chapter  3
21 Pages

Mutribs and their dancers: The counter-ideal performers of new Iran

This chapter explores the emergence of an interdisciplinary field of discursivity on performance in the first half of the twentieth century that marginalized the mutribi performers in the larger discourse of arts, dismissing them as ante-modern and “mubtazal” (degenerate). Understanding the formation of this discourse and the political dynamics shaping it is significant to this argument for it has largely shaped the social perceptions of cabaret dancers who had close ties to mutribs. Arguably, these conceptualizations have also influenced Iranians’ cultural categorization as well as their aesthetic taste (of performing arts) to this day. As explored in Chapter 2, for those nationalists who sought to materialize

ideas of modern Iran on stage, Iranian dance required a departure from its immediate past: it was in that process that on the national stage, the female national dancer with a controlled femininity emerged to replace the bachah raqqas of the mutribi scene, whose performance combined hyper-sexuality with homoeroticism. However, the multi-faceted mutribs and the performers associated with them signified the unpleasant past not only for dance but also for music and theater, the two major spheres of performance in the first four decades of the twentieth century. As I will briefly explore, the nationalist discourse dismissed the mutribs from the national stage for representing illiteracy, backwardness, and lewdness. Moreover, a leftist discourse with an ideological view of the arts emerged

in the 1930s had an unfavorable take on the mutribs since they did not fit into its own distinct ideas for arts in Iran-that they be historically relevant, belong to the people, and help sublimate their taste while urging them to struggle for a better society.1 In these propositions, the mutribs came to represent the undesirable performers of the past. These ideas were further cultivated and disseminated in the Marxist-inspired writings and practices of the 1940s, when many prominent artistic and literary figures joined the Tudeh Party (founded in 1941), the major communist organization of Iran, which was active in the spheres of arts and culture. Among them was Abdulhusayn Nushin (1906-71), a pioneering theatrical figure of Iran, the height of whose artistic career coincided with that of the party’s activism and massive publicity. His double role as artist and politician led to the formation of a

myth surrounding him, and the cementation of ideas of committed (or engagé) and progressive arts in Iran: the height of his activity came to signify a “golden age” of theater in Iran (also discursively linked to the theatrical scene of Lalehzar Street), while his lamented departure demarcated its decline. Opposite Nushin’s image were the mutribs and their dancers, who not only represented the counter-ideal performers of the past, but whose recruitment and predominance on the stage in the 1950s put them head to head with the mythic image of Nushin and all the sublime qualities he represented. This chapter opens with mutribs and the earlier nationalists’ othering of

them as illiterate and ante-modern. It then moves to the emergence of the leftist discourse on arts (including theater and music) in the 1930s and their cultivation and practice in the 1940s. The rest of the chapter looks at the 1950s, when dancers and mutribs were recruited to the theatrical stage of Lalehzar, followed by a review of the historical narratives of theater which have been influenced by the earlier leftist notions and practices.