsān”s (the reciters) acted as entertainers to both kings and ordinary people. Under the Sassanids (3rd-7th AD), Naqqāli was highly regarded at court, where it used to be called “Xonyāgari”. Following the collapse of the Sassanid, these reciters emmigrated to remote areas to keep the tradition alive. In ancient times, they used to recite narrative poems, play musical instruments, sing, and act.
The oldest form of dramatic performance in Iran
Naqqāli is the oldest form of dramatic performance in Iran. Historically, it has adopted itself with socio-political circumstances. Before the Sassanid(651 AD), Naqqāls were poets and musicians simultaneously. They recited stories along with playing instruments. Bārbad was the most renown Naqqāl of the Sassanid. During Ghaznavids(10th-12th AD), the Court banned musical Naqqāli. But the tradition survived in remote areas.
Two important events occurred during the Safavid period (16th-18th AD): establishment of coffee-houses and applying “Parde”. Parde introduced a new style in Naqqāli, and coffee-houses became exclusive venues for Naqqāls for, at least, 300 years. Up to several decades ago, great coffee-houses hired Naqqāls. Unfortunately, the strong influence of western culture and break down of the old traditions caused a decline in popularity of coffee-houses; consequently, Naqqāl’s lost their traditional audiences
During the Islamic period, such reciters were known under various names; such names had their origin in the types of the repertory of the tales they recited. One example is, so called, “Shāhnāme-Xān”s, who were specialized in reciting tales from Shāhnāme, the great Persian epic by Ferdowsi. This nameing style can still be traced.
In addition to Persian literature, Naqqāls needed to be acquainted with expressions referring to the local culture, or the Iranian traditional/folk music. Thus, they functioned as both entertainers, and bearers of Persian literature and culture, while encouraging national cohesion.
Current situations of Naqqāli
Nowadays, the language of recited narrations is not limited to Persian; these tales are allowed to be narrated in regional dialects or languages. Up to several years ago they were the most important guardians of folk-tales, ethnic- epics and Iranian folk music.
Naqqāli requires considerable talent; no one can arrive at eminence in this line except men of cultivated taste and retentive memory. They must not only be acquainted with the best ancient and modern stories, but be able to change them in relation to new incidents, either heard or invented. They must also recollect the finest texts of poetry, which they may quote from.
The audience are normally acquainted with the tale, so the Naqqāl requires the charm in his performance, an attractive voice quality, as well as skill in acting to captivate them. The Naqqāl is alone in performing a rich range of roles, such as those of kings, queens, warriors, princesses, beggars, etc, convincingly. He is even a master in producing sound effects, including horse galloping, fencing ,etc. Master Naqqāls, even, are well equipped with a knowledge of Iranian sports, while they recite skills in wrestling and fencing, among others.
Naqqāls and Morsheds
There are two groups of practitioners, the Professional and the Seasonal. They may perform in coffee-houses, tents of nomads, houses, and historical places like ancient caravanserais.
The Professionals, who are few in number now, earn their living from Naqqāli; seasonals have other occupations, too. Nowadays, professional Naqqāls are mostly invited for official ceremonies sponsored by municipalities or governmental institutes. Seasonal Naqqāls mostly perform in regional ceremonies like wedding parties, or even mourning ceremonies. However, both groups have been invited for Iranian Ritual-Traditional Theatre Festivals since the very beginning of its establishment.
Naqqāls know their tales by heart, but master Naqqāls, called “Morshed”s, have the written form of their repertory of the tale which is called “Tumār”. Every Morshed has his personal Tumār which is unique in terms of the sequence of tales and incidents. These Tumārs are actually dramatic versions of Persian tales, harmonized with the performance conventions of Iranian traditional theatre. Recently several of these Tumārs, including “Rostam and Sohrāb” of Shāhnāme, the most popular and demanding tale for Naqqāli, have been published.
Even now, to be recognized as a Naqqāl, beginners need to be trained as pupils by Morsheds. The pupil accompanies his/her Morshed in performances. After several sessions, in the middle of one performance, Morshed presents his metrāq (his multifunctional cane), to his pupil, who is sitting among the audience.
The pupil should go toward the stage, to continue the performance. The pupils depend totally on their Morsheds, till he announces the termination of the apprenticeship. The pupils remain respectful of their masters for the rest of their lives; in their presence, they, always, ask permission from them to begin the performance.
Naqqāls, especially Morsheds, wear costumes reminiscent of Dervishes cloths. They may, even, use ancient helmets, or armoured jackets in the middle of the performance, to create a sense of reality for the battle scenes. Their multifunctional canes may represent a wide range of motifs, including a beautiful beloved, a horse, a sword, etc.
“Parde”, used by some Naqqāls, is a painted curtain in the Coffee-House-Style. Having preserved all the logical, religious and traditional styles, it has flourished as a sign of respect for popular beliefs. The painters have been messengers of light and impossible dreams.
A unique theatrical performance
Due to the fact that this unique theatrical performance always presents one of the deepest and genuine layers of the national Iranian culture, its protection will definitely serve to safeguard the national and historical roots of it. Besides, it can be a source of inspiration for literary figures and artists all around the world. Every form of art is a unique language faciliating peaceful communication among different cultures. In this regard, Naqqāli should be considered as an international heirtage in urgent need for safeguarding.
There are still variable forms of Naqqāli all over Iran, though there has been a decrease in the number of Naqqāls. Nowadays, no Naqqāl, seasonal or professional, can earn his living just by Naqqāli. This has led to less interest in professional Naqqāli.
Besides, Naqqāls, especially Morsheds, perform not for individual fame, but for their love of this art. They are loyal to the fundamental spiritual manners of traditional arts, according to which artists are only shaddows of art, and art itself should be the focal point of the activity. This belief has resulted in marginizing traditional artists and their art in modern societies. While mass media continue to bombard the communities with modern art continuously, the humble traditional artists are going to be easily forgotten.
Iranian traditional theatre
However, their passion and enthusiasm in the occasional performances is powerful enough to encourage them to capture the attention of people so effortlessly, regardless of the age and education ranges. This reaction has been observed in one of the programs held by the Department of Traditional Arts to make Iranian younger generations acquainted with Iranian traditional theatre, including Naqqāli, in 2005. Having watched the performances for the first time, teenagers appreciated them, and the Department received positive feedback.
Nowadays, performance conventions of Naqqāli continue to inspire several Iranian artists in presenting their performances. Researchers try to record the oral heritage of the element and few artists attempt to apply the performance conventions of the element for their experimental productions.
Naturally enough, the tranmission method of the element can be claimed to be oral, and it engages the face-to-face interaction of master with pupil.
For the time being, the total number of professional and seasonal Naqqāls is estimated not to exceed 200 individuals, half of whom living in rural areas scattered throughout Iran.
Gradually losing its traditionally regarded audience and venues, the element is rapidly losing its popularity among younger generations, and, as a result, the community of the practitioners can be claimed to be extremely old.