Mahnaz Alimardanian explores liminality and the anthropology of performance

Interviewer: Courtney Boag
Images: Mahnaz Alimardanian

14 March, 2021

“if my research would inspire readers to look at the world differently or to, at least, consider alternative ways of engaging with the world, then this is the best result one can wish for.”

Mahnaz Alimardanian

Mahnaz Alimardanian is a social scientist with many years of experience as a trained anthropologist. Mahnaz holds a PhD and two Masters degrees in anthropology with a wider background in visual and performing arts, and literary criticism.

She is an Honorary Fellow at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at La Trobe University and a Fellow of the Australian Anthropological Society. Mahnaz has written extensively on the anthropology of performance and experience, specifically looking at theatrical and ritual traditions in Iran such as the Purkhani ceremony and Aboriginal ceremonies and traditions here in Australia where she has been able to work closely with the Bundjalung people of the Northern Rivers in New South Wales. Mahnaz now works as a consultant; she provides community-based research services for land rights and social justice claims at PiiR (Professional Independent Indigenous Research)

I met up with Mahnaz on a beautiful sunny Melbourne morning at the Botanical Gardens. As we began discussing Mahnaz’s work it became apparent to us both that a park was an ideal location for any discussions regarding concepts of liminality and ambivalence. For thousands of years, gardens have been manicured to represent maze like environments. Whether it is intentional or not, we often get lost along the way when we follow the winding garden paths only to find ourselves again. Time spent in a garden is indeed time spent in hiatus. This we both contemplated as we watched the masses eagerly entering the gardens for their lunch hour – a pause from their otherwise busy lives. Our common interest in the work of Arnold Van Gennep’s rites of passage and Victor Turner’s work on liminality saw us drawing many parallels between these concepts and our everyday lived experience as you will read below. On the tram home, I reflected on my conversation with Mahnaz and the importance of her research in demonstrating how performance plays an integral role in our everyday lives and social behaviours.

So, Mahnaz, how did you come to be involved in anthropology?

I think for answering that I need to refer back to my initial interest in law and social work, and a search for finding a meaningful and direct way of engagement with society and with human beings that later on as an anthropologist, attracted me to doing engaged and applied anthropology work. Additionally, I had a passion for sociology, philosophy and journalism.

I first chose art as my medium for social critique and community engagement. I started to study theatre, then I became fascinated with the origin of performance and learning about world theatre traditions from kabuki, kathakali, to sophisticated and colourful masked performances of South East and Central Asia, and to solo performance of Naqqali, and other performative arts and theatrical traditions in Iran. I discovered that anthropologists are among the pioneers of writing about performance in their study of belief and knowledge systems and I was so excited to see that anthropology and performance theory had a lot in common. This is how anthropology became an umbrella to bring all my interests together.

What a story Mahnaz, it’s so interesting how you have brought all these passions together. I know that when you lived in Tehran you did fieldwork with the Turkmen people of Iran. You specifically looked at the traditional shamanic healing performance of purkhani. Can you tell me a little bit about this traditional practice? I was really interested to learn more about the ‘rules of engagement’ and the ‘rules of performance’ that are involved in this.

Purkhani is a type of healing ceremony which, at the time of my research in early 2000, was practiced in the North East area of Iran among some Turkmen communities. The ceremony is an alternative way of responding to sickness, illness, and searching for cures, in addition to pursuing other traditional healing methods and visiting herbal and biomedical doctors. The ceremony is often performed with a solo performer and healer called Purkhan. The healing methods involve receiving handwritten protective prayers and spells from the healer which are accompanied by detailed using instructions, touching and pressing body organs and expelling physical objects from a patient’s body. The healer’s interaction with the spirit world to balance out any form of disharmony is at the centre of this healing process. Some of the techniques are to some extent similar to Ngankari healing methods here in Australia.

At that time, I was interested in bringing anthropology and theatre together, and I was specifically focused on the anthropology of performance. I looked at the performative aspects of the ceremony, aiming to see how performance theory can enrich the anthropological study of healing ceremonies. So, I studied Purkhani through this analytical lens and introduced the ceremony as ‘healing drama’ in my research. My research suggested that the healing philosophy behind the scene is in fact dramatic in its nature, no matter what the quality of performance is.

In response to your question, I would say the rules of performance are dynamic and may be adjusted from one healer to another as long as the principle action of engagement with the invisible world, spirit world, is there. In terms of rules of engagement, I think trust and full participation are the main ones, though there are certain rules, should and shouldn’t, that would be followed during the ceremony.

What brought you to want to do research on the purkhani?  Why the Turkmen and why purkhani?

The first reason was my fascination with the region and its culture from an early trip as a teenager. The trip was my first encounter with the unfamiliar and being exposed to the cultural differences, everything from landscape to people’s language, traditional dress, and food, were new to me. The second reason was the ceremony itself. I was interest in the belief and the healing system behind the ceremony. Purkhani has its roots in a type of belief system which is collectively sometimes referred to as Shamanism. We know that there is a complexity around using this term, Shamanism, as some anthropologists find the term helpful in describing certain sets of practices whereas others think that the classification is inaccurate. I think it’s safe to consider Shamanic roots for the Purkhani ceremony because of its origins in Central Asia and its association with the migration of the Turkmen people from the Central Asian steppes to the Iranian plateau. Then, there was the healing process and its dramatic features, concepts like purification or cathartic healing process in dramatherapy, or avant-garde and experimental theatre were all developed under the influence of such ceremonies.

You mentioned that a fundamental part of the purkhini performance is the dramatic battle like scene that is performed by the purkhan whereby he conjures the good spirits to fight the evil ones. I understand you relate this ceremony to Victor Turner’s rites of passage framework, so would you say this element of the ceremony is the liminal phrase?

So, if we want to go with the broad definition of liminality as a stage or phase in between two thresholds – in this case, between two states of wellbeing, sickness and health, similar to any other healing ceremony – and between visible and invisible worlds, Purkhani can be seen as encompassing a liminal phase. In Purkhani, participants step in-between two states of well-being and two domains of existence, human and spirit worlds. This in-betweenness is also manifested in how the ceremony overturns some of the social norms and introduces its own norms and rules of engagement. Additionally, performing itself is a paradigm of liminality, any staged performance is designed at the margin or border of the real world and in some performances the bridging out and into the real world are dramatically marked for the participants. What you referred to, the benevolent and malevolent forces confronting each other, can also be understood as a liminal phase, because of the dynamics between those opposing forces, its ambiguity and potentials.

Victor Turner had three overarching processes within his rites of passage; the separation phase, the liminal stage, which we’ve discussed and then the reintegration phase. So, how would the purkhani ceremony reflect those three stages?

The separation and reintegration to the ordinary world are marked by sets of symbolic acts at two ends of the ceremony. The purkhan first welcomes and initiates the participants into the ceremony and during the ceremony he will cast out their illness and protect them against the influence of malevolent forces before farewelling them out. This also involves signifying or assigning space and objects. For example, beside certain ceremonial objects, functions of some of the ordinary objects and household items are redefined and they are used in alternative ways during the ceremony. For example, a curtain which was hiding storage shelves in the healer’s house living room before and after the ceremony became a symbolic veil separating, yet linking, the human-spirit worlds during the ceremony.

Is the purkhan a role that is largely filled by men, or are there female purkhans and healers within Turkmen culture too?

There are female healers, as well, yes. Something to be mindful of is that these types of ceremonies are often featured around the individual characteristics and skills of healers as well as circumstances. Generally, the term Purkhan is associated with specific healing techniques, however, there may have been changes to this since I did my fieldwork.

Are there any initiation processes that men have to complete in order to become a purkhan?

Often, it’s a set of visions and dreams that the person may have. The dreams are distinguished from being just random nocturnal dreams, they are perceived as being sacred. It is also often the case that the person themselves experiences affliction or health issues before becoming a healer. So, by being healed themselves – which I suppose you could say is their own experience of liminality – the healing power comes to them, gives them the ability to interact with the spirit world and prepares them for the role of Purkhani.

In some cases, they may also receive training from other healers as well. All these elements of having sacred visions and dreams, being trained and mentored and finding oneself struggling with an illness and overcoming the challenge are features of being initiated to the world of healing powers.

Ok, that’s interesting. You beautifully write that “the dramatic quality of purkhani does not simply support healing techniques by providing terms of engagement between participants in the ceremony; it actually regenerates the ontological ground out of which a healing philosophy emerges”. While I understand that the purkhani ceremony holds value in reinforcing, and as you say regenerating ontological norms in Turkmen society, does it also influence the wider socio-political environment in which it is embedded in any way? 

Yes, I think it’s possible to discuss that a healing drama has potentials to influence or be influenced by other aspects of social life, like normative system, politics of identity, gender and power relation, but in this specific case, my focus was on the ceremony itself. Overall, any performance has the potential to mirror society, negotiate change or provide opportunities to raise concerns about social matters. Healing ceremonies are supposed to mediate people’s well-being and the notion of well-being is personal, but also social. Having said that, it is important to not assume those connections in advance, the relation between a staged world and world as a stage should be tested and researched in each case. 

Importantly, like many cultural traditions around the world, the purkhani is undergoing change as we become a more globalised and modern world. Can you explain what some of these changes are?

One change that I noticed – bearing in mind that I did my fieldwork with one healer – suggested that the ceremony was becoming more routinised. Traditionally, the dramatic elements of the ceremony were more picturesque and involved intense performances back in time, like of course, the battle scene whereby the healer enters into trance, travels to the spirit world to heal his patients with the help of his allied spirits. This was played out by using objects to show the journey to the other world and scare off malevolent forces. But now Purkhan plays a messenger role who facilitates dialogues between the spirit and human worlds. He enters into a consultation or negotiation with the spirits and the conversation with invisible world is performed by hand gestures. Participants observe this dialogue and wait for an outcome. In the case of the Purkhan that I was doing my research with, age played a significant role in how he was carrying out the performance, but generally speaking there is a transition from a visually artistic and dramatic performance to a conceptually dramatic but formulated ceremony under the influence of religious concepts and elements.

Ok, so when you talk about the dramatic characteristics of the ceremony, and the dramatic elements that this particular purkhan you were working with would have once carried out, what are they specifically? 

Perhaps I should first explain what I mean by dramatic action. A dramatic act is any act in which a person puts their self on the spot to be seen and their actions to be assessed. The audience is critical in this regard for understanding something as being performative and dramatic, and distinguishing it from what is expected and perceived as ordinary, habitual, or non-significant.

In summary, I identified four dramatic characteristics in the ceremony: staged interaction between opposite forces, engagement between visible and invisible participants, establishing particular sets of norms and semiotic references and then interactive group performance, meaning how Purkhani flows on and off stage and how acting and watching positions shift. The participants play an important role in creating this healing drama. Then, there were also dramatic elements that constructed the performance both visually and conceptually such as rhythm, movement, built image, stage composition or assigning time, space and objects.

As you’ve indicated, the style of performances in this ceremony are changing in numerous ways, so I want to ask you if the structures of the performance are changing, are the fundamental functions of the performance remaining the same?

If I should use this analytical terminology, then I would say that the constructing elements of the ceremony may change or be adjusted from one healer to another or according to circumstance or pass of time, but the conceptual structure is the same. As I said, for example, the age factor and decline in the quality of the performance didn’t impact the popularity of the ceremony at the time of my visit.

Yeah, that’s really interesting. I just want to turn our attention to your PhD research which was conducted here in Australia. Your thesis was entitled ‘Acting and not Acting: the challenge of being spiritual in an uncertain Aboriginal world’, I know this is a huge topic but, in a nutshell, what was your thesis looking at?

I did that research in the Northern Rivers area of New South Wales almost ten years ago and I had the honour of working with the Bundjalung people in that project. Similar to the research that I did with the Turkmen people, the project grew out of passion, and respect and admiration for the Australian Indigenous culture. I was interested to learn about people’s lived experience, but rather than looking at performance as what is staged and presented in certain time and space to be observed, my aim was to look at the performance in relation to day-to-day activities and in its direct relation with knowledge and belief systems. So, engagement with the unseen world – the spirit world, were at the centre of this project as well. The theme of ambiguity which is characteristic of liminal situations such as navigating human-spirit worlds was also dominant in this research. I looked at how people engage with the landscapes and how they perceive and act upon certain signs and marks within the landscapes as well as how the engagement with the spirit world may generally influence decision making in life.

What would an example of one of those engagements be?

My approach to the study of experience was holistic. I was interested in sensory experiences, smell, hearing, touch, visions but also dreams as well as affective experience. The engagement with the spirit world can occur through any of those mediums. The project had a phenomenological and existential lens on, and I looked at the experience in both passive-active modes and pre-subjective, subjective and objective formats. This means a combination of perception, interpretation, decision, action, non-action emerging out of the competence to engage with the spirit world and ancestral beings. This lived experience recirculates back to the belief system, regulates people’s relationships with sacred sites and Country, and maintains the normative system, including observance and practice of the traditional law and customs.

I’m really interested with your thesis title where it says “the challenge of being spiritual in an uncertain Aboriginal world” so I wanted to ask you about the types of challenges brought about by the modern world and how these challenges impact on Indigenous people’s ability to negotiate their spiritual identity?

Well, modernity has brought additional layers of complexity to engaging with and navigating the Country from change of landscape to issues around access, development, use, not to forget the history of colonisation and its impact. Competing knowledge systems in the modern time is another challenge. My project was about the sophisticated relation between belief and knowledge systems and lived experience. How ambiguities are mediated and navigated particularly in bridging between the visible and invisible worlds, for example reading Country and what this may mean in the case of a mining activity taking place on Country.

There’s this conception of performance time that you mention in your research and how it is not based on the chronometric length of time, but rather it’s symbolic and is based on actions or events. This makes me think of the Dreaming time here in Australia and how that’s often described as non-chronological time and is based on various events which are captured in Dreamtime stories. So, I was interested to ask you whether Dreaming time as a concept, influenced the cultural performances that you observed during your PhD fieldwork?

The Dream time is an integral part of this research, particularly in terms of the immanent and never-ending presence of the creator and ancestral beings on sea and land countries. This means that there are always cultural protocols to observe, including decisions to make, certain acts to perform and others to avoid in engaging with the landscape.

In Bundjalung country, one of the main ancestral beings Dirrawong (goanna) creates the landscape through a series of actions and events and is now patrolling the shores, motionlessly watching for the snake’s possible return. Sitting in its eternal position, Dirrawong is watching the sea, and protecting people and the Country. This is not something to be timed; there is no end. What is fascinating to me is the liminality in its waiting-time is kind of suspended in the Dirrawong’s eternal position between the confrontation with the snake and waiting for the snake’s return. Always waiting, always present.

Yeah, that’s really interesting Mahnaz. So a little shout out to Myisha Cherry who posed an insightful question in a recent edition of New Philosopher magazine. The question was, would you rather have character or reputation? I was quite quick to jump to character but as I continued to read Myisha’s article I realised just how important reputation really is. It’s essentially how others come to perceive us from the performances we give in day-to-day life. Reputations do have currency in our world and learning more about your research I find myself really acknowledging how important human performance actually is. However, given that reputations of oneself are usually externally created, we sometimes don’t have a whole lot of control around how others perceive us and the character we truly believe we are. So I wanted to ask you Mahnaz, what are your thoughts are on the limitations of performance?

Let me phrase it like this, I think this is the complexity of inter-subjectivity than limitation of performance. Similar sets of actions may be perceived or interpreted differently in various circumstances or against different backgrounds. Performance is only a performance when it is observed; in the absence of observation, and observer, there is no performance. Back to those qualities you mentioned – character and reputation – I think focusing on them could be misleading, particularly with the contemporary fever of self-presentation in leadership and professionalism emerging out of the current celebrity culture. In my opinion, the focus should be diverted from observer and observed to the attributes and terms of engagement, like honesty, innovation, authenticity, and of course accountability and empathy.

Yeah, that’s an interesting point. So, I wanted to ask you, what impact do you think your research has had on the communities that you have worked with and what do you think people can learn from your research findings?

Well, if my research would inspire readers to look at the world differently or to, at least, consider alternative ways of engaging with the world, then this is the best result one can wish for. The research projects that I conducted and the communities that I worked with have made me the kind of anthropologist I am today. So, in that sense, my research was my journey and opportunity for ‘becoming’ and if whom I became can now meaningfully engage with the communities that I work with in the applied field, in pursuing justice and socio-cultural sustainability, then I may be able to call this impact.

This might follow into your response just now, but it’s question I like to ask fellow anthropologists is, what do you think anthropology has to offer the future of humanity?

Perhaps if I can frame the question as what anthropology can contribute to the study of the human condition, then I would say that the anthropology’s initiative in conducting ethnography, living in someone else’s world as a methodological enquiry, has been a valuable contribution to understanding our shared humanity. I think anthropology’s emphasis on being sensitive and attentive to details, and its pluralistic and holistic approach to put matters in perspective are important features of the discipline and have potentials to further contribute to the study of human condition.

Interested to learn more about Mahnaz’s research? Visit her academic portfolio and read her journal articles here.

To learn more about her consultancy, please visit PiiR (Professional Independent Indigenous Research)


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