Officially the Islamic Republic of Iran (Persian: جمهوری اسلامی ایران Jomhuri ye Eslāmi ye Irān), also known as Persia, this nation in Western Asia is home to one of the world’s oldest civilizations.
The origins and development of puppetry in Iran are difficult to establish. Historical records are too sparse to provide an accurate picture of the theatre and puppetry before the 5th century AH (11th century CE). Moreover, these sources are often indirect, and recorded in particularly poetic language. However, certain periods are better documented than others.
First, the Persian vocabulary to describe different kinds of puppets is quite diverse. One of the most common terms of the old terminology is kheimeh shab bazi, which means a play (bazi) presented in a booth or tent (kheimeh) at night (shab). These terms might suggest that a shadow theatre was designated (which is argued by some). For two hundred years, this expression is used for any type of string puppet show. Other terms we find are bibi jan in Kurdistan and in the western part of the country, jiji viji, panj (five), or Pahlavan Kachal (Bald Hero) in the eastern area, particularly in Fars, arousak posht e-pardeh and Haji va Mobarak (Haji and Mobarak) in Isfahan, while Salim Bazi or Shah Salim bazi (Shah Salim Play) is found in Tehran, Tabriz, and in the east of the country. The terms jiji viji and bibi jan are believed to have derived from the chirping voices and “puppet language” that the safir (the Iranian swazzle) creates for puppet characters, giving them their distinctive high-pitched, bird-like or womanish sound. Pahlavan Kachal and Mobarak are the most famous characters of Iranian puppet theatre. One can find other names for puppetry: more rarely, khayal (phantom, shadow) or khayal bazi (shadow play), pardeh bazi (curtain or scroll play), and lobat bazi (puppet or doll play).
Religion and Puppetry in Iran
The use of figurines or statuettes probably goes back to ancient times of pre-Islamic Persia. In the ancient cult of Mithras, an Indo-Iranian religion practised in the 14th century BCE, there is the solar deity of the Zoroastrians (the religion of Persia under the Achaemenids), and masks and probably dolls too were used in initiation ceremonies with seven ranks and steps, each accompanied by trials. Furthermore, although the worship of idols and fetishes was not widespread, it was found in different parts of Iran. Primitive metal dolls existed in areas. In Kurdistan, there was a tradition called booka baranah or vaviah baranah (rain puppet). Children roamed through the village during a drought, singing, praying, and entering inhabitants’ houses to collect offerings (food, money or grain).
More especially in the ceremonial theatre, the Shiite tazieh (passion play), one sees impressive performances with figures. It was only in the 19th century that these tazieh were described. Theatre historian Medjid Rezvani (Le Théâtre et la danse en Iran, 1912; facsimile, 1962) said of the celebration: “The tenth day of Muharram, people display the martyrs of Karbala the battlefield where Imam Hussein, the grandson of Mohammed, was killed on carts. These are straw figures, covered with red cuts and riddled with kindzhals (daggers) …. On large floats or on a moving stage …entire scenes are played … ” In The Martyrdom of Imam Hussein, a lion named Fareh is represented wearing a costume and mask (sooratak). The animal comes on stage after the martyrdom of the Imam and starts to roar and tear everything in its path to pieces at the sight of the martyrs’ bodies. In Tazieh-e-Ghassem (Play of Ghassem), players use a doll to represent the holy newborn (Hazrat e Ghassem). In the Bazaar-e-sham Tazieh (Bazaar of Damascus), the heads of the martyrs are represented, made from papier-mâché with the paste made of old Koran pages. These heads are brandished on the points of spears and paraded before the public.
Middle Ages (9th-16th Centuries)
In written sources from the Persian poets we can find traces of puppetry from the 5th century after the Hijrat: the poetry of Omar Khayyam (c.1047 – c.1122 CE) contains many metaphorical references to string or shadow puppet shows (shadows were fanous e khayal). In two of his quatrains, the poet-scholar, who was a philosopher, mathematician, and astronomer, described humans as puppets doomed to disappear after playing their part, and life as a game of shadows with the sun as the candle (light source) around which we “ghostly figures come and then vanish”. In the 13th century, Fariduddin Attar, noted Sufi poet and author of Conference of the Birds, refers to a shadow theatre presented by players in the Turkish-speaking area of Khorasan (north-eastern Iran). Though we do not find shadow theatre in Europe or in contemporary Iran, it may have existed in the past. Georg Jacob (History of Shadow Theatre in the East and West, 1925) states that a “Sheikh Kushtari” in Tabriz created the first Karagöz play in the 15th century.
The Safavid Era (1502-1736)
An important source on puppetry and, more particularly, individual puppeteers (marakeh gir) during the Safavid dynasty is Fotovat Nameh of Vaez Kashefi. At this time artists had a protected status and were organized into societies, a sort of corporation that protected their rights, shows, and restricted operation by unauthorized persons. This book mentions the existence of a glove puppet theatre very similar to the bibi jan puppetry in Kurdistan, where the showman (morshed) manipulated glove puppets accompanied by flautist (sorna navaz) and drummer (dohol zan). Moreover, echoing a metaphor found in Omar Khayyam, Vaez Kashefi compares the puppet master (ostad) to God and notes disputes that arise between puppets that rest solely in the hands of the puppeteer. To some extent, such puppeteers were seen as having a mission and quasi-religious function, respected by the people who regarded them not as beggars, but paid to attend such shows in the bazaars and teahouses as best they could. This is all the more remarkable given that the Safavid dynasty was particularly conservative and zealous in religion, and some clerics were very hostile to all forms of figurative representation.
These puppet shows also attracted the attention of the French traveller-merchant Jean Chardin (1643-1713) during his sojourn in Persia. This traveller, noting the kheimeh shab bazi played in Isfahan, wrote in his diary that the puppeteers were not beggars, in contrast to what was the case in France. Khom bazi (playing in a vat, cylinder) also appears to have been popular then, as suggested by Medjid Rezvani. Close to Western guignol, it was played behind a screen of 1.20 metres by two puppeteers, one manipulating the puppets, the other playing an instrument and interacting with the puppets. It was so called because the manipulator, instead of using a screen, used a vat which he entered to play his show.
The Qajar Era (1796-1925)
From the late 18th century, Shah Salim bazi began to be used as a term synonymous with puppet theatre. But this resurgence gradually underwent the influence of other countries, notably Russia with its characteristic Petrushka. In History of Isfahan (1821), Hussein ben Mohammad Isfahani describes marriage ceremonies during which the puppeteers played kheimeh shab bazi (night play in the “tent”). It was a string puppet show, played in the evening, presented in a booth, open on one side to the viewers, while three sides formed a chamber, covered with a tent or curtain that hid the manipulator. Musicians accompanied the performance on kemantcha (spike fiddle) and tombak (zarb; drum). There is also a document describing the Shah Salim bazi listing the number of players, story, and size of the puppets but the account lacks elements that distinguish performances today: the morshed (master puppeteer) and navazandeh (musician) and today’s central character Mobarak. By this period we have evidence of an argot (zabān-lutari) used by puppeteers and some other groups to maintain secrecy (see Secrecy).
Moreover, in his Théâtre persan (Persian Theatre, Paris, 1878) Polish poet and diplomat, Aleksander Chodźko (1804-1891), described Pahlavan Kachal by comparing it to the French Polichinelle. Western influence in the performing arts also dates from this period. Iranian intellectuals reacted, in fact, against traditional forms and, instead of reforming them, pushed them completely aside. The kheimeh shab bazi was thereby marginalized and reduced to a rude distraction for the impoverished. Nevertheless, some of the great puppet masters in the late 19th and early 20th century were Morshed Azim, Looti Ramezan, Morshed Taghi, Morshed Shekar Ali, Kaka Mohammad Shirazi, and Kaka Hosein.
There were other forms of traditional and folk puppetry performed throughout the region, some of them continuing today. Arusaki is a type of jigging puppet (marionnette à la planchette), puppets that rhythmically dance on a fixed base with the help of a musician-manipulator. The bazi-e asb-e čubi (wooden horse dance) was another popular performance in which a hobby horse was danced, while the teke (goat) body puppet, from the Azerbaijan region of Iran, is worn by a man who dances the goat figure as part of a ritual to welcome spring at Nowrouz (Iranian New Year).
During the Pahlavi dynasty (1925-1979) performers allied themselves with entertainment companies called bongāh-e-šadmāni which in Tehran could be found on Sirius Street.
During the contemporary period in the Pahlavi dynasty (1925-1979) there developed a new interest in the art of puppetry. Artists like Amin Ghezlar or Parviz Kardan (actor and playwright for theatre and cinema) adapted Iranian fables with puppets. In 1970, the Ministry of Culture and the Arts created a department dedicated to puppet theatre and invited Nosrat Karimi (actor, writer, and animation director) and the Czech film director Oskar Batek to train a new generation of puppeteers. Karimi had distinguished himself from 1966 to 1969 by creating the character of Mr Shaki, who became very popular on television. In the 1970s, noted figures from the world of arts and letters such as Janati Attai, Bahram Beizai, Ali Nassirian, and Behrooz Gharibpour (see Aran Puppet Theater Group) tried to resuscitate Iranian puppet theatre, through their research, and, in 1971, artists of kheimeh shab bazi were invited to the Faculty of Arts of Tehran University. A week of shows seemed to mark a revival, but the audience was still lacking, so further efforts had to be made to educate the younger generation in this traditional art threatened with extinction. The Institute for Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults (IIDCYA, in Persian: Kanoon-e Parvaresh-e Fekri-e Koodakan va Nojavanan) also played an important role in the preservation of puppetry in these years, and, in 1975, organized the first international festival of puppet theatre. In 1987, the second festival was held, this time under the supervision of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. Since then this festival has been held every two years and attracts many artists from Iran and abroad.
The most noted traditional puppet masters in the contemporary era have been: kheimeh shab bazi masters Ahmad Sheikh Ahmad Khamsei and his son Reza Sheikh Ahmad Khamsei, Akbar Ahmadi, Asghar Ahmadi, Ali Rabani, Isa Razmjoo, and Ghasem Tabrizi; shadow master Looti Jabbar Ardebili; and glove puppeteers Alireza Heidarpour Fard, Khalil Haghighi Fard, Norouz Ali Haghighi Fard, Karamat Haghighi Fard, Ali Javanmardi, Mehdi Faghih, and Hasan Lorestani, as well as Mo’men Ali Jozipour, and Hasan Poureidian. Modern style puppeteers are: Amin Ghezlar, Parviz Kardan, Nosrat Karimi, Ardeshir Keshavarzi, Javad Zolfaghari, Homa Jedikar, Marzieh Boroumand, Kambiz Samimi Mofakham, Bijan Nematisharif (puppet designer and maker), Majid Mirfakhraie (scenographer), Hasan Dadshekar, Hamid Abdolmaleki, Hengameh Mofid, Maryam Saadat, Azadeh Pourmokhtar, Farnaz Behzadi, Iraj Tahmasb, Hamid Jebelli, Adel Bezdoode, Marzieh Mahboob, …
New Training for a New Generation
In 1972, a Puppet Theater BA (Bachelor of Arts) was established at the University of Tehran and was revived in 1985 after the revolution. Later, the Art University and Soureh University also developed BA programmes. From 1999, University of Tehran has dedicated four courses in two semesters to training students in traditional puppet theatre (kheimeh shab bazi and pahlavan kachal), with most of the students developing their own scripts or new situations for the traditional characters. Some graduates have established new troupes for kheimeh shab bazi. In 2010, an MA (Master of Arts) programme was developed at University of Tehran and one international master is invited to teach each semester. The graduates, mostly women, work in theatre, television, cinema, and schools (teaching puppetry or working on puppetry projects). Most artists who now perform puppetry in theatres or festivals are graduates and, from 2000, a number have attended international festivals introducing Iranian modern or traditional puppetry to international audiences.
Tehran International Puppet Theatre Festival started in 1989 and since 1992 has performed biennially, including performances, workshops, a conference, a daily magazine, and new books on puppetry. Ten indoor theatres are programmed, as well as open-air sites for street puppetry. There is a special section for kheimeh shab bazi and other traditional Iranian forms, which mostly perform in open areas. After the festival, some productions may run for up to a month longer.
In 1996, a student puppet theatre festival (run as well as performed by students) was established at the Art University and, since the turn of the millennium, it has included international student troupes. The event includes workshops, publications, and a section for non-theatre students to become involved in puppetry. A puppetry student is selected as festival director and with his/her student team experiences festival production management. Good performances from this festival may move to theatres for long runs or will attend foreign festivals.
Modern Puppet Theatre
Spurred by the energy of these university graduates, puppetry is developing new forms and deeper content. Artists explore different methods and materials for making puppets. They use classical and modern plays, from William Shakespeare to Samuel Beckett or perform Iranian ancient literature with new style puppets and narration. Research has advanced as articles on puppetry are developed and shared in seminars. Hamid Reza Ardalan, Ali Pakdast, Maryam Eghbali, Zahra Sabri, Maryam Moini, Shiva Massoudi, Azadeh Ansari, Poupak Azimpour, Zohreh Behroozinia, Rosanak Roshan, Fahimeh and Sima Mirzahosseini and Salma Mohseni Ardehali have contributed to this new wave.
UNIMA-Iran (Mobarak UNIMA), established in 1989, has one of the largest national memberships of any country and publishes a journal, Mobarak.
(See also Bongah-e-Shadmani.)