Straits Times, Sunday September 10, 2006
A mirror of our cultural past
Himanshu Bhatt. Photos © Adrian Cheah
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.
elegant Bahroodin in his element
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.
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.
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.
50 years of experience, Bahroodin now uses his skills and knowledge
in the traditional art to fan appreciation of Malaysias
heritage among modern folk.
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."
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.
Hitam project, mooted earlier this year with heritage activist
Khoo Salma Nasution, has drawn interest from young and old alike.
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.
he received the Penang Heritage Trusts "Living Heritage
Treasure" award from the late Datin Seri Endon Mahmood.
is one of few living practitioners of the highly stylised theatre
who still stage bangsawan in its original form.
birthplace of bangsawan was Penang in the 19th century,"
he explains. "This theatre form developed its special disciplines
that were unique. If we dont perform them properly, the
whole tradition may be lost."
open streets or under giant canopies, in indoor theatres or halls,
the family entertainment was introduced in north Malaya during
the British colonial period.
popularity peaked during the 1930s, its appeal waned during later
decades, giving way to the radio, TV and cinema.
audience engrossed in Bahroodin's performance.
genre of theatre has everything," Bahroodin says. "It
has romance, intrigue, suspense, music and dance."
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.
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.
of theatre was also influenced by the old European Commedia dellArte,
a comedy genre featuring stock characters.
Parsis left, some local businessmen kept the art alive by financing
imitation shows known as wayang Parsi tiruan.
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.
a policeman, was stationed in Johor Baru in the 1950s, allowing
him to visit his grandfather across the Causeway during the holidays.
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."
Bahroodin has been fascinated with theatre. His first acting stint
was during his primary school days at Sultan Ismail College in
in Standard Three and fond of watching senior students practise
for their dramas," he remembers.
once watching a rehearsal of A Midsummer Nights Dream when
the English headmaster came to me.
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
fathers 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
mother was against my becoming an actor. She thought drama performers
did not get much money and that it was not a noble profession."
he entered the Language Institute of Kuala Lumpur where he was
influenced by playwright Mustafa Kamal Yassin.
Bahroodin produced his first play, the lyrical Si Bongkok Tanjung
Puteri in Penang, and newspapers gushed that theatre had been
reborn on the island.
soon joined the Universiti Sains Malaysia performing arts department
where he remained an instructor for many years.
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.
show, Puteri Saadung, was a sumptuous spectacle of romance, intrigue,
suspense, music and dance, as befitting the bangsawan spirit of
the olden days, the bangsawan actors were very dedicated. When
they went on stage, they became somebody else. It was so beautiful.
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
Sens old house in 120 Armenian Street, George Town, on Sept
16 at 10am and 11.30am. For details, call 016-4553076