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TA’ZIYAH. The Shi`i passion play called ta’ziyah is the only serious drama ever developed in the Islamic world, except for contemporary Western theater. Ta`ztyah (from the Arabic word `aza’, “mourning”) is mainly performed in Iran. It reenacts the passion and death of Husayn, the beloved grandson of the prophet Muhammad and the third imam of the ShNs. He was brutally murdered along with his male children and companions while contesting his right to the caliphate in battle on the sun-baked wastes known as the Plain of Karbala (in present Iraq) in 68o CE (AH 61). This tragic massacre became a vicarious martyrdom mourned ever since by Shi`is worldwide. In Iran, the mourning for Husayn received royal patronage when Shi`i Islam was established as the state religion in the sixteenth century.

The mourning for Husayn manifests itself in stationary and ambulatory rituals. The ta`ziyah as a dramatic theatrical form is a result of the mid-eighteenth-century fusion of ambulatory and stationary rituals that had coexisted for more than a millennium. At first ta’ziyah plays were performed at crossroads, in marketplaces and town squares, and later in the courtyards of inns and private houses. Finally, special structures called takiyah or Husayniyah were built for them, some by well-to-do persons as a pious public service and others with contributions from the citizens of a borough. Some were large, seating thousands of spectators, while others accommodated several hundred. Many takiyah structures were temporary, put up by members of a community especially for the Muharram/Safar observances. The most famous ta`ziyah theater was Takiyah Dawlat, the Royal Theater in Tehran, built in the 1870s by Nasr alDin Shah. Its dazzling splendor and the intensity of its dramatic action overshadowed, according to many Western visitors, even the opera houses of Western capitals. The building was torn down in 1946.

Although in the second half of the nineteenth century takiyah buildings became a major feature in Iranian towns, a distinctly recognizable takiyah architecture did not emerge. There are, however, common characteristics of almost all takiyah that preserve and enhance the dramatic interplay between actors and spectators. This is theater-in-the-round. The main performing space is a stark, curtainless, raised platform in the center of the building or a courtyard. This central stage can be of various shapes and is surrounded by a circular strip usually covered by sand. This space is used for equestrian and foot battles and for subplots and action indicating journeys, the passage of time, and changes. The scenes are changed by rotation of the stage; the performers jump off the stage and circumambulate it. The actor may now announce that he is going to a certain place; by climbing back onto the stage, he may announce that he has arrived there. The action extends from the main stage to the sand-covered circular band and into the auditorium. Skirmishes often take place behind the audience in unwalled takiyah. This centrifugal movement of the action, from the centrally situated stage out to the takiyah periphery and back, engulfs the audience and makes it part of the play. In many situations the audience actually participates physically in the play. (Some Western directors and producers have looked recently to the ta’ziyah for devices to break down barriers between actors and audience.)

The stage decor is almost nonexistent, as the minimalist setting is supposed to evoke the desolate, bleak desert of Karbala. Most of the props are symbolic as well; a basin of water, for example, represents the Euphrates River, and a branch of a tree, a palm grove.

In Takiyah Dawlat Theater during the reign of Nasr al-Din Shah the costumes were rich and splendid, though no attention was paid to their historicity. Even today the costumes are supposed to help the audience to recognize the characters. The protagonists dress predominantly in green, and the villains wear red. Green symbolizes paradise and the family of the Prophet, and therefore Islam; red symbolizes blood, suffering, and cruelty. Actors playing women are dressed in baggy black garments covering them from head to toe, with faces veiled; thus even bearded men can play female roles as long as their voices do not give them away. When a protagonist puts a white sheet of cloth on his shoulders representing a burial shroud, this indicates that he is ready to sacrifice his life and will be killed shortly. This in turn creates a cathartic state in the audience.

In addition to the colors, there is another clear division between the protagonists and antagonists in the ta’ziyah. The protagonists sing their parts, and the antagonists recite theirs. In the past, the actors were chosen according to their physical suitability for a role, but a good singing voice had to complement the physical stature of the protagonist actor. The amateur actors used to read their lines from little folded scripts held in the palms of their hands, though the professional actors knew their lines by heart. Holding a script in one’s hand indicated that the actor was only a role-carrier; in other words, that he was not the character he portrayed. At present, actors of professional troupes know most of their lines by heart; if not, they pretend to know them and avoid referring conspicuously to their notes. The antagonists declaim their lines, often in violent shrieking voices. Frequently the antagonists are made to appear as ridiculous buffoons, overplayed and overacted. The traditional attempts to distance the actors from the characters they portray are often swept away in the modern productions of the ta’ziyah. Under the influence of movies and television, the actors identify with the personages they represent to such a degree that they are carried away by the situations. The emotions of the actors are increased by the receptiveness of the audience as it meets the actor halfway. The influence of film and television is noticeable also among the contemporary audience.

A ta’ziyah director is at the same time a producer, music director, stage director, public relations coordinator, and prompter. He is responsible not only for the play’s direction and production, music and mise-enscene, but also for all props, arrangements with the local authorities, and financial returns. The director is always on hand during the performance, regulating the movement of actors, musicians, and audience. He remains constantly on the playing ground, giving actors their cues. His presence on the stage, however, is not disturbing to the audience as he is an integral part of the ta’ziyah production.

The core of the ta’ztyah repertory is the plays devoted to the Karbala tragedy and the events surrounding it. The Karbala massacre is divided into many separate episodes performed on separate days. The passage of Husayn from Medina via Mecca to his death at Karbala is represented in some ten plays in as many days. In these plays, a hero singlehandedly fights the entire enemy army, allowing the rest of the protagonists, grouped on the central stage, to muse about their condition and to make comments of a philosophical and religious nature. There is only one fixed day and play in the Muharram repertory-the martyrdom of Husayn on the tenth; the others can be performed in varying order. Usually the sequence starts on the first day of the month of Muharram with a play dedicated to the death of

Husayn’s emissary to Kufa, Muslim ibn `Agil. This is followed in daily sequence by the martyrdom of two of Muslim’s children, and then by plays about the martyrdom of various members of Husayn’s family and companions. Most commonly, on the sixth of Muharram the Martyrdom of Hurr is performed; on the seventh, the Martyrdom of Qdsim the Bridegroom; on the eighth, the Martyrdom of ‘Ali Akbar, the oldest and favorite son of Husayn; and on the ninth, the Martyrdom of ‘Abbas, a half-brother of Husayn and his standardbearer. The basic repertory of the ta’ztyah does not necessarily end with Husayn’s death. The performances may continue after the `Ashura’ day to show the tragic lot of Husayn’s women, who were taken as captives to Damascus.

The Shi’i cult of martyrology brought into the ta`ziyah fold new plays about other Shi’i martyrs before and after Karbala. Since the mid-nineteenth century, plays based on the Qur’an, hadith, and even current events have been written and performed. They are connected, however, to the Karbala tragedy through the employment of guriz, a direct verbal reference or the staging of a short scene from Husayn’s passion. The expansion of the repertory was followed by the expansion of performing time from the month of Muharram to the entire year.

The ta`ziyah troupes of today are often family businesses, although they depend only partially on the income from performances. Professional troupes today usually stay in one place for ten days to two weeks, giving a different play every day. Sometimes there are two performances a day, one in the evening. A play can last from two to five hours.

In the 1930s Reza Shah’s government, considering the ta`ziyah a backward ritual, imposed restrictions on its performance in urban areas, and it retreated to rural areas. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, however, used ta`ziyah and other popular Shi`i rituals and beliefs into a means of mass mobilization for the Islamic Revolution. During the eight years of war with Iraq, the heroism depicted in the ta’ziyah was employed to increase the fighting spirit of Iranian combatants and to bring solace to those who had lost their loved ones.

In 1991, ta’ziyah was staged at the Avignon Arts Festival in southern France, where it received a tumultuous reception. The ta’ziyah’s popularity continues unabated in Iran. Many articles on the ta’ziyah form have appeared in recent Iranian journals.

[See also `Ashura’; Husayn ibn ‘Ali; Husayniyah;

Karbala; Martyrdom; Muharram; and Shi `i Islam, historical overview article.]

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Alserat 12 (Spring-Autumn 1986). Special issue of the journal containing papers from the Imam Husayn Conference, London, July 1984, and providing important coverage of the Karbala tragedy. Chelkowski, Peter, ed. Ta’ziyeh: Ritual and Drama in Iran. New York, 1979. Traces the historical development and flourishing of ta`ziyah into its full-fledged dramatic form today, including essays on theatrical, anthropological, musical, artistic, and other aspects of the ritual by scholars from many countries in Asia, Europe, and America. Based on the proceedings of the international symposium held during the Shiraz (Iran) Festival of the Arts in August 1976. Pelly, Lewis. The Miracle Play of Hasan and Husain. z vols. London, 1879. Contains translations of thirty-seven ta’ziyah plays, written in an ornate Victorian English.

Riggio, Milla Cozart, ed. Ta’ziyeh: Ritual and Popular Beliefs in Iran. Hartford, Conn., 1988. Short book containing essays prepared for a drama festival and conference held at Trinity College in the spring of 1988.

Rossi, Ettore, and Alessio Bombaci. Elenco di drami religiosi persiam. Vatican, 1961. Catalog of the collection of original ta’ziyah plays (1,055 manuscripts) housed at the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana.

PETER CHELKOWSKI

Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/taziyah/
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  • writerPosted On: October 4, 2018
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