7 Jan 2017: Bangsawan – a Social and Stylistic History of Popular Malay Opera

The term teater tradisional (traditional theatre) has been used in Malaysia to denote entertainment which has existed for many generations, especially one which contains cultural elements of the Southeast Asian region.

Bangsawan, formerly called Teater Parsi (Persian Theatre), originated in Penang around the late 19th century. Comprising an ensemble of orchestral music, singing, dancing and sleight-of-hand, it was suggested that bangsawan plots were often influenced by stories of palace intrigues and drama. Its multicultural performance and presentation incorporated components from pantomime, ballet, circus and Western vaudeville layered with a pastiche of comical, melodramatic and serious elements. With the usual troupe of musicians and actors assembled on a proscenium stage before a live audience, the script-less drama unfolded in improvisatory fashion.

Tan Sooi Beng, the ethnomusicologist-author behind this week’s featured book Bangsawan – A Social and Stylistic History of Popular Malay Opera holds that bangsawan was in fact a new form developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although it showed a continuity with the past, she said, bangsawan acquired characteristics that were different from traditional Malay theatre.

The main thrust of her engaging study is an in-depth account of the characteristics of the bangsawan, tracing the stylistic changes in the art form, from the late 19th century to the late 1980s, and linking these changes to the sociopolitical transformations in Malaysian society. A product of a period characterised by rapid and radical social changes – occurring as a result of British intervention – bangsawan of the early 20th century was heterogeneous, innovative, and constantly adapting to new situations and new audience. After a decline in the 1940s and 1950s caused by social hardships and uncertainties in the wake of World War II, and the immediate post-war and Emergency periods, bangsawan was revived in the 1970s. Spearheaded by the government and government institutions, the ‘reinvented’ bangsawan was shorn of the multicultural elements that had made it popular, and used as an avenue for Malay identity and nationalism.

Bangsawan: A Social & Stylistic History of Popular Malay Opera was first published in 1993. Reprinted by The Asian Center in 1997, this title has been particularly difficult to locate until now.

About the author: Dr Tan Sooi Beng is Professor of Ethnomuciology at the Music Department, Arts Centre of Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang. She has published extensively on Malaysian performing arts, including Chinese orchestra, puppet theatre and opera as well as popular music and theatre in Malaysia. She is a member of the International Council for Traditional Music.

Other titles you will find interesting: Malaysian Shadow Play And Music: Continuity of an Oral Tradition (reprint) by Patricia Matusky; Just for the Love of It: Popular Music in Penang by James Lochhead and Paul Augustin; Musika – Malaya’s Early Music Scene by Azlan Mohamed Said, and Our Malaysia: Multi-Cultural Activity Book for Young Malaysians (reprint) by Yazdi Jehangir Bankwala & Dr M. Nadarajah.