The Boria was promoted on television in the 1970s in the programme Pentas Anika RTM, shot at the Penang Botanical Gardens. Collection of Tukang Karang, Omar Hashim. 

Okay, I’m not actually mapping grave diggers, nor am I mapping fowl thieves. Granted, I’ve taken huge poetic license in the naming of this map, the title never the less captures something of genealogical uncertainty, ambivalence but also creativity that one finds in a curious type of performance in Penang. During my time there, I became interested in trying to learn more about the Muharram celebration that used to be reported in 19th century Penang. Over time, the culture of public assembly and procession was curtailed by the colonial authorities.

The festival was soon to be disapproved by a new wave of reformist Muslims who thought that spending of money on the construction of tower-like effigy wasteful, the competition between various villages for ritual honour debilitating to the new ‘racial’ cause for progress, the ritual syncretism rooted in Shi’ism religiously deviant, the space it carves out for the transgender community morally reprehensible in a new conception of the Islamic faith that wanted to present itself as respectable in the eyes of Europe. The Muharram celebration did not die out entirely, one strain of it apparently survived in a particular form of song-dance and play-acting culture called ‘the Boria’.

KOLI KALLEN is a story about Penang, it begins with an altercation during the Muharram festival that precipitated into ten-day riot in 1867 and is bookended by a record of the 1919 Boria performing season published in the journal of a learned society. The Muharram procession and Boria offers an interesting lens to think about indentured migration because they were constituted by subjects that resonate with many of the issues we continue to grapple with, in the study of labour migration today. Except that this story offers a historical caution to any of us who possess enough hubris to believe that we can rely exclusively on our judicial and legislative system in seeking redress against the social injustices of global capitalism.

Thinking alongside Priyamvada Gopal’s Insurgent Empire, the project explores public processions and performances as occasions that drew attention to the limitations of any modern claims to an effective universal and impartial rule of law. It is by recognising the limits of a legal discourse or political language through which their subjectivity is always already disadvantaged that the Muharram and Boria festival looked elsewhere to explore a different poetics of relation.

Singapore Inhabitants, c.1870, photograph, 21.3 x 27.6cm, National Museum Singapore

The term Koli Kallen is generally thought to have derived from Tamil language,. In this estimation, it translates as ‘chicken thief’. It describes a day time performance during the 10 days of Muharram where groups of people would cover their faces with rag clothes, dressed as beasts or cross-dress as women, to roam the streets and beg for alms.

More likely though, is that it takes after a masquerade stock character found in the Muharram celebrations across India, known as the Khodrun Garun, the gravediggers and undertaker. The character is closely connected to the Red and White Flag Societies, largely because these secret societies were initially established as a mutual-aid group to assist in funerary expenses.

During the Muharram festivities, Koli Kallen groups are fond of chanting a chorus with the line, ‘Sayappa anak Koli Kallen!’ (We are the descendants of the Koli Kallen). I retain both the meaning of fowl thief and grave digger to describe this mapping exercise and to locate the exercise of mapping as a creative form of genealogy-making, which is also a good way to describe what the Boria’s opening chorus is really about. The above photograph taken in Singapore of a group of Muharram celebrants should give you a sense of why this was a cause of concern for colonial authorities desperately trying to maintain a semblance of order and respectability.

The map is arranged in a loose chronological order. To start, you might want to begin with the first marker on the legend, which is the green marker with a symbol of sprouting leaves floating above the waters of Penang Harbour. There’s also a legend, and this can be accessed by clicking on the upper-left-most icon. You can work your way down the legend by clicking on the checkboxes. These checkboxes will open up subsequent temporal layers. When you feel there is too much information on the map, simply uncheck the layers before to hide information clustered under previous time periods. Enjoy!

Anyway, the map will be updated continuously. So don’t forget to check back at a later date. In the mean time, enjoy the story!

Simon Soon

Acknowledgment: My sincere gratitude to Prof. Mahani Musa, En. Omar Hashim, Mamu Malek, Prof. Dato’ Ghulam-Sarwar Yousof, Penang Institute, Penang Heritage Trust, Malaysia Design Archive, and the Visual Art Program, Cultural Centre, University of Malaya.

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