Bangsawan: A Social & Stylistic History of Popular Malay Opera

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Tan Sooi Beng
1997. The Asian Centre
Softcover, 25 cm x 15.4 cm, 285 pages
Black & white photographs, illustrations and musical scores
ISBN 9789839499018


Bangsawan: A Social & Stylistic History of Popular Malay Opera the first popular urban commercial theatre in Malaysia emerged in the late nineteenth century as an adaptation of the Parsi theatre of India which toured Malaya. The first indigenous theatre in Malaya to be modelled along Western lines, bangsawan engendered the development of the first Malay orchestra and the first Malay popular music in the country.

This book traces the stylistic changes in bangsawan from the late nineteenth century to the late 1980s and links these changes to the social-political transformations in Malaysian society. A product of a period characterized by rapid and radical social changes occurring as a result, of British intervention, bangsawan of the early twentieth century was heterogeneous, innovative, and constantly adapting to new situations and new audience. Its conventions of plot structure, character types, costumes, speech, and stage setting corresponded with the new ‘structure of feeling‘ in the society of the time. 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. However, this revival spearheaded by the government and government institutions has resulted in bangsawan being reshaped, Malayized for new national purposes, and projected as traditional theatre.

This book is written in terms of a relatively recent trend in ethnomusicology which emphasizes diachronic analyses. The author is an ethnomusicologist at the Arts Centre, Universiti Sains Malaysia.

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. (From our newsletter).

Weight 650 g
Dimensions 25 × 15.4 × 1.7 cm