SHAFAQNA- Ta’zieh, condolence theater or passion play, is a traditional Persian theater, in which actors convey the dramatic events through music and songs. The Ta’zieh plays retail the wars between good and evil where dialogues symbolize faith, resistance, selflessness and sacrifice.
The month of Muharram is a period of national mourning, marking the martyrdom anniversary of the Imam and his 72 family members and companions who were martyred by the army of Yazid, the Umayyad caliph, in the historic Battle of Karbala (in Iraq) in 680 AD. Muharram ceremonies have long been intertwined with Iranian culture and are also manifested through various forms of art.
TAʿZIA, Arabic verbal noun from form ʿazza (‘to express sympathy with, to console, to mourn’), a term used for the Shiʿite passion play performed in Persia. It is the sole form of serious drama to have developed in the world of Islam, with the exception of contemporary theater, which was introduced to Islamic countries, along with other Western influences, in the mid-19th century. Nowadays, a less developed form of ta‘zia drama can be seen among the Shiʿite communities of southern Lebanon, southern Iraq, and the western shores of the Persian Gulf. This is, however, a recent importation from Persia.
On the Indian subcontinent, and in the Caribbean basin, ta‘zia is an imaginary representation of Imam Ḥosayn’s (d. 680, the third Shiʿite imam,) tomb, made of bamboo, colored paper, and tinsel. These ta‘zias (sometimes several stories high, sometimes small) are carried or wheeled in processions during the months of Moḥarram and Ṣafar. Taʿzia reenacts the passion and death of Imam Ḥosayn, son of ʿAli b. Abi Ṭāleb, and the beloved grandson of the Prophet Moḥammad.
For the Shiʿites, the tragic death of Ḥosayn overshadows all other human tragedies and has assumed almost cosmic proportions. The 1982 Nobel Prize laureate in Literature, Elias Canetti (1905-94), writes in his masterpiece Crowds and Power (p. 148): “Emotionally the contemplation of the personality and fate of Husain stands in the center of the faith; they are the mainspring of the believer’s religious experience. His death interpreted as voluntary self-immolation, and it is through his suffering that the saints gain paradise.”
Ta‘zia as a form of ritual theater stems from the fusion of ambulatory and stationary rites that co-existed for centuries before being united. The most common ambulatory ritual observance is dasta, or procession. There is no doubt that the Ḥosayn dasta was influenced by ritual parades lamenting the unjust and sudden deaths of such heroes as Tammuz in Mesopotamia and Siāvoš in Transoxania. The dasta in Moḥarram and Ṣafar developed from simple processions into complex rituals occurring annually among Shiʿite communities worldwide. The most notable feature of the dasta is the self-mortification of the participants in tandem with accompanying cymbals and drums. Marchers chant dirges and threnodies, curse the villains of Karbala. Canetti describes the dasta as “an orchestra of grief”.
The first recorded public dasta observing the death of Ḥosayn took place in Baghdad in the year 352/963. Processions of Shiʿites circulated the city, weeping, wailing, and striking their heads with grief. The fact that this description of Moḥarram rituals comes from what used to be Babylon made some scholars view the roots of ta‘zia as deriving from the ancient annual mourning processions in honor of Tammuz, a god of agriculture and flocks who personifies the creative powers of spring.
However, as Ehsan Yarshater points out, “it is most probably to Eastern Iran in pre-Islamic times where we should look for the basis of a tradition which provided a ready mold for the development of the ta’ziyeh”. That “mold” is the story of the life and death of a beloved, gallant prince Siāvoš. Siāvoš, like Imam Ḥosayn, had a foreboding of his fate—his passion and cruel death. According to Yarshater, further parallels to ta‘zia could be found in the Middle Persian epic called Memorial of Zarer (Ayādgār ī Zarērān), which had been sung for centuries by bards and minstrels. The ta‘zia that developed on the Iranian plateau was therefore primarily nourished by Eastern Iranian tradition, but the Western Mesopotamian tradition should not be totally disregarded as well.
When Shiʿite Islam became the state religion in Persia in 907/1501, popular rituals including dasta helped to spread the faith across the Iranian plateau. Foreign residents who spent time in Persia during the 17th and 18th centuries have left very rich accounts of dastas they witnessed, providing a record of the development of this ritual’s pageantry. The majority of popular Shiʿite rituals are conducted in the open, in public spaces, and can be viewed by passers-by. Western visitors to Iran—diplomats, merchants, and missionaries—were fascinated with these rituals and have given us, from the early 17th century onward, quite extensive written accounts of what they saw.
Outstanding in the large public processions are the big theatrically arranged wagons showing scenes of [Imam] Ḥosayn’s life and his deeds, his battles, and his death. These wagons are often pulled about accompanied by people, in armor, flags, and emblems of war of victory, depicting some of Hussein’s deeds.
The wheeled floats eventually became a processional ta‘zia. Today, the processional ta‘zias known as taʿzia-kāravāni consist of a train of huge flatbed trucks pulled by tractors, on which sequential episodes of the play (majles) of the ta‘zia are performed. Most commonly, the taʿzia-kāravāni is arranged for ʿĀšurāʾ and the majles (the episode) is that of The Martyrdom of Ḥosayn.
The ta‘zia passion play was born in the middle of the 18th century (although many scholars believe it occurred as early as in the end of the 17th century) when the costumed marchers of the dasta began to recite the stories of the rowża-ḵᵛāni. The story lines of the rowża-ḵᵛāni were converted into the dramatic texts of the ta‘zia. The movement of the parade was changed into the motions of the actors; the parade costumes became stage costumes.
In the beginning, the passion play was nothing more than a short playlet integrated into the procession and performed at street corners. Soon, however, it was separated from the parade and became an independent event performed in the open—in courtyards, private houses, and special buildings called takia or ḥosayniya. In the second half of the 19th century, these buildings were major features in Iranian towns. European travelers of the time relate that these structures were being erected in every neighborhood.
Takia and ḥosayniya were mainly built by the well-to-do as a pious act and a public service. Some edifices could seat thousands of spectators, but most accommodated only a few hundreds. Many were temporary structures built especially for the Moḥarram observances.
The most famous takia theater was the Takia Dowlat, the Royal Theater in Tehran, built in the 1870s by Nāṣer-al-Din Shah. According to many European visitors, its dazzling splendor and intensity of dramatic action overshadowed even the opera houses in Western capitals.
Women in particular have been attached to ta‘zia, not only out of devotion to Ḥosayn and the other martyrs, but also due to a natural empathy with the women at Karbala which causes their own sufferings to pale in comparison. Representation of the role of the women of Karbala, the women related to Imam Ḥosayn and his slaughtered comrades, belongs to one of the most interesting artistic developments in Islam.
Among the extraordinary group of women that appear in the ta‘zia, Zaynab plays the role of a matriarch. As a daughter of Fāṭema (d. 11/632-3) and Imam ʿAli, a granddaughter of the Prophet Mohammad, and a full sister of Ḥosayn, she is entitled to that role. It is not only her bloodline, but also her incredible personality that makes her a leading female protagonist in the Moḥarram cycle. She is an inexhaustible reserve of physical and psychological strength and energy.
On the ninth of Moḥarram, The Martyrdom of ʿAbbās is staged. ʿAbbās is a half-brother of Ḥosayn and his standard bearer. ʿAbbās is also called “the water carrier” since he is killed while trying to obtain water from the Euphrates River for his family. Thanks to his chivalry, bravery, and gallantry, ʿAbbās enjoys a special place in the hearts of the Shiʿites, particularly those of the women. Each play contributes to the gradually increasing emotional build-up anticipating the supreme sacrifice of Ḥosayn, the Commander of Martyrs. The following figures portray other aspects of the ta’zia performance:
Ta‘zia and the Western theater
Since about 1950s, Europeans and Americans have traveled to Asia to experience the bond between actor and audience that is one of the hallmarks of the Eastern dramatic tradition. The most common destinations have been India and the Far East, but in the late 1960s, Peter Brook, Jerzy Grotowski, and Tadeusz Kantor discovered ta‘zia in Persia. Brook, in particular, was profoundly impacted by the dramatic possibilities of the Persian form. He explained: “I saw in a remote Iranian village one of the strongest things I have ever seen in theatre: a group of 400 villagers, the entire population of the place, sitting under the tree and passing from roars of laughter to outright sobbing—although they knew perfectly well the end of the story—as they saw Hussein in danger of being killed, and then fooling his enemies, and then being martyred. And when he was martyred, the theatre form became truth” (Brook, p. 52).
Jerzy Grotowski also borrowed from the ta‘zia tradition to fuse dramatic action with ritual as a means of uniting actor and audience. However, his productions for the Laboratory Theater carefully controlled the dynamic between the players and the spectators by imposing limits on space, audience size, and seating placement. Ta‘zia, in contrast, actively retains a fundamental principle of intimacy in an enormous space with masses of actively participating spectators. This is le theatre total. In the words of Benjamin, the first American envoy to Persia, “Taʿziyeh is an interesting exhibition of the dramatic genius of the Persian race.”
At the beginning of the 21st century, there is a new interest in ta‘zia performing technique in the West. Ta‘zia has been performed at art festivals in Avignon and Paris in France, Parma and Rome in Italy, and in New York City. France was the first non-Muslim country in which ta‘zia was performed at the 1991 Festival of Arts in Avignon. It was a very bold move on the part of the French authorities to invite a ta‘zia troupe to France. Apart from political implications, there were also social and dramatic connotations for these performances. How could the Shiʿite passion play be performed for a non-Muslim, non-Shiʿite audience in the city of popes? The performances were a great success, and the actors were able to build a bridge with the audiences. The French press gave rave reviews. Nine years later, ta‘zia appeared at the Festival d’Automne in Paris. The performances in Avignon took place in a traditional open space in the Cloister of the Celestines, but in Paris they took place in a circus tent erected for the purpose. On the way back from Paris, the same troupe performed at the festival under the banner From Ancient Persia to Iran, which was held in Parma, Italy. As in the French capital, the performances in Parma took place in a tent erected in a garden.
In July 2003, The Martyrdom of Ḥosayn was performed by an Iranian troupe in Rome in a former soap factory, which had been converted into a theater. It was a great success for the well-known Iranian cinema director, ʿAbbās Kiārostami, who directed the play. Kiārostami added an unusual element to the production by erecting six huge screens around the spectators on which the Italian audience could watch the reactions of a ta‘zia audience in Iran. The film was a black and white documentary shot by Kiārostami himself. Perhaps Kiārostami employed this technique to make the Italians feel as if they were part of a ta‘zia audience in Iran.
Finally, three episodes (majles) of the ta‘zia were performed to a sold-out house at the Lincoln Center Summer Festival in 2002 in New York. This must be viewed as an extraordinary achievement when one takes into consideration that the ta‘zia, which is the apotheosis of martyrdom, was performed in a huge tent next to the Metropolitan Opera House nine months after 11 September 2001. Critical reaction from the press was extremely varied. The director of the Festival, Nigel Redden, sums it up succinctly: “The best affirmation of all our efforts to bring ta’ziyeh to New York, came on the final night of The Ta’ziyeh of Imam Hussein, the last of the three to be performed at Lincoln Center. At the end of the evening, the audience stood as a whole and applauded for over ten minutes, many around me with tears in their eyes” (Redden, p. 125).
Ta‘zia in India
In India, where many Ḥosayn-related rituals have been part and parcel of Indian folklore for the last 500 years, there is no theatrical representation of Ḥosayn’s passion. This is strange when one considers that India is one of the main cradles of world drama. There, ta‘zia refers to the interpretive, imaginary representation of Ḥosayn’s tomb that is carried in procession. Tradition has it that Timur (1336?-1405) constructed the first ta‘zia of Ḥosayn as an expression of devotion and brought it along on military campaigns. Since then, additional creative representations of Ḥosayn’s tomb have been built for annual Moḥarram observances around the world. Although in today’s age of photography and international travel, artists have the opportunity to view the original tomb at Karbala, they rarely base their creations on the actual burial site. It is thought that the act of artistic creation itself is a form of piety glorifying Ḥosayn and that this creativity supersedes any need to remain true to the original. The size and shape of the ta‘zia vary greatly from small cenotaph-like structures built of papier-mache, tinsel, colored paper, and bamboo to huge constructions that must be wheeled or carried by many people. Hindu rituals and festivals have had a great impact on the Moḥarram observances in India. An example of this is the immersion of the ta‘zia in water at the end of the Moḥarram ceremony.
Ta‘zia in the Caribbean
Among all the cultural relics brought by the East Indians to the Caribbean basin, it is the Moḥarram ritual that has come to eclipse all others. Despite the fact that the great majority of East Indians who migrated to the Caribbean Basin were Hindu rather than Muslim, the Shiʿite Moḥarram ceremonies, which are known in the Caribbean as Hosay, became symbols of unity for them. These rituals were often open acts of defiance by the indentured immigrants against colonial rule. Ta‘zia continues to this day as a set of rites identifying the East Indians of Trinidad with the homeland of India. This identification stems from the combination of both Hindu and Muslim components. In Trinidad, many of those that build the ta‘zia, known locally as tadjah, are not Muslims but Hindus or Christians belonging to diverse ethnic groups. African rituals have influenced the Hosay observances in the Caribbean, and, in turn, the Hosay has had an impact on the Carnival, one of the most spectacular events in Trinidad.
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