String puppet theatre of Iran. The Shah Salim bazi (also known as the kheimeh shab bazi) is the primary Iranian puppet theatre. It has some similarities with the Indian kathputli ka khel both in form (staging, style of string puppets without legs) and content (non-religious narrative centred on a princely court). The name perhaps comes from an historical episode in the life of Ottoman Sultan Salim I in the 16th century. The main character in this show today is Mobarak, but this was not the case in previous centuries.
The Set and Organization of the Show
The puppets are 15 to 45 centimetres in stature and are manipulated by two strings or, rarely, three. The puppeteer (ostad) stands behind a puppet stage 80 to 90 centimetres high, looking down on the playing space about a metre in width and depth. He has a box full of marionettes which he takes out and hangs on the wall of the booth to use when required. The morshed (literally, “spiritual leader”, the narrator/interlocutor) is outside, next to the booth or curtain, and it is he who orchestrates the show, accompanying the performance with his tombak (an Iranian percussion instrument), sometimes singing, translating and interpreting as necessary the distorted words of the figures, created by the puppeteer with a swazzle type accessory called sootak or safir. Inserted into the puppeteer’s mouth to alter the sound and give voice to the puppet, the whistling, chirping, otherworldly sound of the safir distorts the human voice to create a puppet language. The safir, about 1 centimetre wide and around 2 centimetres long, traditionally consisted of two thin gold sheets but brass or another metal is currently used. A piece of cloth or hide is placed between the two metal sheets and the three pieces are bound with string.
The improvised dialogue between the morshed and Mobarak can often turn into mockery and arguments, creating comic effect. The morshed has a wooden wand to punish and educate this rebellious servant, Mobarak. Musicians accompany the entries and exits of characters.
A full show includes fourteen main characters/puppets and a dozen other minor characters (a full show includes a maximum of 150 puppets), including about eight dignitaries dressed in their uniforms. Among the characters, the central one is Mobarak. We also find Shah Salim, Farrokh Khan (the shah’s son), Aroos (bride), Pahlavan (wrestler), Jarookesh (sweeper), Tabal (drummer), Sagha (water carrier), Raheb (cleric), Aqhed (marriage officer), Shisheh Baz and Choob Baz (jugglers), Div (demon), and Looti Antari (monkey guardian and trainer).
There are two kinds of puppets: those made in accordance with the human anatomy with hands and legs; and those without legs (the dancers, who are legless to facilitate their movement) or without limbs (demons, in accordance with the popular belief that the devil can appear in all sizes of its own volition). The puppets are not jointed and so move in a single swoop. The bodies are made of fabric and cotton; and heads are usually made of wood. Each puppet makes its entrance and exit with its special song and music, sung and played by musicians. The tunes are varied, can be dramatic, lyrical or romantic, depending on the type or taste of audience, which is often mixed, consisting of children, youth, and adults. They even use Arabic or European melodies to attract the audience.
The Shah Salim bazi tells of the marriage of Farrokh Khan, son of Shah Salim. The morshed asks Mobarak to prepare the premises for the arrival of the Shah and to announce the wedding. The wily Mobarak comes and goes to do this, but instead of the king, it is always a cat or a dog that appears. When Shah Salim is poised to finally make its entrance, all the characters are on stage, but some drag on, oblivious to the orders of Mobarak, like arrogant Pahlavan who consequently receives a blow and collapses, needing to be treated by a doctor and nurses. Then appear the dancers (Turkish dancers and Kurdish dancers) and the wedding gifts, as well as lighted candles. Depending on the duration of the show, many different characters could come on the stage. The king finally arrives, with his son and the son’s bride, and accompanied by his court, and sits on his throne. Announced by the morshed, dignitaries and ambassadors enter one by one, and are followed by jugglers, wrestlers, and dancers. The ceremony concludes with the wedding, celebrated by the Aqhed (marriage officer, Mullah), and the show can end with the birth of a child. In some versions, Mobarak can fall in love with one of the dancers; he attempts to join in the ballroom proceedings despite opposition from the morshed who sends the demon to punish Mobarak.
The Shah Salim bazi thus has a very simple structure, but may also contain myriad variations from one episode to the next presentation. The form is a forum for the expression of popular opinion. Mobarak is the character that talks back to power and corruption and brings common sense to a disordered political and social order.