Naghali, The Traditional Performance Art of Iran, Valiollah Torabi, Storyteller of Shahnameh (Persia)

Valiollah Torabi, Naghal (Storyteller) of Shahnameh
Photo by Y.movahed via Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The literature of all nations began in oral form; the stories that were the indication of a culture were carried to other cities by the storytellers and perhaps undergo some changes in these transitions. In Iran, the art of storytelling dates back to the Parthian Minstrels. A group of wanderers that went from one city to the other and from one country to another and told exotic stories about different nations, their stories were usually accompanied by music since they were musicians as well. These minstrels continued their action through Seleucid and Sassanid era, they were famous for their paranormal abilities, especially the ability to foretell the future.

In Iran, the art of storytelling dates back to the Parthian Minstrels. A group of wanderers that went from one city to the other and from one country to another and told exotic stories about different nations

After the advent of Islam, however, the task of storytelling was given to peasants and narrators, and the theme of the stories changed from the epic and national themes to stories about prophets and Islam. a couple of decades later, however, the national and epic themes became once again popular. From the Safavid dynasty the stories of Shahnameh, the masterpiece of Ferdowsi gained much attention. In most crowded parts of the city like the bazaars, the caravanserais, and religious places like mosques and tekieh, narrators stood and told religious, historic, and epic stories.

With the growing popularity of teahouses in the early 17th century, a center for this form of performance art was created. People gathered in teahouses and narrators recite the stories of Shah Nam-e for them. The outcome of these teahouse gatherings was that an opportunity was created for the illiterate to become cultured. The narrators were talented people who could detect the capacity and mood of each group and performed based on that. From Qajar era, the title of Naghal was chosen for these narrators that means transferor, and the art of transferring was named Naghali that became an official and rather respected job. The Naghal or the narrator must have a good memory, to memorize the whole poems. He/she must be a good speaker that can mesmerize people with his words, body language and tone.

Naghals, based on the theme of their stories, were divided to Shah Nam-e tellers, History tellers and Religion tellers. Although, today they mostly read Shah Nam-e. The Naghals stand against a painting (curtain) with the theme of the story they are going to tell, and have a baton like tool in their hand that they use to point to different places in the painting. When the Naghal is telling a story from Shah Nam-e he/she tells some parts in form of spoken prose and some other part in form of poetry. Choosing which part of story should be told in prose and which in poetry is one of the most important parts of being a Naghal. After that, they should work on their tone; it is crucial to know when to rise your voice and when to lower it, when to use epic tone and when to use dramatic tone. All these features are added to the natural charisma that the Naghal should have to makes a good and skilled artist that entice the people with words and actions.

This traditional form of performance art was registered as an Intangible World Heritage by UNESCO in 2011.