Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Pluralism and Bangsawan: Let us Learn From Our Past

Pluralism and bangsawan: Let Us Learn From Our Past

Discourses of Bangsa Malaysia in the last decade have instilled hope for the creation of a more inclusive notion of Malaysian nationhood. Nevertheless, ethnicism still persists in Malaysian politics and the daily lives of the people. As we search for a common Malaysian culture that can bring different races together, there is much to learn from bangsawan performers of the past.

These artists played important roles in promoting intercultural mixing and created a form of theatre that was not restricted to ethnicity or class. They were open to diversity and innovation.

Bangsawan was the first popular urban commercial theatre in Malaya. It is believed that the Parsi troupes from Bombay which traveled widely in Southeast Asia provided the model for the development of bangsawan in the 1880s. Known also as Malay opera, bangsawan engendered the first popular music and dance orchestra in the country.

Bangsawan gained popularity across a wide spectrum of society which derived from various ethnic and class backgrounds in the early 20th century.

Troupes performed in the towns and villages of Malaya, Sumatera, Java and Borneo. By the 1920s and 1930s, bangsawan had become so popular that its "culture" was widespread. In particular, songs performed in bangsawan became the "hits" of the day and formed the basis of new popular music which were performed live at dance halls in amusement parks, and recorded by gramophone companies.

To cater to as wide an audience as possible, stories of different nationalities, ethnic origins, and adaptations of literary classics from Europe, America, Asia and the Middle East were performed in bangsawan. Some of the popular stories included Laksamana Bentan, Sam Pek Eng Tai, Puteri Bakawali, Hamlet and Laila Majnun.

Bangsawan attracted multiethnic participation at all levels. Proprietors (or towkays) of opera troupes included Chinese, Malays and Indians.

Tan Tjeng Bok (a well-known Chinese actor from Java) and Sheikh Omar (an Arab singer) were said to have joined the Moonlight Opera of Penang and captivated audiences with their singing (Straits Echo, May 1, 1933). Minah Alias, the late bangsawan prima donna who recorded more than 30 songs for the HMV label in the 1930s, was of Javanese and European parentage.

The late Alfonso Soliano was a famous Filipino pianist and bangsawan band leader.

The bangsawan performers had to diversify their interests and familiarise themselves with the dances and songs of various cultures. They studied Malay, Western, Chinese, Hindustani and Arabic songs, silat Melayu and kuntau (Chinese art of self-defence using sticks) from one another.

Minah Alias recalled studying Javanese dance with the famous Miss Riboet when she was sent to Java at an early age. "After I became an actress, I studied kuntau from a Chinese opera actress and in return, I taught silat to her," said Minah Alias.

Menah Yem, known to her admirers as the "Queen of Dance", learnt the latest vaudeville dances from American movies.

Living together, learning elements of one another's culture, and the exposure to diverse cultures contributed directly and significantly to cultural and musical interaction, absorption and synthesis.

The evidence for this is to be found in the content of the theatrical performances as well as the musical compositions which emphasised eclecticism, syncretism and adaptability. The performers brought both a Malayan and a global resonance to bangsawan in the early 20th century.

Put another way, bangsawan captured the local spirit of organic hybridity. By crossing their own stylistic and ethnic boundaries, the bangsawan performers developed perspectives that were more inclusive.

All this is rather different from today's construction of national identity by officialdom which prioritises Malay-Islamic cultural elements. Attempts at combining the "Malaysia, Truly Asia" style have resulted in colourful spectacles which artificially juxtapose stereotypical elements of various cultures. These extravaganzas might show tourists that diversity is harmoniously integrated but they have a neutralising effect of rendering conflict and difference inconsequential.

Source: Tan Sooi Beng, The Sun, Wednesday, August 8, 2007
How to Become Professional Blogger

No.1 movie download site wordwide


No comments: