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Press & Reviews

News Straits Times, Sunday September 10, 2006

Bangsawan: A mirror of our cultural past
By Himanshu Bhatt. Photos © Adrian Cheah

He may have had a heart operation and a kidney removed, but at 62, Mohd Bahroodin Ahmad is one of the oldest performers of bangsawan today. He is using his vast experience in this traditional theatre form to increase appreciation of our social heritage among modern folk, writes HIMANSHU BHATT.

An elegant Bahroodin in his element

THE audience consisting of locals and tourists fell into a hush as the elderly actor dressed in Nyonya garb ambled towards the performance area in the Penang Museum.

Slowly and elegantly, Mohd Bahroodin Ahmad, in the guise of a woman character from a century ago, began dramatising how she had lived then, and what her culture and environment were like. By the time his monologue ended, the audience was laughing at his gossip and clapping at the jingles he recited.

Adorned in a kebaya with brooches, necklaces and earrings, and with his hair immaculately done up, the veteran stage personality seems to have found a new calling.

With some 50 years of experience, Bahroodin now uses his skills and knowledge in the traditional art to fan appreciation of Malaysia’s heritage among modern folk.

"I am narrating history by acting it out," he says. "Not everyone will listen to a lecture for an hour. But if we inject a bit of entertainment, the young and old alike will enjoy it and pay attention."

Playing a range of multi-ethnic characters through various monologues, Bahroodin has started a unique programme where he makes the experiences of a person in history come alive for present-day audiences.

The Bibik Hitam project, mooted earlier this year with heritage activist Khoo Salma Nasution, has drawn interest from young and old alike.

Fondly known as Cikgu Baha, the 62-year-old had a heart bypass six years ago and a kidney removed in May. Despite that, he remains active in promoting his craft. "Whatever I know, I must share with people," he says.

Last year, he received the Penang Heritage Trust’s "Living Heritage Treasure" award from the late Datin Seri Endon Mahmood.

Bahroodin is one of few living practitioners of the highly stylised theatre who still stage bangsawan in its original form.

"The birthplace of bangsawan was Penang in the 19th century," he explains. "This theatre form developed its special disciplines that were unique. If we don’t perform them properly, the whole tradition may be lost."

Played on open streets or under giant canopies, in indoor theatres or halls, the family entertainment was introduced in north Malaya during the British colonial period.

Though its popularity peaked during the 1930s, its appeal waned during later decades, giving way to the radio, TV and cinema.

The audience engrossed in Bahroodin's performance.

"This genre of theatre has everything," Bahroodin says. "It has romance, intrigue, suspense, music and dance."

Bangsawan is distinctive in its stylised form of acting and unique use of language. It uses conventions such as having a different backdrop for each scene. There are glittering dances, swashbuckling stunts, music, songs and silat.

Interestingly, bangsawan was brought to this part of the world by Indian traders of Parsi descent, who had landed in Penang. Locals, therefore, called it wayang Parsi.

This form of theatre was also influenced by the old European Commedia dell’Arte, a comedy genre featuring stock characters.

When the Parsis left, some local businessmen kept the art alive by financing imitation shows known as wayang Parsi tiruan.

The genre was gradually adapted to local situations, resulting in the Malay opera known as bangsawan, which spread to other parts of the country. It is said to have even spread to Indonesia. In fact, it was in Singapore that Bahroodin first picked up bangsawan as a boy.

His father, a policeman, was stationed in Johor Baru in the 1950s, allowing him to visit his grandfather across the Causeway during the holidays.

"My grandfather had many neighbours who played bangsawan. One of them was a famous singer called A. Rahman. I used to watch them practise at our house. In the evenings, I would follow them to their shows."

From then, Bahroodin has been fascinated with theatre. His first acting stint was during his primary school days at Sultan Ismail College in Johor.

"I was in Standard Three and fond of watching senior students practise for their dramas," he remembers.

"I was once watching a rehearsal of A Midsummer Night’s Dream when the English headmaster came to me.

"He asked me to read a few lines from a script and was impressed with the way I delivered them that he told the director to give me a role. And my first ever role was as Puck!" By the time he was in secondary school, he was writing his own scripts.

Due to his father’s postings, Bahroodin spent his youth in Kelantan and Penang, where he got acquainted with different Malay dialects. Today, he gives talks on the various accents and speech peculiarities of the Malay tongue, some of which are extinct. He attributes this skill to his bangsawan exposure that allowed him to be flexible and open.

"My mother was against my becoming an actor. She thought drama performers did not get much money and that it was not a noble profession."

However, he entered the Language Institute of Kuala Lumpur where he was influenced by playwright Mustafa Kamal Yassin.

In 1965, Bahroodin produced his first play, the lyrical Si Bongkok Tanjung Puteri in Penang, and newspapers gushed that theatre had been reborn on the island.

Bahroodin soon joined the Universiti Sains Malaysia performing arts department where he remained an instructor for many years.

Today, Bahroodin, who is single, has a sizeable faithful following of actors and creative artistes who have become involved in his programmes, mostly sponsored by the government.

His last show, Puteri Saadung, was a sumptuous spectacle of romance, intrigue, suspense, music and dance, as befitting the bangsawan spirit of old.

"In the olden days, the bangsawan actors were very dedicated. When they went on stage, they became somebody else. It was so beautiful.

"Culture and arts are like a mirror of the people," he says. "I want to help youngsters appreciate our roots, our origins."

* Bahroodin will perform his next Bibik Hitam act at Dr Sun Yat Sen’s old house in 120 Armenian Street, George Town, on Sept 16 at 10am and 11.30am. For details, call 016-4553076



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Johnny Ronggeng

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