Pardeh khani, which means “reading off a screen,” is a screen-based storytelling tradition from Iran. The pardeh is a movable painting showing a representation of a religious story, which is told by the pardeh khan or narrator, who points to the vividly colorful images on the pardeh while performing. The large images were on easily portable screens, which allowed the pardeh khan to move from one location to the next, be that a street corner or an Iranian coffeehouse, which was historically known as social hubs and center s for performing arts.
Pardeh khani is one form of naqqali, a centuries-old storytelling tradition that was registered on UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cul tural Her i tage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding in 2011. The three primary components of this unique performing art are the story, the pardeh, and the pardeh khan.
The stories are primarily based on histo-religious events. The main subject revolves around Karbala and other related events. This is especially true during the month of Muharram. One focus in particular is on the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the grandson of Mohammad, in 680 CE. In one episode, the narrators tell the story about Mokhtar Saghafi who let a rebellion to avenge the death of Imam Hussein. Other popular themes are about miracles, workings of holy people, or even the lives of commoners. Regardless of the story, one general story idea is that the pious see how trivial this worldly life is while discovering the authenticity of holy worlds. In this way, the stories teach about morality.
Colorful Pardeh Screens
The subjects depicted on the pardeh follow the stories that the pardeh khan tells, so they are often about the suffering of Imam Hussein and the events of Karbala. The stories are painted in episodes on burlap and muslin, which are sturdy yet light enough to carry, and measure about 150 centimeters by 300 centimeters. Some of the more common colors used in the images are green to represent holiness, yellow to suggest distress, and red to show oppression. One interesting feature is that the holy people, which are generally larger than other people in the pictures, often don’t have faces; instead, they are shown as glowing halos.
Commoners as Pardeh Khan
The pardeh khan were not from an elite class or from a special level of society. They were commoners who often held other kinds of employment to earn a living. This is part of what made the pardeh khani so significant as a folk art. The performers used the language of the common person and were better able to represent a collective vision of the world, and to speak to the dreams and concerns of their audiences. This special attribute of being performed in the vernacular, often including the local dialect and jargon, is what made pardeh khani a representative art of the people, a true folk art.
Over time, pardeh khani and other types of naqqali heritage have waned in popularity. Today, pardeh khani traditions are largely forgotten, and there are just a handful of artists who have the professional capacity to perform this ancient art. The goal of inscribing naqqali on the UNESCO Urgent Safeguarding List is to raise awareness of naqqali and other storytelling arts like pardeh khani as important elements as performing arts, oral traditions, and forms of traditional craftsmanship.