Cultural Background: Attempt at a Definition of “Indian” Culture
For all intents and purposes the terms “India” and “Indian” have always remained vague and undefined. Since the days of the early settlements along the Indus Valley, various transient dynasties, kingdoms and empires have exited in various parts of the subcontinent, and various tracts of land have received different names including Sapta Sindhva, Arya-varsha, Bharata-varsha or Bharat, Hindustan and Mughalstan. Particular names for many northern states (mahajana), kingdoms or centers of power such as Magadha, Kaushambi, Kasi, Kosala, Vriji and yet others, as well as dynasties appear in the Mahabharata, literary and religious works, and the historical record. Equivalent sources provide equally transient names for the Southern regions of the peninsula. The Pallava, Chera, Chola and Pandya played significant, often dominant roles in historical times. During British rule, the term “India” came into regular use to define again, not the whole of the peninsula, but a certain portion of it, and it was not until the creation of Pakistan and India respectively on the 14th and 15th of August 1947 that India as a political entity was finally defined with a degree of precision.
For the greater part of the past two millennia then, “India” was neither a nation nor a cultural unit. It was merely an idea, oftentimes coloured with romantic or religious associations. Today, the term “Indian” continues to be so, unless it is seen in terms of a nationality rather than cultural identity.
In the light of these observations, it is perhaps more meaningful to speak of “Indian” culture first in terms of the various races (Punjabi, Gujerati, Tamil, Malayalee, Bengali and so on) inhabiting South Asia, each traditionally a virtual “nation” in itself; and secondly in terms of the religions-Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism. A sensible and sensitive combination of these two approaches might serve us well in our present task. As far as Southeast Asia is concerned, a great deal has been concealed rather than revealed by the general term “Indianization”.
Early Cultural Influences in the Malay Peninsula
The history of Southeast Asia may be divided into two general phases. The first, beginning in the first and second centuries and ending in the 16th, saw the introduction of Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam as well as the establishment of the earliest known kingdoms in the region. Hindu-Buddhist influences reached the Malay Peninsula through the Pallava (th-8th centuries) and Chola empires on the one hand and Southeast Asia’s homegrown empires, Srivijaya and Majapahit, on the other. Islam spread through the peninsula following the conversion of Malacca in the 15th century while Thai Buddhist influence remains important in the northern Malay states. The second phase (18th and 19th centuries) saw the arrival of Western colonial powers, (with the exception of the Philippines, where Magellan landed in the mid-16th century), as well as new waves of immigrants, principally from South and East Asia and the introduction of their cultures.
Pallava influences were felt on the Malay Peninsula from about the 7th century. Pallava remains have been excavated at various points in the Malay Peninsula, particularly in Kedah and Perak. Two discoveries of early inscriptions in Seberang Perai connect this region with peninsular India. They are a set of seven stone inscriptions in Sanskrit found at Cherok Tekun, and dating not later than the 4th century, and an inscription of about 400 A.D. representing a stupa design and recording the successful voyage of a sea captain, Buddha Gupta.
According to most views the Buddhist Srivijaya empire had its origins in Sumatra, with its capital on Bukit Seguntang, the legendary homeland of Malay royalty, supposedly descendants of Alexander the Great. By the year 775 Srivijaya managed to conquer Kedah, and a second wave of influence came after the Sailendra dynasty took control of Srivijaya in the 9th century, this time its domination lasting six centuries. Srivijayan relics have been found in both Kedah and Perak.
An ancient dynasty, the Chola rose to power a second time in the 9th and 10th centuries, when under Rajaraja I (reigned 985-1014), they began to exert their influence, reaching their zenith of power under his son, Rajendra I (1014-1042), and spreading its influence far and wide in the Bay of Bengal. Kedah, then a dependency of Sri Vijaya, became an important port of call for Chola-Mandala (Coromandel). In 1025 and 1068, however, Chola expeditions against Srivijaya resulted in the conquest of Langkasuka and Kedah, ending Sri Vijaya influence in Southeast Asia.
Thai influence in the border areas between peninsular Malaysia and Thailand began to be felt during the reign of Rama Kamhaeng. In 1292 Ligor was captured and the Thais overran the Malay peninsula. During the coming centuries the Thais continued to dominate the states on the peninsula. Thai influence was important as one of the channels for the transmission of Buddhism as well as some of the art forms inspired by Buddhism into Penang and Kedah in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Evidence of Early Cultural Contacts
Kedah played in important role in the maritime trade of the early centuries, during which time Penang was historically and culturally an integral part of Kedah. The most important early evidence comes from Bujang Valley. Existing ruins of temples, sanctuaries, stupas and forts give clear evidence of the introduction of Hinduism and Buddhism into the region. Archaeological evidence comes in the form have a 4th century inscription, as well as a 5th century slab in the estuary of the Muda River, both in Pallava script. Archaeological evidence from Seberang Perai has already been cited.
The island of Java was subject to Hindu influences from the early centuries of the Christian era. The Nagaratagama, a long poem by the court poet Prapanca, gives ample evidence for the rise of the powerful Hindu-Javanese Majapahit Empire of the 14th century. No strong material evidence is available for Hindu-Javanese influence upon Kedah except for a bronze Ganesha with Tamil inscriptions. Strong cultural evidence is, however very evident, in particular in the northern region of the Malay Peninsula. The shadow play derives its dramatic repertoire from the Hindu epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, and at least some of the dance vocabulary can be traced to Bharata Muni’s Natyasastra.
Overall, Hinduism and to some extent Buddhism replaced, but not entirely, the ancient animism, reshaping the Malay worldview and way of life. In particular, Hindu mythology and rituals, including those connected with magic and Tantric practices, have left an indelible mark upon certain aspects of traditional Malay culture including customary codes of behaviour (adat), marriage and enthronement ceremonies, ceremonies connected with birth and puberty, healing rituals and shamanism, as well as in the performing arts.
Possible References to Indians in Penang Prior to its Acquisition by the British
There already exists some evidence to confirm the fact that small communities of Malays lived in Penang at various places prior to the arrival of Francis Light. Of interest in this connection are the accounts of Forrest, who visited the island in 1763-4, Macalister and Purcell. One particular bit of information that remains intriguing concerns a shrine known as Keramat Tuah in Datuk Keramat, which was reputedly already in existence prior to 1786. This grave belongs to someone known as Sangli Peerappa, and also as another name given in all probability to the same person is Fakir Melana, who likely was a Malabari.
The “Founding” of Penang and South Asian Arrivals
Francis Light had already encountered traders from the Indian subcontinent in Phuket and in Kedah, where a substantial numbers of Indians, shopkeepers or coolies, from the Coromandel Coast were settled. The Chulia receive mention several times in Light’s diaries and correspondence, the “King’s merchant” himself being described as “a deaf, cunning, villainous Chulia.” The Chulias were, in fact, amongst the earliest of South Asians to arrive in Penang. One Alauddin bin Meerah Hussein Lebai is mentioned as the founder of the Ariffin mosque and Mesjid Kongsi. He is said to have arrived in Penang with Light himself. The dates for the founding of Kapitan Keling and several others mosques and shrines (keramat) on Penang island indicate a significant presence of Muslims from the subcontinent including those from the northern provinces during the first several decades following the establishment of the trading post.
The East India Company brought in labourers from Southern India to develop the new colony. Others came in as traders, and apparently by the end of the 18th century the number of “Indians” in Penang had exceeded 1000. The fact that by the year 1833, the Mariamman Temple in Queen Street had already been founded, gives clear indication of the presence of a reasonable number of Tamil Hindus in Penang.
In addition to these, there is a reference to the fact that following the decision by the East India Company to acquire Penang, plans were made to organize a force of 100 native “new raised marines” and 30 lascars to be sent from Bengal to Penang. The reference here is thus likely to be to Punjabis or Pathans, who were generally recruited into the armed forces.
The available date for the establishment of the Bengali mosque in Leith Street is 1803. Even if this date is only approximate, it can be taken as an indicator of their early arrival in Penang. The term “Bengali” has never been precisely defined, and it can be assumed that those connected with the mosque were Muslims from various states on the north of the Indian subcontinent, and from territories currently included in Pakistan. There is a reference to sepoys guarding the northern boundary of Province Wellesley in 1821, and the continued presence of sepoy regiments at least into the late 19th century is confirmed by the fact that troupes of entertainers visited Penang to entertain them, performing Parsee Theatre, which is discussed further on in this paper.
There is more definite confirmation regarding the arrival of the Sikhs, as two men, Maharaj Singh and Kharak Singh, are known to have been exiled to the Straits Settlements in the 1840’s for their part in the Anglo-Sikh Wars. The big impetus for the Sikh population in Malaya came with the beginning of tension in the Larut District of Perak.
In 1872 Captain Speedy, the Superintendent of Police in Penang, resigned his post to serve the “Mantri” of Larut, in Perak, who was troubled by the ongoing fighting between the Ghee Hin and Hai San for control of the rich tin land. Speedy recruited 110 sepoys from the Punjab regiments–Hindus, Sikhs and Pathans–to serve in what eventually came to be known as the Malay States Guides. At least one company of this force was posted in Penang. Following the First World War, during which the Malay States Guides saw action in Aden, the force was disbanded in 1919. Most of the soldiers went back to their native provinces. A number of these sepoys as well as others, however, later returned to serve in the police, and from these are derived many of Malaysia’s Pathan and Punjabi families.
The majority of northern Indians, however, came to the Federated Malay States and the Straits Settlements in the 1930’s and in the following decades, attracted by the opportunities to do business or to obtain employment. The newcomers included Tamils, Malayalees, Punjabis, Pathans, Sindhis, Gujeratis, Marathis, Bengalis, Biharis, Oriya, people from the Uttar Pradesh, and possibly others. In the following decades they we joined by Iranian Muslims, Parsees, Nepali Hindus, Afghans, and even in recent times Kashmiris and Rohingyas. In some instances these newcomers built up substantial businesses in the major towns and cities, including Penang. To a limited extent such immigration, particularly through marriage between Malaysian men and women from the subcontinent, continues up to the present.
The Cultural Impact
In the absence of an overall “Indian” cultural tradition, whatever influences have been felt upon the Malay peninsula and upon Penang in particular have come from individual communities, or for convenience of understanding, to see them as coming from the “north Indians” or “south Indians”-rather broad terms. It may be worthwhile keeping in mind the fact that the influences have come about (a) through the agency of the religion of Islam, and (b) through secular channels, such as selected forms of artistic expression. Obviously where religion is concerned the impact of non-Muslims takes on an altogether different character due to specific problems of social integration.
The Jawi Peranakan
One of the greatest manifestations of the fusion of the culture of the Indian peninsula and local Malays, has been the birth of the Jawi Peranakan community–a community of mixed Tamil (or Malayalee) Muslims and Malays–that has played an important role in Malaysia’ s economic, social and political life. In this case it was not a mere borrowing, but a total fusion between the heritage of Tamil and Malayalee Muslims and that of the indigenous Malays. The Jawi Peranakan have evolved their own cultural traditions including a unique dialect and even a manner of speaking, later popularized by P. Ramlee. Even Tamil Muslims who have not assimilated with the Malays have adopted some of the practices of the Jawi Peranakan. This is one of Penang’s most interesting subcultures.
To a lesser extent mixed marriages between Malay women and members of north Indian communities–Punjabi, Pathan, and Bengali-also took place and they continue to take place with increasing acceptance of inter-racial marriages. Furthermore there is a slight variant in that women from these communities, particularly from the Punjabi community, are beginning to marry into Malay, Tamil or Jawi Peranakan families. The progeny of such mixed marriages may be found in Penang alongside the original Jawi Peranakan who increasingly has now returned to calling themselves “Malays” except where “clan pride” restores a strong desire to belong, in particular, to the Mericans.
Inter-racial marriages between the principal religious groups from the subcontinent–Hindus, Christians and Sikhs–and members of the Chinese community also exist, as do marriages between members of these communities and Eurasians, or members of communities from Sabah and Sarawak may also be encountered. This has considerable ramifications for Penang’s culture.
Islam was practiced by the small number of villagers living on the island before the arrival of the British, and undoubtedly in Seberang Perai, as a part of Kedah populated by Malays. No early evidence has been found to establish the situation in Seberang Perai, with regard to Islam. On the island, mosques were built by communities of migrants from the Indonesian islands, from the Kedah mainland, and by Muslims from the Indian peninsula. The most prominent of these is Mesjid Kapitan Keling, although several mosques outside the city limits, particularly the old mosque in Batu Uban deserve mention. Mesjid Kapitan Keling, Penang’s most impressive, stands on an older one, established in the early 19th century, reputedly by an unidentified Pathan. Mesjid Kapitan Keling built by Kadir Mohideen, the Kapitan Keling, and subsequently several times over the past two centuries, remains Penang’s most visible symbol of South Asian Islam, manifesting in its architecture, the style of that region. Together with the surrounding development along Jalan Kapitan Keling, and Jalan Buckingham, it creates the sort of traditional ambience encountered in a similar settings wherever large populations of South Asian Muslims may be found, be it old Delhi, Lahore, Singapore or Rangoon.
Other mosques built by South Asian Muslims include the previously mentioned Bengali Mesjid (1803), the Alimsah Mesjid on Chulia Street, (1811), the Prangin Road mosque, the Pahang Road mosque, the Rawana Mosque, the Hashim Yahya Mosque, and the Pakistan mosque on Jalan MacAlister, originally known as the Pathan mosque. In Mesjid Kapitan Keling, Mesjid Pakistan and Mesjid Bengali sermons (khutbah) and lectures are presented in Urdu or Tamil, in addition to those in Bahasa Melayu. The Bengali mosque also serves as an important gathering point for missionaries (tabligh) groups from South Asian countries. The mosques have undoubtedly had a tremendous impact upon the way of life of Penangites. Some of them operate as cultural centers with libraries, and are open to members of all communities irrespective of religion.
No discussion of the impact of Islam from the Indian peninsula upon Penang’s cultural heritage will be complete without the mention of the Muslim shrines (keramat), many of which are found on the island. The concentration is on Chulia Street and its immediate environs. This is a situation unique to Penang, for nowhere else in Malaysia is such a concentration of Muslim shrines to be found located in a relatively limited area. Apart from those shrines dedicated to Saints from the Indian subcontinent, those dedicated to many parts of South-East Asia are to be found in Penang; there is even one dedicated to a Westerner who became a Muslim.
The most famous “shrine”, actually a memorial, for the saint (who is in fact buried in Nagore, South India) is the Keramat Nagore at the junction of Chulia Street and Penang Street, built in the early 19th century. Also noteworthy are two others: Keramat Dato’ Koya on Jalan Transfer, and Kermat Mak Mah at Kampong Kolam. Reference has already been made to Sangli Peerappa, with whom some interesting stories are connected. Similar stories still circulate about the miracles performed by the Malabari saint, Syed Mustapha Idris, who lies buried in Keramat Dato Koya. The woman saint buried in Keramat Mak Mah is believed to be a member of the Kedah royalty who was married for a while to the Kapitan Keling. Of the three shrines, the most multiracial in its appeal has been Keramat Dato Koyah, for, as is the case with Muslim shrines in the Indian subcontinent, Muslims as well as non-Muslims pay respects at that place. In terms of Penang history Keramat Tuah possibly takes us back to the year 1715. If this information is correct, then the arrival of the Muslims, particularly Malabari Muslims, must be set at a much earlier date than presently accepted.
The presence of the large number of shrines indicates an interest in the local population in Islamic mysticism (Sufism). Sufism came to the Malay peninsula from the Middle East, South Asia and Indonesia. In keeping with the tradition of Islam in the Indian peninsula, then, many local Muslims from all races including the Malays, follow one or another of the of the several Sufi Orders (Tariqa) active in Penang. The most important of these Orders, with worldwide following are the Naqshbandiya, founded by Bahaudin Naqshband and the Qadariya founded by Shaikh Abdul Qadir Gilani. These are among the most popular Orders in Penang.
Compared to the cultural impact made by the Muslims from the Indian subcontinent, that of the Hindus, Sikhs and as well as the other religions has been limited. This is possibly due to their comparatively late arrival upon the scene, but more so due to their social and cultural background, which made cultural assimilation with the local Malays that much more difficult. On the other hand, their economic importance and contributions to society in other ways have been significant.
Buddhism, spreading in the early centuries to various centers in South-East Asia, remains important in Kedah and Kelantan amongst the local Thai communities. It is from Thailand and Burma that Buddhism found its way into Penang, and to some extent the Hinayana Buddhism of Sri Lanka is also active in Penang. Culturally it has, in fact, become a significant feature of Penang’s life.
Hindus from all over the Indian subcontinent are essentially divisible according to culture into Dravidian and non-Dravidians, and their cultural manifestations too remains within this two-fold division, further refined in terms of style, according to their regional or racial origins. Principally, their impact upon the local scenes is evident in the areas of temple-construction, and in the celebration of Hindu festivals.
The most prominent of Penang’s temples built by Tamil Indians are the Mahamariamman Temple on Queen Street, the Waterfall Temple and the Shiva Temple. In all of these the Chettiars have played an immensely important role. Two other rather ornate temples that deserve mention are the Shiva Temple on Jalan Datuk Keramat and the Kamachi Amman temple opposite it. In all of these the craftsmanship is South Indian in style and the workmanship, particularly the very prominent sculpture, inspired by artistic and aesthetic traditions of the South, have in most instances been done by craftsmen commissioned from Tamil Nadu.
The sole North Indian Hindu temple in Penang is the Kunj Bihari Temple on Penang Road. There is a great difference, architecturally and conceptually, between the temples constructed by Tamil Hindus and this particular temple of the North Indians, essentially reflecting the southern and northern styles of temple construction in India itself.
The most visible cultural activity of the Tamil Hindus is the organization of their festivals of which the spectacular Thaipusam festival has become particularly significant. Chittirai Paruvam and Pongol are also celebrated on a lesser scale. In addition there are festivals marking the birthdays of deities, as well as temple festivals featuring fire-walking rituals or chariot processions. North Indian Hindu groups organize their own chariot processions, and celebrate some of the lesser festivals within their own communities. Overall, Diwal/Deepavali, is the principal festivals of all Hindus. There are thus marked differences in the manner in which religious activities are conducted between the two groups of Hindus, each subgroup or community manifesting its own regional heritage. The impact that Thaipusam has had on the cultural and even economic life of Penang as a whole is considerable. The festival draws devotees and observers from far and wide, even from beyond Malaysian shores.
Above and beyond the specific religious activities already mentioned, various Hindu organizations present their own activities ranging from cultural performances of dance or music such as those presented by the Temple of Finer Arts, yoga and meditation classes and so on. These activities have attracted a number of non-Hindus, principally Chinese. The Ramakrishna Ashram is a well-established organization, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, popularly known as the Hare Krishna Movement, which has attained worldwide popularity, has, in particular, become multiracial in character. This is also the case in Penang. The highly popular System of Transcendental Meditation developed by Maharish Mahesh Yogi is both taught and practiced here, and like many other subgroups of Hindus, the devotees of Sai Baba, have their own center.
Buddhism has for some time been the second most important religion of Kedah, given the strong influence of Thai Buddhists in several districts of the State. Buddhist influence, particularly from Thailand, Burma and Sri Lanka continues to be important to Penang, affecting the culture of the State to a considerable degree. There are enough temple and meditation complexes to demonstrate this influence.
The Sikhs have already been mentioned, and the Sikh Gurudwara on Jalan Gurudwara stands as an impressive symbol of this community. As Punjabis, naturally they share many of their cultural traits with Punjabi Muslims (many mistakenly being called “Pakistanis” these days) and Punjabi Hindus. Both groups are fairly represented in Penang. In passing it may be mentioned that Zoroastrianism and Bahaism may be encountered in Penang, both originating in Iran. In the case of the Parsees, the number is naturally extremely small
Both Buddhism and Hinduism in particular have considerably affected the traditional folk art forms. Much of the effect is felt on the northern part of the peninsula. The Southern Thai shadow play, Nang Talung, for instance, through its Malay version, Wayang Kulit Gedek, is active in Kedah and Perlis and introduced the local version of the Ramayana, known as Ramakien. Another important artistic manifestation is Nora Chatri or Menora, which uses material from the stories dealing with the Lives of the Buddha (Jataka). Performances of Menora done by local or visiting troupes from Kedah or South Thailand have been regularly featured in Penang. Several active performing arts in Kelantan, including the shamanic Main Puteri, manifest strong Hindu influences, apart from the use they make of the Ramayana.
Boria and Bangsawan
In Penang, the impact of South Asian culture can be seen in two styles of theatre: Boria and Bangsawan, both which developed here. Boria, is connected with the story of Saiyidina Ali, Islam’s fourth Caliph and his family, as well as the events, which led to the tragic death of Ali’s son, Hussein, on the battlefield of Kerbala in present day Iraq.
Traditionally connected with Iran, Boria performances, known as Taziya have also been noted at various places in Southern Asia among the Shia communities. Performances take place during the month of Muharram with the specific intention of remembering the events of Kerbala. Performances of tragic plays, lamentations, self-flagellations and processions bearing miniature tombs (tabut) are features characterizing this event. This genre of theatre reached Penang with the arrival on the island of the Sepoy regiment, although records of performances are available mostly from the 19th century. Today, shorn of its religious qualities and totally transformed in style and function, Boria has become a form of secular song and dance genre incorporating in its lyrics praises for dignitaries.
A secular form of urban theatre specially associated with Penang is Bangsawan, the first style of urban theatre to develop in the Malay Peninsula. Its origins lie in a form of lavish entertainment first performed in the palace of Wajid Ali Shah, the Nawab of Oudh. With the collapse of the state of Oudh, performers of this as yet nameless theatre style, now itinerant, eventually reached Bombay, where they were given patronage by the Parsee merchants. With that the genre itself came to be known as the Urdu or Hindustani Parsee Theatre.
Parsee Theatre performers reached Penang in the 1880’s to entertain the sepoys and merchants. With the return of these visiting troupes upon the completion of their Malayan tours, local businessmen in Penang developed their own troupes, and the genre eventually acquired the name Bangsawan
Originally inspired by European Renaissance and Parsee Theatre, Bangsawan later adopted many of the characteristics of Western theatre, including painted backdrops, wings and borders, improvisational acting techniques and so on. Bangsawan also took over stories from the extensive traditional Parsee Theatre repertoire, including South Asian tales such as Raja Harischandra and Gul Bakawali. Following appropriate changes in language from Urdu/Hindustani to Malay and an enlarged repertoire which now included Indonesian, Thai and even Chinese plays, Bangsawan in fact became a short of “National” theatre style of this region in the true sense of the word, with performances taking place in the Malay peninsula, Singapore, Brunei and Indonesia. Troupes involved multiracial casts, production crews as well as professional managers and owners of theatre companies.
Classical dance, in particular Bharata Natyam and Odissi, has some following in Malaysia and is generally limited to “Indians” apart from being viewer activity. There are very few exceptions and in this context special mention must be made of the attainments of Chandrabhanu, Ramli Ibrahim and Marvin Khoo.
The Film Industry
Silent Films and Talkies from Bombay were introduced into Malaya in the early 1930’s. The Malay film industry came into existence with its first production, that of Laila Majnun in 1933, produced by Bombay Chemical Co. and directed by B.S. Rajhans, a visiting director from Bombay. The success of Laila Majnun soon saw the introduction of other directors from Bombay and Madras: L. Krishnan, S. Ramanathan, K.M. Basker, B.N. Rao, V. Grimaji, K.R.S. Shastry, Dhiresh Ghosh, Kidar Sharma and Phani Majumdar. For some years they virtually had a monopoly on Malay films. With the decline of Bangsawan some of its leading stars moved into the film industry, and as in Bangsawan, in the early Malay films artistic influences echo that of Bombay and Madras films and can be clearly discerned in the selection of subject matter and music, as well as in the very style and spirit of the films themselves.
Although the Malay film industry itself developed in Singapore and later in Kuala Lumpur, a major link with Penang cannot be ignored. This is through the work of the legendary actor, producer, director, and singer P. Ramlee (1929-1963). P. Ramlee was influenced a great deal by popular Indian culture, to the extent of presenting his complicated name, Teuku Zakaria bin Teuku Nyak Putih, first as Ramlee bin Putih and then in the Indian style, as P. Ramlee, with an initial. Inspired by Indian films, his own, particularly those with “Arabian,” “Parsee” or “North Indian” themes and settings bear an uncanny resemblance to those emanating from Bombay. Interestingly too, is the fact that no less than 26 of 64 films featuring P. Ramlee were directed by some of the directors from Bombay and Madras.
Popular “Hindustani” music, both vocal and instrumental, first brought to Penang through the Parsee Theatre, has continued to fascinate local Malay audiences, as have the fashions in clothes developed through the film industry. In the fifties and sixties of the twentieth century even textiles were named after films and film actresses. “Baju Meena Kumari”, “Selendang Madhubala” or “Kain Gita Bali” comes to mind as examples; there certainly were others. The popularity of Hindustani films among the Malays and to some extent even among the Chinese continues unabated. Hindustani music has found its way into the contemporary Malay-Indonesian Dangdut and other varieties of popular music. The tabla, in particular and the flute (bin), are increasingly heard in contemporary Malay music, while the average Malay youngster goes around singing songs from popular films such as Kuchh Kuchh Hota Hai, much to the consternation of members of the older generation.
True, some of the contemporary Hindustani films have themselves borrowed extensively from the West, but having digested the imported fashions and fads the Indian film industry has become a major “exporter”.
Not to be forgotten here is the impact of the Bhangra, traditionally a highly popular folk dance of the Punjabis-be they Hindus, Muslims, or Sikhs. The rage for a new updated style of this dance has become a worldwide phenomenon. Another traditional performing arts style worth mentioning is the Qawwali style of singing, which has given rise to various kinds of local zikir styles, including the Kelantanese Dikir Barat, this like Boria, having now been transformed into a non-religious variety of entertainment. Dikir Barat has long left its traditional home base in Kelantan and is now widely performed all over Malaysian and in Singapore.
Although classical music from the subcontinent has not left a strong impact in Malaysia compared to other countries, particularly in the West, the use of Hindustani or Carnatic music styles continues in creative or not so creative ways to influence local music, even the work of some of the leading Malay artistes. Much of the credit for the original exposure of these arts forms must ultimately be traced to Penang’s Bangsawan companies.
Equally active is the literary scene, and Penang has always been noted for its writers in all languages having produced, as mentioned earlier, Abdullah Munsyi bin Abdul Kadir. Of Tamil-Yemeni extraction, Munsyi Abdullah was scribe to Stamford Raffles, and upon the encouragement of an American missionary, Alfred Noel, wrote his Hikayat Abdullah in 1843. The work, published in 1849, contains references to Penang. In recent decades Penang has produced its own crop of “Indian” writers using the Tamil language and in some instances writing in English. Penang’ s established Tamil language writers come from both Hindus and Muslims. No equivalent achievement has been forthcoming from South Asians in other native languages. In the case of English language writing, however, several Penang writers with South Asian origins have become fairly established. There has also been some translation work, particularly from Tamil into English.
Two periods of major cultural contact between the Indian subcontinent and the Malay Peninsula have been noted. Each has in different ways affected the indigenous population of the Malay Peninsula. Much of the early influence, principally of Hinduism and Buddhism, was totally absorbed to become part of the indigenous cultural heritage and expression. The influences coming during the second wave of contact saw selective absorption but have been in their own ways vitally significant.
Apart from the specific disciplines of the arts already mentioned, South Asian cultural influences may be found in a host of other areas including fashion, the decorative and even the culinary arts. Due to its geographical location and its place in history, Penang in some ways is very different as a recipient of these cultural influences, compared to other states of Malaysia. Despite rapid modernization it has certainly been able to maintain some of its heritage, and this heritage includes what has come to it from the many different cultures and communities on the Indian peninsula. Without these influences Penang would not be so uniquely Penang.
Dr Ghulam-Sarwar Yousof Penang,