From Persia to Penang: Boria Bops On


Musical, colourful, absolutely contagious and unsurprisingly rich in history, the boria thrives on in the twenty-first century.

In the age of the smartphone, where conversation is replaced with status updates and Snapchat posts, oral traditions and expressions are becoming a thing of the past.

But it’s not all too late. Thankfully, there are efforts being made by an impassioned few to preserve such traditions. In conjunction with the ninth anniversary celebrations (held July 7-9) of George Town’s inscription as a World Heritage Site by Unesco, George Town World Heritage Incorporated (GTWHI) chose “Oral Traditions and Expressions” as 2017’s celebration theme.

Boria is thrown a Lifeline

In order to pique public interest in boria, one of the oldest forms of Malay musical theatre, Mai Main Boria (“Let’s Play Boria”) performance and forum was held on July 8 as a collaborative project between GTWHI and Arts-Ed, a community-based organisation that educates the younger generation through arts projects. People from a number of districts in and around Penang such as Kampung Manggis, Titi Papan, Jalan Hatin and Sungai Pinang used to converge in the city centre to watch this performance.1

Falling under the Cultural Heritage Education Programme (CHEP), Mai Main Boria consisted of two events: Sembang Boria, a forum that discussed boria and its related issues with experts and practitioners; and a performance by the local boria troupe.

The Sembang Boria forum had as discussants local expert Dr Toh Lai Chee and four boria practitioners: Syed Bashir Gulam from Boria Klasik Mutiara; Omar Md Hashim, a recipient of Tokoh Seni Budaya Pulau Pinang 2016 and also a founder of Boria Omara; Nur Syafiqa, a dance teacher and choreographer for Boria Omara; and Muhammad Qayyum, one of the youngest boria practitioners around.

Remember the jokes your friends made when your parents bought you and your siblings the same T-shirt to wear? It went along the lines of “Why are you wearing the same thing? Boriaaaa…!”

But what else do we know about boria?

Most people understand it as one of the oldest forms of musical theatre that is synonymous with Penang; in fact, it is found only in the state. It consists of a short play performed by two or more actors which ends with a song and dance routine.

There are three main roles in boria: the actors perform in the comic sketch while the song and dance routine is led by a Tukang Karang (the captain of the ship) and his kelasi (sailors). A sketch with dialogue and jokes is first on the menu; experienced actors are able to act spontaneously while some may prepare their scripts first. Usually, the conversation between the actors is about social issues that have moral implications, or it could be as casual as promoting their own culture.

With a baton in hand, the Tukang Karang is the one who will deliver most of the verses, staying in the foreground and leading the performance. The verses contain quite a few stanzas, and are therefore often memorised.

The bulk of a boria troupe is made up of the kelasi, or sailors. After the Tukang Karang sings the chorus, the kelasi will sing and dance to the same refrain. While dressed in brightly coloured uniformed costumes, some of the kelasi will wave decorative props common to Malay culture such as the bunga manggar, umbrellas and flags, making the performance cheerful and bright.

(From left) Muhammad Qayyum, Nur Syafiqa, Omar Md Hashim, Syed Bashir Gulam and Dr Toh Lai Chee during the Sembang Boria forum.

The Boria Connection

True to the cosmopolitan nature of Penang, boria is a product of cultural assimilation.

Its existence can be traced back to Persia: the word “boria” is of Persian origin and denotes a kind of receptacle for holding incense and a candle.2 The word could also have originated from the word buris, a group of people of Indian ethnicity from the 21st Regiment of Madras. This group enacted some song and dance routine during the night-time as a form of entertainment.

Boria of the nineteenth century was completely different from the boria we see nowadays; it was a sacred ritual heavily imbued with religious connotation. A mournful play, boria was known as taziya and was performed to commemorate the martyrdom of Hussain, second son of Ali, Islam's fourth caliph, from the first to the tenth day of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar. Taziya was enacted by Shiite Muslim communities in Iran and northern India, and it was gory in nature to evoke violent emotions from the spectators.3

In the nineteenth century, Indian-Muslim Shiite soldiers of the 21st Regiment of Madras brought taziya to Penang – in 1845, to be exact. Far from its origins, taziya performances evolved and lost its religious significance due to the disparity between local Sunni Malay communities and the Shiite branch.4

In its early days, boria was performed night and day; the day performance was known as Koli Kallen (Fowl Thieves Performance), and boria troupes would travel and visit wealthy houses to perform and ask for donations. The performers wore masks, smeared their faces with charcoal and cross-dressed; perhaps because of this, there were no roles for women at the time.5

Then, because it was performed during Muharram, the performance became known as “Boria Muharram”. The troupe would travel from house to house from 8pm until daybreak. “We didn’t have a stage like what you see nowadays. We walked and performed on the roads,” recounts Omar.

What made Boria Muharram special is that most of the performances used to end up in “fights” – mostly through pantun and rhymed verses exchanged between the boria troupes. However, there was real fighting sometimes: some troupe members were involved in the feud between the Red Flag and White Flag secret societies, which came to a head in 1867; the feud went on for years, and a general meeting was held only in 1929 to put an end to it. One important decision made during that meeting was that there should be no performance during Muharram, as the month should be spent in remembering the martyrdom of Hussain and the family of Prophet Muhammad.6

As time went by, boria performances became an instrumental tool for uniting people from various backgrounds. During the Japanese Occupation (1942-1945), even though the Japanese used it as a propaganda tool, the locals performed it to instil a spirit of patriotism.

Boria Today

Most of the boria practitioners at the Sembang Boria forum, such as Gulam, Omar and Nur Syafiqa, were exposed to boria from their early days, be it through their family backgrounds, their friends or school activities. For example, Gulam, 68, started performing boria when he was 15 years old, while Omar first got into boria was when he was tasked with conducting a school performance by his teacher. After the performance received high praise from his teacher, Omar carried on performing boria, till this day.

Art must adapt, if it is to attract younger audiences. Nur Syafiqa, who is a dance choreographer for Boria Omara, tries to influence the next generation by introducing modern dance steps that are familiar to them, making boria more fun to learn and watch.

Not only can the choreography be modernised; so can the verses. According to Muhammad Qayyum, the Boria Omara troupe uses their lyrics to pay homage to P. Ramlee’s artistry in making films that are not only enjoyable, but also have strong moral messages.

And while it’s all good and creative to modernise the dance and verse, at the same time, it is important to keep the soul of boria. The Boria Klasik Mutiara troupe, formed in 2011 by the National Department for Culture and Arts, comprises veteran boria performers. “I hope the elders can provide a good example to the young ones when it comes to preserving boria,” says Gulam.

Mohd Sazni is an irregular flâneur. He likes to read and watch movies. Currently he can be found in a local university in Penang doing film studies.

Thanks to such enthusiasts, it is safe to say that this cultural performance so unique to Penang is thriving, and will continue to do so for generations to come.

1 Abdul Manan, Shakila. “Boria: Penang's Unique Malay-Islamic Cultural Heritage.” KEMANUSIAAN, Volume 23, Supp. 2, 2016, pp. 25–47.
2 Abdul Manan, Shakila. “Boria: Penang's Unique Malay-Islamic Cultural Heritage.” KEMANUSIAAN, Volume 23, Supp. 2, 2016, pp. 25–47.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 Abdul Manan, Shakila. “Boria: Penang's Unique Malay-Islamic Cultural Heritage.” KEMANUSIAAN, Volume 23, Supp. 2, 2016, pp. 25–47.
6 Ibid.

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