Friday, January 2, 2009

Penang Heritage: The Case for Bangsawan

Now that Georgetown is a UNESCO World Heritage Site there is all the more reason to seriously reflect upon those elements that make it so. There are so many things, the obvious and the not so, that one can associate, in the case of Penang, with the word “heritage”; there are so many perceptions of what heritage might be that it is not even necessary to make a list here. So many lists already exist.

Even when one confines oneself to the performing arts, the list is still fairly impressive: Chinese opera, Chinese puppet theatre (por tay hee), bangsawan, borea, various forms of Indian dances, many kinds of music, and so on. One can, of course, see them in terms of various communities, although that would not always be the most desirable way: one should, for many a good reason, move away from such categorization, such thinking in boxes. When it comes, especially, to the single most important item of Penang’s traditional theatre, bangsawan, one can see that it would not be appropriate to view it in this manner. This is because although, in terms of boxed thinking, one automatically labels bangsawan and borea as “Malay” they are, in fact, not Malay but eclectic in character. This is particularly the case with bangsawan.

The history of bangsawan, sketchy and incomplete as it is, has already been traced many a time, beginning from visiting Parsee theatre performers from Bombay (currently renamed Mumbai) to Penang, shifting through "imitation" Parsee theatre (wayang Parsee tiruan) into bangsawan proper, and eventually spreading far and wide beyond Penang’s sandy shores into many a neighbouring land. Almost every community in Georgetown had a hand in its development. Again, having attained the ‘final” stage of evolution into bangsawan, the product of several decades from the late nineteenth century into the mid-twentieth, it moved on, in more recent times, particularly after independence, to assume a position as a racially-orientated and politicized bangsawan through a radically controlled creation of its dramatic repertoire.

Thus it came to take the place, at least in certain minds, in the absence of any other, as a form of urban Malay theatre. Many defined it as “classic” (a much-abused and misunderstood term in this country) Malay theatre, supposedly representing all the best in that culture, with a strong bent towards court traditions through the settings, contents and themes of scenarios. At any rate, bangsawan, through this process of natural as well as manipulated transformation, filled a serious vacuum in Malay consciousness as well as in Malayan (later Malaysian) urban culture.

The battle between Malay and non-Malay ownership of bangsawan, continues. One should not, in this process of asserting ownership, forget the spread of this form of theatre into Singapore, and parts of Indonesia where, too, there certainly are claimants for its slightly or more-than-slightly variant offspring. In short, one has to deal with many a bangsawan, stambul, dardanella, and what have you, depending on how far one travels from its Malaysian base. In variant forms it even found a place further north in Thailand and possibly Cambodia.

At the back of all this “history” and behind all this debate, stands one solid, undeniable truth: that it all began in good old Pulau Pinang. And that is the best possible reason why Penang, and more particularly, Georgetown should reclaim bangsawan, bring it back, give it a special position in this now UNESCO World Heritage Site.

During the first Pesta Pulau Pinang, I personally made an attempt to revive bangsawan, to bring it back out of near-oblivion for performances at the Old City Hall on the Esplanade, with performances by the Bangsawan Sri Timur troupe headed by the late Pak Alias and Mak Minah of Kampung Makam. Then, in 1978, I managed to persuade Universiti Sains Malaysia’s School of Humanities to offer a course in bangsawan with these two veteran artists as teachers of bangsawan practice; the course ran for several years with a production or two each year, before running into problems. Whether or not courses in traditional theatre, including the Kelantan shadow play (wayang kulit Siam), which I also introduced into the curriculum of the School of Humanities in 1977, flourished depended not upon the intrinsic importance of the art forms, not even upon their popularity or otherwise among students, but upon the whims and fancies of Deans, Deputy Vice-Chancellors and Vice-Chancellors. Lack of funding was one of the perennial excuses offered for not supporting such courses. There were many others, at times verging on the irrational or surreal. Today, three decades later and in several universities in the country, the selfsame excuses continue to be proffered.

The major achievement of the courses in traditional theatre in the early days of Universiti Sains Malaysia’s performing arts programme, the country’s first and only one at that time, was the timely research, documentation and resultant publications. If nothing else, these will stand as eloquent testimony to the importance of traditional theatre in Malaysian society, even though particular arts forms have died out and others may, in time, follow them into nothingness.

Bangsawan is still languishing in Penang although, undeniably, occasional performances do take place. Elsewhere, the situation is no different, with just a couple of veteran performers still active in Kuala Lumpur; but that is not the immediate concern here in this entry or even in Penang. One does not need any more reasons for this state of affairs. It is about time that something concrete was done. This needs no less than a concerted effort to revive bangsawan, to make it available, through quality performances, to the general public as well as to visitors on a regular basis. Bangsawan deserves a place in programmes connected with Georgetown’s Heritage City status, in addition, let us be reminded, to other expressions of the human spirit through the arts, tangible and intangible..

What needs to be done is simple enough. First must come the firm resolve to make bangsawan live again in Penang. Next, the provision of enough funding to sustain one or more permanent companies—say sixty people in all, beginning from basic training. These would include actors, musicians, dancers and the whole gamut of technical people from costume- to set-designers. They don’t all have to be full-timers. Third, the provision of space for regular performances, which, for a start, can be scheduled once a month for two or three days. And finally, some kind of mechanism to ensure that the whole scheme does not collapse after a performance or two, as has often happened in the past, not only with bangsawan, but, elsewhere in the country, with mak yong, wayang kulit and what have you. That’s all.

And of course, where’s the money going to come from? That perennial question again; this time, hopefully, without the perennial answer, given the very special circumstances.

Over to you bangsawan enthusiasts, be you Melayu, Cina, India, Baba, Mamak, Peranakan, Serani, Lain-lain, or simply Malaysian . . . you who would so passionately claim bangsawan as your own through your forefathers. Over to you, Penang State and City Fathers of Heritage City Georgetown. Over to you, Corporate types, whosoever or wheresover you may be.

Surely it would not be impossible, for a start, to raise a million or two, for such a vital cause-- even in these gawat times!

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