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Bangsawan, The Malay Opera

Bangsawan is a form of Malay opera developed, through various stages  from the Indian Parsi Theatre which was brought to Penang, Malaysia, by visiting troupes from India during the final quarter of the 19th century. From Penang the genre spread to other parts of the Malay peninsula as well as to Singapore and  Indonesia. Suitable variations in Java and Sumatra gave rise to local styles of opera.

Bangsawan is improvisational in character, with proscenium staging, stereotyped roles as well as acting, an extensive repertoire of stories drived from diverse sources: Indian, Western, Islamic, Chinese Indonesian, and  Malay. Music and incidental dance may be optionally featured. These elements, as well as costumes conform, stylistically, to the story selected for performance.

Typically bangsawan uses a series of painted  backdrops representing a variety of scenes: a palace, a forest, a garden, a seascape and so on. Scene changes are marked by performances of extra-turns--songs, dances or skits--before a neutral, striped rather than painted  curtain.

Bangsawan was the first form of uran theatre to develop in Malaysia and, and with it came elements such as salaried performers, professional managers and theatre companies. Eventually following its decline following the 2nd  World War, many bangsawan performers found their way to the fledgeling Malay cinema. Today there are no active bangsawan troupes in Malaysia.

See Tan Sooi Beng. Bangsawan: A Social and Stylistic History of Popular Malay Opera. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press(1993) and Penang: The Asian Centre (1997).

For further information contact Dr Ghulam-Sarwar Yousof at The Asian Centre, Penang, Malaysia.