What is Bangsawan Theatre?


Malay Opera or better known as Bangsawan (bangsa means nobles or aristocrats and
wan means people) in Malaysia is a local theatre form, which has both traditional and
modern theatre elements. Bangsawan was introduced to the Malays of Peninsula
Malaya, particularly that of the Penang Island, in the late 19th century by Indian sea
traders and it was well received by the Malays. By early 20th century, Penang Island
became the center for booming bangsawan troupes led by local entrepreneurs. These
troupes traveled all over Peninsula Malaya including East Sumatra, Batavia and Borneo
Island. This theatre form is called bangsawan as it depicts stories of the nobles and
aristocrats. The Malays adopted bangsawan as part of their performing arts culture. They
localized its theatrical elements by portraying local names, costumes, localities and
legends in its performances.

Bangsawan or Malay Opera was one of many new cultural forms, which emerged in
response to and in the wake of the rapid social, economic, and political changes caused
by British colonial expansion into the Malay Peninsula in the late nineteenth and early
twentieth century. The term ‘opera’ in Malay drama does not
share the same meaning as the Italian Opera or other operas in Western countries. Opera
in Malay drama means a staged play with intervention of happy and sad songs that
portrayed the mood and context of the given situation. The
Malay opera or better known as bangsawan means “noble people” as this theatre form
depicts life and issues concerning members of the noble class.

In the late nineteenth century bangsawan bloomed into a popular theatre and promised a
good source of income to bangsawan entrepreneurs as well as the artists. The economic
intensives helped to spur many bangsawan troupes -big and small- into existence. These
troupes traveled from Penang Island to Singapore, West Sumatra, Batavia, Borneo and as
far as Japan in the 1930s.

Bangsawan is very significant to the history of Malay drama because it is a transitional
theatre, which has both elements of traditional and modern theatres. Bangsawan later,
became the foundation for the emergence of modern Malay theatres.

The exact location, from where bangsawan could have been brought into Sarawak, is not
stated in any written documents or books. It has been suggested that bangsawan in Sarawak could have manifested after being visited by bangsawan troupes from probably Singapore before 1935. This is because the standard Malay language used by Peninsula Malays is also the language used in bangsawan
performances in Kuching by the Sarawak bangsawan troupes. If Indonesian troupes had brought bangsawan to Sarawak, they would have surely performed in their own language.

(Adapted from “Malay Opera Of The Borneo Island: A Historical Perspective”by
Nur Afifah Vanitha Abdullah)


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