Ali Seidabadi, editor of Tiny Owl’s Persian series
When I was a child, a kind of art was popular in Iran, which I can describe as a sort of collective illustration reading. I have been captivated with this art for a while, thinking how greatly it resembles “reading” a picture book or an illustrated story, feeling amazed that nobody has yet mentioned this resemblance. This art-ritual is called pardekhani. There are illustrations on a large canvas named parde and a person called pardekhan stands before the crowd, points to an illustration with a stick, and narrates its story.
This was a kind of street art and people, mostly children and teenagers, would gather in a square, where pardekhan would tell his stories. With a long wooden stick he would show the images and at the same time would tell the story of each majlis (act). Each canvas comprised several parts called majlis, and each majlis had its own story, which was also part of the main story. Most narratives came from one of these two sources: the story of Imam Hossein, the third Imam of the Shiites, and Shahnameh by Ferdowsi, the great Persian poet who composed epic poetry.
Shahnameh is a great verse saga composed by Ferdowsi. All of Persian myths and epics and part of the history of ancient Iran is included in verse in this book, which is highly revered by Iranians. The difference between Shahnameh and other great epics of the world is that these other epics are mostly local, but Shahnameh is telling the story of a vast geographical area which is “the world” and, of course, as far as the poet is concerned, the center of this world is Iran. Shahnameh is a national epic, starting from the creation of mankind, the advent of monarchy, and the war between humans and demonic creatures, progressing step by step as human life transforms.
Most pardekhanis, however, are about Imam Hossein and in such cases pardekhani becomes a religious rite and a kind of mourning. According to some believers, attending this type of ceremonies can bring blessings into one’s life. Among us Shiites, Imam Hossein is famous for resisting oppression and for his free spirit. The unjust martyrdom of him, his family members and 72 of his friends in Karbala (a town in present-day Iraq) has created a huge number of influential literary and artistic works. This effective literature becomes the backdrop of one of the greatest gatherings of ritual arts for several days and nights in the form of noheh (a kind of dramatic religious music), tazieh performances (a kind of religious theatre), and rozeh performances (a kind of story-telling combined with mourning). On Imam Hossein’s martyrdom anniversary and the days coming before or after it, various towns and cities in Iran and other countries where Shiites are in the majority are greatly influenced by these rituals.
In modern theatre in Iran, playwrights and directors have tried to use this art, but I have been thinking for a long while about books that can be narrated in the style of pardekhani. I have imagined stories illustrated on huge canvases and the storyteller or pardekhan pointing to a picture on the canvas with a stick and read or tell the story of that picture.
This art-ritual has an uncanny similarity to picture books. An experienced Iranian illustrator and artist, Nooreddin Zarrinkelk, formerly used this technique in his illustrations. He employed this technique once in an image about Norooz (Persian New Year) and again in another image that he drew for the World Children’s Book Day, but I am thinking of a whole parde, a canvas with a collection of acts or majlis to make up the elements of my story.
A few days ago, I spoke to an Iranian illustrator about my idea to see if it is possible to recreate this old art in the form of children’s books or adopt it to the benefit of book reading. He agreed to work on it, but he suggested that I talk to a non-Persian illustrator as well. He thought it possible that other countries could have similar experiences in their artistic and literal heritage. I will certainly do this, but I have another concern as well. Almost from the instant that the idea of using pardekhani in relation with children’s stories crossed my mind, a doubt also permeated my thoughts: can such ideas overcome the attractions of television, tablets, etc.?
I would like to know more.
 A traditional Persian one-man show in which a minstrel-like artist tells a story, usually in a combination of prose and poetry, accompanied by the illustrations on a large canvas that show the high points of the story. For more information, please go to: ++