Naqqali (Iranian Dramatic Storytelling) and narrating Shahnameh is one of the intangible cultural heritage of Iranians registered by UNESCO. This Persian art has always been popular among Iranians as a branch of traditional performing arts and storytelling.
Experts divide traditional performing arts in Iran are four: Tazieh (Passion Play), Marionette, Ruhowzi, and “Naqqali.”
According to historical documents, this dramatic storytelling or in Persian “Naqqali” arose from the masses of the people.
Naqqali is a branch of theatrical form that mostly performed solo. Narrators or Naqqals narrate various topics and themes in the form of stories that we can divide into three groups: national and mythical epic Naqqali, religious epic Naqqali, and romantic Naqqali.
“Art,” especially “storytelling,” has been popular among Iranian for a long time. When the Sassanid dynasty came into power, storytelling accompanied by musicians reached its peak. There were many mythical and historical stories to tell. For example, Ancient tales of Mithra and Anahita, the mourning of Siyâvash, Rostam’s Seven Labours, and Khosrow and Shirin were the most popular ones.
Storytelling in Iran always had something to say because it developed inside a country with rich sources and subjects in various types and categories.
With the Arabs’ invasion and the spread of Islam in Iran, Naqqali did not stop prospering. It used the new religion as another source and augmented a wider audience.
Shahnameh is the longest book of epic poetry in the world written by a single poet. Ferdowsi, the most famous Iranian poet of the tenth and eleventh centuries AD, wrote this book, and with this book, he saved the Persian language and identity. Shahnameh has long been the first source for those who perform Naqqali.
By telling historical and mythical stories with dramatic movements and scenarios appropriate to the events and happenings of the story, the storytellers or Naqqals, had no purpose but to attract and motivate the audience. In most cases, people were deeply under the magnetism of their Naqqal and performer that they started to call these Naqqals Morshed, Pir, or in common English Masters.
Mohammad Taqi Bahar, quoting Ibn Qutaybah, one of the scholars of the third century AH and the author of the book Ayoun al-Akhbar, writes in this regard:
“In Marv, we came across a Naqqal who told stories that impressed us. Then he took his tambourine out and began to play, saying, but with all this misery, we need a little laughter.”
This line shows that these Naqqals believed in a responsibility they had towards society and the people. To be that dim ray of hope in the darkest moments of despair, that the stories they carried and how they performed them were the only comforting remedy for those under severe depression.
Where did Naqqali first appear? Who were the earliest performers? Who thought of it for the first time? The exact appearance date of this art is unknown. We can only read between the lines of a few sources we have from the pre-Islamic ages. We know for sure that One Thousand and One Nights, where Scheherazade uses the art of Naqqali, is a pre-Islamic book. Or how Kings had entertainers who would tell stories with specific acts.
Persian literature like Shahnameh or Nizami Ganjavi’s poems and books such as the History of Sistan, the History of Bukhara, and Al-Fihrist, are the references that tell us about Naqqali.
In Haft Peykar, for instance, we learn that King Bahram the fifth is willing to hear stories to acquire knowledge. This same Kings invites many gypsies to play music and tell stories for people in the street and main squares.
One of the reasons that many stories are still alive today and people have heard about without reading them is Naqqali. For a considerable amount of time, the only source was the memory of these Naqqals. There were no written books to be saved and passed on to the next generation. Even if they were, with too many invasions and burning the libraries in Iran, they all got destroyed. Nevertheless, we still have them today because these Nqqals kept them in heart, and later poets and writers wrote them down. They recorded Vis and Ramin, Samak-e Ayyar, Darab-Nama, and Amir Arsalan while quoting the narrators. Although these epics and tales are in the formal Persian literature, their content is Conversational, much closer to the informal language of the people.
For not so long, this process became art, and the Naqqals were called artists. Naqqali formed its structures, and others could learn how to perform it.
The poems and epic stories, especially Shahname or the battels of Ali, had a unique tone which later the Naqqals used to create assured criteria of performing arts known as Naqqali.
Naqqali was so popular and well-received that even when European play (theater) stepped foot in Iran, people still routed for Naqqali.
Naqqali is one of the forms of drama that usually had an actor and was considered the brightest dramatic figure in the history of Iranian drama.
Bahram Beyzai writes in the definition of Naqqali: “Naqqali is the narration of an event or story, to a poem or prose with movements and reactions and appropriate expression in front of the audience.”
The point was that a narrator had to have a particular tone and characteristics. Their work was sensitive and delicate. They had to picture the story and deliver its message without any tools and only with the power of expression, movements, facial and hand gestures. Stamping foot and deliberately moving the cane have been very effective in the effectiveness of the narrator on the listeners and the audience.
In addition to having the listed features, in explaining the technical characteristics of this form of performance, it should be a “Witted and agile narrator, know wrestling, wheelbarrows, swimming, and horseback riding.” The Naqqal’s words, like the words of the sage, must be as strong as iron, and like running, unaffected water, Naqqali is not based on reason. It relies more on the listener’s emotions.”
The way a Naqqal performs their play is very different from others who practice Mareke Giri (A Mareke Gir is a person who entertains people with his “power,” such as breaking chains with his arms or breaking stones with his hands) or does magic. These practices are not under the category of performing arts. Their words and deeds were not continuous or impressive for a long time. On the other hand, the narrator’s work dragged people along with it. The audience wanted more. They engaged with the story that would come back to hear more the other day.
Naqqali has been the guardian of folk and epic stories and folk music. Naqqals wore white or navy blue shirts, long robes, coats, traditional shoes (Charoq), a dervishes-style shawl, and attended coffee houses. Sometimes they wore old hats and armor to tell battle scenes and other stories.
Women were the first to perform Naqqali. But due to some social issues, they have been pushed aside. Naqqali entered the coffee houses, where it was not considered culturally appropriate for women. Women found other places to perform, and today they are prominent Naqqals among them. As a result, they played a delicate role in keeping this ancient art alive. Such a glamourous event is important because it brings together fans of art and culture in Iran.