PhD - Performing Shahnameh: Negotiating Pride in Iranian Identities (Anna Rezaei)

Key Kavus has been taken to the skies in a throne powered by eagles. Ferdowsi, Shahnameh. Late Mughal: Lahore or Delhi, first quarter of the 19th century. Opaque watercolor, ink, and gold on paper. Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art, MSS7

Epic storytelling is an ancient practice known in many cultures that helps bridge the past and present of society through oral traditions and performances while highlighting the values and concerns of specific people. In other words, as Herbert Tucker (2021) mentioned “epic offers the most long-standing and globally distributed evidence of the human habit of thinking by means of narrative”. Shahnameh, Iran’s iconic Book of Kings, is one of the most important sources for epic storytelling in Iran. This book concerns itself primarily with the thoughts and deeds of heroes serving the Iranian nation. While these heroes are usually men, the book clearly states that “narrating Shahnameh awakens the inner "hero" in everyone, even in women.” Today, the art of narrating Shahnameh, Naqqali – traditionally a one-man show, using heightened speech, gestures, and body movements to portray extravagant masculine heroes – is challenged by many new forms of performance. For example, female Naqqal, which often refocuses on the narrative, includes descriptions of women and their emotions, male performers, accompanied by popular music instead of “traditional” drumming, and even operas performed by puppets are taking place among many new ways of performing Shahnameh.

In this research, I will explore and analyze performances based on Shahnameh to understand the meaning of this sourceand its role in shaping Iranian identity. I will begin by examining the moment in the nineteenth century when performances of the Shahnameh moved from coffee houses to festivals. This form of performing Shahnameh was used as a symbol of traditional performance and public entertainment as opposed to Western imported theatre and persisted in varying ways until the Islamic Revolution in 1979. I will then explore at least two post-revolutionary performance contexts, one located in Iran and one in the Iranian diaspora to see how this form of “traditional” performing changed during these last 4 decades.