The Singapore River has played a vital role in the settlement and early development of Singapore, long-serving as a gateway for the arrival of influences which has given Singapore its rich cultural diversity. While that role has since been minimised by the shift in the means by which people arrive to our shores as well as with the cutting-off of the river from the sea, it is nice to see that it still, as a venue, has a role to play in keeping the traditions that it previously played a role in bringing in, alive with an initiative ‘Regenerating Communities at Empress Place’. The initiative, conceived by The Old Parliament House Limited which runs The Arts House at Empress Place saw a three-instalment programme curated by Jeremiah Choy that featured performances of fading performing art-forms which were once common on our streets. This included a Chinese puppet theatre show and in its third and last instalment, a very rare Bangsawan performance by Singapore’s last exclusive Bangsawan troupe, Sri Anggerik Bangsawan at the ACM Green.
Bangsawan or Malay Opera, is an art form that has its origins in commercial 19th Century Parsi theatre, arriving first in Penang at the end of the 19th Century via travelling troupes coming from Bombay. The name ‘Bangsawan’ is a combination of two words, ‘bangsa’ which means ‘race’ or ‘a group of people’ in Malay, and ‘wan’ which is a reference to ‘stature’. Being performed purely for entertainment, Bangsawan was always an evolving form that adapted very much to the taste of the audiences it attracted and at the height of its popularity in the 1920s and 1930s, drew audiences which included those from the other races across society. The typical Bangsawan performance would include both dialogue and song and dance segments which incorporates influences across several cultures and involves very elaborate stage sets, make-up and costumes, making the performances a very colourful and musical experience.
The performance over two evenings over the weekend was of an excerpt from Dang Anum, the retelling of a touching tale which revolves around the unfortunate Dang Anum, the daughter of Sang Rajuna Tapa – a Minister in the court of Sultan Iskandar Shah (who ruled Singapore from 1399 to 1402). The performance was a special one for the troupe, Sri Anggerik Bangsawan, which traces its origins to 1986, when its founder, the late Haji Hamid Ahmad, formed it with the aim of preserving what was already then a vanishing art form. The performance of the excerpt represents a comeback for the troupe which took a two-year break due to Pak Haji Hamid’s(as he is affectionately known) illness and eventual passing last year. The performance, though brief, required much love and effort to put together, was one that the troupe dedicated as a tribute to their late founder.
On the evidence of the thoroughly enjoyable performance, it would be certainly be a wonderful experience to be able to see a full performance of Dang Anum, which the troupe has previously performed twice – once in the early 2000s and a second time as part of a larger performance in 2007. The troupe which does not have any immediate plans to stage a full performance, does hope to be in a position to put what must be an ambitious attempt at a large scale in one to two years. It one we are told that which will be very elaborate, featuring a Javanese epic tale that was written by Pak Haji Hamid, and one on which the troupe certainly would require support of various bodies and groups supporting the performing arts, as well as sponsors on.