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  • Izzuddin Ramli

Bangsawan: A Cosmopolitan Theatre

Bangsawan reflected the fluidity of Malayan identities. It went beyond today’s fixed ethnic-based affiliation and challenged the notion of insular, rigid, and ethnically homogenous identity.

Photo by: Leiden University Libraries.

The arrival of the British to Southeast Asia in the 19th and early 20th centuries had brought a significant change to the political, economic, and cultural contours in Malaya. The Straits settlements of Singapore, Malacca, and Penang were developed as harbours for import and export of products, particularly spices, and established as administrative as well as judicial capitals for the British. The establishment of Penang as a free port in 1786 had increased the number of incoming vessels from 85 to 3569 by 1802, and the population in the capital city George Town had also risen to 10,000 by 1792 (Nordin, 2007). Immigrants came from all corners of the world — there were Chinese, Europeans, Arabs, Indian, and the Malays from surrounding islands such as Sumatra, Riau, Borneo, the Southern Philippines, and Southern Thailand.


While most worked in the nutmeg and clove plantations and trading forest products such as rattan, aromatic wood, rice, poultry, gold dust, tin, and salt, others made their living as stage entertainers. Travelling from Europe, India, and China to perform music and theatre in the cities around the world, such performers were well celebrated by culturally and linguistically diverse populations of George Town. The port city had become an arena for cultural contestations, negotiations, and adaptation among the communities, as well as against the colonial construct of Malayan identities.


For the locals, the arrival of cultural elements from overseas in the form of music and performing arts had enriched their culture and given them more choices of entertainment. While the traditional performing arts and rituals such as Mek Mulung, Menora, and Wayang Kulit remained the leading form of entertainment for the rural Malay population in mainland Kedah, the Malays of Penang Island celebrated a more modern form of entertainment.


Among the many itinerant music and theatre groups that shaped the course of Malaya’s modern music and theatre industry were the Victorian Theatrical Company and the Elphinstone Company from Gujerat, India. Highly influenced by the western tradition of stage performance, this Parsi theatre troupe staged Indianized versions of Shakespeare’s plays and the Arabian Nights for local communities. It was soon adapted and appropriated particularly by the Jawi Peranakan and the Malays as part of their performing art repertoire. The localised version of Parsi theatre was known as Wayang Parsi Tiruan, Komedi Melayu, and Bangsawan. The last of these terms remains in use until today.


The term Bangsawan is derived from the Malay term for “nobility” which refers to the lead character in Bangsawan. A theatrical performance that encompasses music, dance, and drama, Bangsawan marked the transition from traditional Malay theatre to modern Malay theatre. Unlike many Malay traditional performing arts, the musical instruments in Bangsawan are mostly western. Its music, dance, costumes, and props vary depending on the stories being staged. Many scholars note that Bangsawan featured both traditional and modern elements. For example, the ritualistic “buka panggung” ceremony, essential in many Malay traditional arts was also practiced in Bangsawan but was later dropped from the performance (Samsuddin, 2007).


The Birth of Bangsawan in Penang


Although the Bangsawan theatre had become a regional phenomenon by 1900s, with every state in Malaya having its own Bangsawan stage, it was Penang that served as the birthplace of the Bangsawan theatre. According to Tan Sooi Beng, one of the leading authorities on the performing arts in Southeast Asia, the earliest Bangsawan troupe was the Pushi Indera Bangsawan or The Royal Malay Opera, formed by a Jawi Peranakan named Mamat Pushi in Penang in 1885 (Tan, 2022). They were also known as The Impress Victoria Jawi Peranakan Theatrical Company.


Indeed, the Parsi theatre troupes owed their success to the Jawi Peranakan who formed the most dominant community on the island until the 1850s. Like the Parsis in Gujerat, they were also active in trade, while those who fostered a good relationship with the British worked in the administration. Being a multilingual community that owned relatively big capital, they became the primary aficionados of Parsi theatre, alongside other communities including Chinese, Indian, Thai, Burmese, and the Malays.


However, the earliest Parsi theatre troupe in Penang — the Victorian Theatrical Company — only managed to survive for a short period of time due to the financial difficulty. It was Mamat Pushi with his son-in-law Bai Kassim who came to rescue the group. He bought the props, costumes, musical instruments from the Wayang Parsi troupe and established his own theatre troupe to perform in the Malay language. Mamat Pushi is said to have first named the Wayang Parsi Tiruan as Bangsawan, a label given to him by Tunku Kudin, the prince of the Kedah sultanate. The term Bangsawan may also refer to the stories from a literary tradition that was accessible to the noble class.


Among popular Bangsawan stories are Aladin dan Lampu Ajaib, Ali Baba dan 40 Orang Pencuri, and the Desert Thief of Baghdad. There were also Islamic and Hindustani-influenced stories such as Laila Majnun, Gul Bakawali, and Anarkali. Troupes with Anglo inclinations would perform adaptations of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Merchant in Venice, Hamlet, Othello, Julius Caesar, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Samsuddin, 2007). According to Ghulam-Sarwar Yousof, an expert in traditional Malay and Southeast Asian theatre, classic Malay stories such as Laksamana Bentan, Laksamana Mati Dibunuh, Laksamana Hang Tuah, Puteri Gunung Ledang, and Sultan Mahmud Mangkat Dijulang, started to be performed in the 1920s and 1930s (Yousof, 2005).


Bangsawan troupes sprouted in the city setting and were sustained partly by the existence of the middle class who possessed extensive networks and capital such as the Jawi Peranakan community. Their soaring popularity carried them on tours to Singapore, West Sumatra, Batavia, Borneo and as far as Japan in the 1930s (Bujang, 1975). The thriving printing industry, particularly the Jawi Peranakan and Skola Melayu newspapers, offered a platform for publicity that enabled the Bangsawan to become a highly commercialised performing art in port cities.


Bangsawan theatre troupes later sprouted in almost every state in Malaya. Among them were Nahar Bangsawan, Malayan Opera, Kinta Opera, City Opera, Peninsular Opera, Indera Permata of Parit Buntar, Alfred Theatrical Company of Selangor (Bujang, 1989).


In Penang, amusement parks such as the Wembley and New World Park built in the 1930s became the main platforms for Bangsawan (Augustin & Lochhead, 2015). This was where many performers climbed the ladder to become stars, built their reputation, and vied for the attention of gramophone companies. The possibility to become famous and get rich through performing in the Bangsawan theatre enticed many Bangsawan performers to take up the art as a full-time profession. The lure of the limelight also attracted villagers especially women, many of whom came from poor families, to migrate to Penang and act in Bangsawan in the hope of becoming stars (Tan, 1995).


One of the prominent women Bangsawan performers was Minah Alias or Miss Minah from Kampung Makam, Penang. According to Omara Hashim, a prominent Boria performer in Penang, Minah Alias was the singer of the first Malay Raya song. Coming from a family of performers (her father and grandfather were tok dalang of Javanese shadow puppetry), Bangsawan became an avenue for her self-expression. Miss Minah and her husband Alias, also a Bangsawan performer, helped facilitate the Bangsawan Sri USM, a Bangsawan troupe established in the 1980s by Universiti Sains Malaysia staff.


Bangsawan set the stage for the new music recording industry that would play a huge role later in popularising music in Malaya. P. Ramlee’s iconic musical style developed from Bangsawan-styled music and acting (Uhde, 2015). In the ‘40s and ’50s, famous singers such as Saloma, Normadiah, Nona Asiah, Kassim Masdor, and Aziz Jaafar adopted Bangsawan-styled music (Lockard, 1991).


Cosmopolitan Identity of the Malay World


Bangsawan reflected the cosmopolitan nature of port city dwellers. It was also a space for communities to experiment and project their cosmopolitan identity, distinct from the colonial narrative (Tan, 2022). They borrowed European musical style and blended it with that of the Malays and other ethnic groups. Adaptation and improvisation were essential elements to appeal to diverse ethnic groups. The result was a common identity based on the appreciation of cultural differences and belief in individualism.


Although Bangsawan theatre is rooted in Malay culture, communities of various cultural backgrounds contributed significantly to its production and support. It was common to see Bangsawan troupes managed by Chinese staging Arabic-based stories such as Siti Zubedia. In 1929, the Penang Nyonya Bangsawan performed Jula-Juli Bintang Tiga, Nyai Dasima, and A Merchant of Baghdad in Drury Lane Theatre, Penang.


The Malay language used in Bangsawan reflected the lingua franca used in everyday life; it was not ethnically based. The earlier Bangsawan theatre was performed not only by Jawi Peranakan, but also by the Malays, Chinese, and Indians. For example, Wayang Yap Chow Tong or the Indra Permata Theatrical Co. of Selangor owned by a Chinese proprietor Yap Chow Tong, and Moonlight Opera Co. of Penang with its famous singer, Tan Tjeng Bok (Tan, 1997).


The Bangsawan performers travelled around the archipelago, married into diverse communities, spoke in a variety of languages and dialects, and exchanged knowledge with one another (Tan, 2022). Hence, Bangsawan reflected the fluidity of Malayan identities. It went beyond today’s fixed ethnic-based affiliation and challenged the notion of insular, rigid, and ethnically homogenous identity.


Further readings:


Augustin, P., & Lochhead, J. (Eds.). (2015). Just for the Love of It: Popular Music in Penang,1930s–1960s. SIRD.


Bujang, R. (1975). Sejarah Perkembangan Drama Bangsawan di Tanah Melayu dan Singapura. Dewan Bahasa & Pustaka.


Bujang, R. (1989). Seni Persembahan Bangsawan. Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka.


Lockard, C. A. (1991). Reflections of Change: Sociopolitical Commentary and Criticism in Malaysian Popular Music Since 1950. Crossroads: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 6(1), 1-111. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40860331


Nordin, H. (2007). Charting the Early History of Penang Trading Networks and Its Connections with the New ASEAN Growth Triangle (Malaysia-Indonesia-Thailand). Malaysian Journal of Society and Space(3), 75-83.


Samsuddin, M. E. (2007). Perubahan Corak Kerja Kreatif Bangsawan: Satu Kesinambungan Identiti. Jurnal Pengajian Melayu, 18.


Tan, S. B. (1995). Breaking tradition; Women stars of Bangsawan theatre. Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, Performing Arts in Southeast Asia 151(4), 602-616.


Tan, S. B. (1997). Bangsawan: A Social and Stylistic History of Popular Malay Opera. The Asian Centre.


Tan, S. B. (2022). Soundscapes of diversity in the port cities of British Malaya : Cultural convergences and contestations in the early twentieth century. In R. P. Skelchy & J. E. Taylor (Eds.), Sonic Histories of Occupation : Experiencing Sound and Empire in a Global Context (1 ed., pp. 219-238). Bloomsbury Academic. http://www.bloomsburycollections.com/book/sonic-histories-of-occupation-experiencing-sound-and-empire-in-a-global-context/ch9-soundscapes-of-diversity-in-the-port-cities-of-british-malaya/


Uhde, J. (2015). P. Ramlee and Neorealism. Kinema: A Journal for Film and Audiovisual Media. https://doi.org/10.15353/kinema.vi.1323


Yousof, G.-S. (2005). Bangsawan Belum Pupus. Dewan Budaya, 10-13.



*This essay was first published in Penang Monthly, October 2022.

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