Baba Karam is a cultural character dance popular at celebrations, portraying a specific group of men in Iran in the 19th and 20th centuries. This group consisted of undereducated, urban rough and tumble types who lived by a code of honor. They prized self-sufficiency and claimed a disinterest in material possessions. They were to be truthful, generous, wise, and helpful — protecting the poor and weak in their towns. However, they were also utilized by political leaders for their fighting skills, local connections, and ability to mobilize the community.
A strong group mentality was clear in their appearance, actions, and language. Originally, they wore and carried special items as symbols of identity and for practicality, including a chain, a brass bowl, a large silk handkerchief, a knife, a felt hat, a long coat, and woven cotton shoes. Men tried to make a name for themselves by showing off with daring and masculine actions. Pastimes included wrestling at the zurkhaneh (literally "strength / power house"), trials of endurance, such as eating or swimming, and games that were not accepted by the general population, such as ram fighting. They also visited disreputable cafes where they gambled, drank alcohol, and enjoyed somewhat racy entertainment like the singer Mahvash. Their language was customized with special expressions and by replacing vowels and consonants in known words. While this subculture was considered low class, they were usually economically middle class food merchants. In the early part of the 20th century, a sort of "tough guy" film genre emerged depicting the idealized version of this man — a tough but kind man in a fedora and Western-style suit who beat up the bad guys and fell in love with a less than wholesome woman.
These men are referred to as jahel, which literally means "ignorant" and is a slightly disparaging word to use. Other terms include luti and kola makhmali, which means "(one who wears a) velvet hat". For detailed historical information on luti culture and their role in the politics of Iran, read Modern Iran: the Dialectics of Continuity and Change.
Song & Dance
The song "Baba Karam" was popular with this group. It dates back to the Qajar dynasty (1794 to 1925) and was first sung by the famous Iranian singer and musician Hossein Hamedanian around 1920, and later revived by the equally famous Iranian singer Vigen Derderian. It now belongs to a genre of Iranian music called koocheh bazaari (streets of the bazaar) or roo hozi, which literally means "on top of the pool / fountain". This refers to boards placed over the decorative pool / fountain in the yard (a standard feature in most Iranian homes) to create a stage for local musicians to play folksy songs like this one.
There are several interpretations of this song. Some say Baba Karam was a jahel (Daddy Karam) who was beloved by the children he was kind to. Others say he was the gardener for a prince and fell in love with the prince's wife. When she left the country, he died of heartbreak. Still others say that the song isn't about a man at all — baba is the Farsi word for dad, but it can also be used as an intensifier. For example, if someone says "baba, stop it", you know they really mean it. Karam refers to qualities of altruism, generosity, helpfulness, kindness, and compassion. Therefore, the phrase baba karam can translate to "please, (show me some) kindness". Whatever the interpretation of the backstory may be, the lyrics are an expression of deep love for a woman.
Today, there are many songs titled "Baba Karam" with different lyrics, but with a similar feeling — many of which can be used for this dance. The original song was the first to be danced to in what became the Baba Karam style. Whether the style evolved from the actual dancing of the jahels or was created by an outsider as a caricature is yet to be confirmed, but it was made popular by the "tough guy" film genre that depicted these men. This style can also be performed to other koocheh bazari / roo hozi songs. It is done with a fedora and neckerchief, and may include posturing movements to emulate the showing off of strength and masculinity. In recent years, women dancing Baba Karam have made their movements more feminine and sexy. However, a great example of a woman performing traditional Baba Karam is Jamileh, a famous Iranian dancer.
Below are a few video examples of Baba Karam. The first is by the renowned Iranian dancer Mohamad Khordadian, and includes balancing glasses of liquor. You can see the more feminine stylization by his dancers. The second clip is a traditional version by Jamileh. The third is a great clip of men dancing at a party. They don't even need fedoras to make it clear they are dancing this style!
While watching videos can be incredibly helpful in learning a dance, it's also important to find an instructor. Ask around for dancers who teach Baba Karam in your area. Lida can provide suggestions for the San Jose / San Francisco Bay Area in California.
- Akrami, Jamsheed. "Cinema ii. Feature Films." Encyclopaedia Iranica. Columbia University, 20 October 2011.
- Bandeh, Helia. Dancer. Personal interview. 11 August 2016.
- Bekhrad, Joobin. Founder & editor of REORIENT. Personal interview. 28 July 2016.
- Bonine, Michael E. and Nikkie Keddie. Modern Iran: The Dialectics of Continuity and Change. New York: State University of New York Press, 1981.
- Floor, Willem. "Luti." Encyclopaedia Iranica. Columbia University, 15 March 2010.
- Iranian woman (anonymous). Personal interview. 14 July 2016.
- Naficy, Hamid. A Social History of Iranian Cinema, Volume 2: The Industrializing Years, 1941–1978. Durham and London: Duke University Press Books, 2011.
- Partovi, Homa. Founder of Persian Mama. Personal interview. 27 July 2016.
Other Sources with Details on Jahel / Luti
The History of Theater in Iran by Willem Floor
Social Movements in Twentieth-Century Iran by Stephen C. Poulson
Considering the Iranian Paradox by Hooman Majd