Bangsawan’s past, present and future
by Jamal Mohamad
Bangsawan is a Malay theatrical form found in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and parts of Thailand. While often considered a traditional form of Malay theatre, early bangsawan evolved from Gujarati Parsi theatre groups that were touring Malaya in the 1870s. The earliest bangsawan were performed in Hindi. The Pushy Indra Bangsawan Theatre of Penang was the first group to use Malay in its dialogue, a move quickly adopted by other bangsawan troupes.
Unlike earlier traditional Malay theatre, a typical bangsawan performance takes place on a proscenium stage. The plays typically revolve around fairy-tale kings and incorporate elements from Malay, Indian, Persian, Chinese, and European cultures. In between acts, the “extra turn” – a musical interlude – entertains the audience as the set is rearranged behind closed curtains.
At the peak of its popularity, there were five or six bangsawan troupes in Singapore competing with one another. With the emergence of amusement parks like Great World and Happy Valley, sandiwara (a new theatrical genre), and the cinema, bangsawan’s ticket sales began to plummet. As bangsawan stopped being profitable, financiers began pulling their support and theatres that once staged bangsawan performances were converted into cinemas.
During the Japanese occupation, bangsawan received support from an unlikely source. Japanese officers developed a liking for bangsawan and became patrons. In return for their support, Japanese songs, dances, and stories were inserted into bangsawan performances. After the war, bangsawan lost all its funding sources, and the industry simply disappeared, with many of its talents absorbed into the film production studios.
In the decades since the war, many attempts have been made to revive bangsawan. In 1958, Bangsawan di Udara was broadcast on Radio Singapura. This 30-minute programme, which remained on air until the 1980s, was well received by listeners in Singapore, Johore, and the Riau islands. In the 1960s, some comedians experimented with a new form they called bangsawan jenaka. These were bangsawan stories with absurd or outrageous situations added for comedic affect. This genre built a following, but never became as popular as bangsawan.
By the 1970s, sandiwara had replaced bangsawan as the preferred theatrical form for Malay audiences in Singapore. At this time in Malaysia, bangsawan went through a process of “Malayisation”. In line with the national cultural policy, bangsawan had to undergo some cultural streamlining, filtering out ‘Western’ elements while emphasising Malay characteristics. Bangsawan staged from this point only told Malay stories. This trend was replicated in Singapore, with many practitioners taking their cues from their Malaysian counterparts and cultural institutions. As such, the bangsawan productions staged in Singapore from the late 1970s into the 80s were largely Malay stories that took place in Malay palaces of old. This likely had an alienating effect on audiences, who had already developed a taste for sandiwara’s more relatable contemporary settings.
In the 1980s, state funds were made available to arts and cultural groups. Annual events such as the Drama Festival, which ran from 1981 to 1986, included a bangsawan stage. The inclusion of bangsawan in this festival exposed it to new audiences. Encouraged by state support, a new bangsawan group, Sri Anggerik Bangsawan, was established in 1986. With funding from the Ministry of Community Development, this group staged a bangsawan performance in conjunction with the annual Traditional Theatre Festival. The festival served two main purposes for the group — it offered them a performance platform for growing an audience, and for recruiting new members.
The 1980s also saw the broadcasting of bangsawan on national television. With limited available spaces and funds to stage bangsawan in theatres, television provided the best alternative as it had the resources to support bangsawan over the long term. The programme brought bangsawan into people’s homes and provided long-term employment opportunities for bangsawan performers.
While bangsawan was evolving, a new generation of Malay theatre practitioners was coming up. This new generation, unlike their predecessors, received formal training in theatre studies. Among them are Nadiputra, Lut Ali, Sabri Buang and Khairul Anwar Salleh. Their works both excited and alienated audiences and their peers. Due to artistic differences, Nadiputra eventually left Sriwana and joined Teater Kemuning. Lut Ali would later start his own company, Teater Ekamatra, which paved the way for new professional Malay theatre companies such as Teater Kami and Teater Artistik. By the 1990s, these groups were well established, receiving government funding and corporate sponsorship, and performing to a burgeoning young audience.
Despite their preference for Western approaches to theatre-making, it must be mentioned that Malay culture is an important source of inspiration for these groups. Malay history, folktales, rituals, dances, literature, martial arts, and even architecture inform the creation of new plays. Some of Teater Kami’s most acclaimed works were homages to the joget modern scene of the 1950s (Lantai T Pinkie) and bangsawan theatre (Indera Bangsawan). The latter was not intended as a bangsawan piece. Instead, the play celebrated bangsawan’s significance to the Malay community and offered an intimate look at the lives of bangsawan performers.
In 1997, after a short hiatus, Teater Ekamatra marked its return with Dhavusya, directed by Khairuddin Hori. He describes the play as “bangsawan-inspired”, as it contained some of bangsawan’s stock characters, used rhythmic dialogue, and was set in a fantastical world. The similarities would, however, end there. Like Indera Bangsawan, Dhavusya was staged as a modern theatrical piece.
There were bangsawan productions in the 2000s organised by university cultural groups, but these were low-budget student projects. Dance groups like Sriwana and Sri Warisan have occasionally produced bangsawan programmes, but their primary focus is still on dance. Sri Anggerik Bangsawan, being the only group that specialises in bangsawan production, continues to organise workshops and abridged performances at community spaces and schools to keep interest in the art form alive. In 2012, the group was invited to perform a 30-minute segment, Dang Anum, in conjunction with Asian Civilisations Museum’s (ACM) Regenerating Communities programme.
Despite these efforts, a full-scale professional bangsawan production had not been staged in over a decade. It was not until 2014 that plans for such a production were announced — Sri Mamanda Bangsawan would produce Raden Mas Bangsawan, to be directed by Nadiputra. The play would tell the story of Raden Mas, a Javanese princess who fled Kediri to Singapore with her father, and it would showcase the court cultures of Kediri and the Kingdom of Singapura. These cultures would be presented through distinct speech and movements, and these would require a year of preparation. To meet the demands of the production, collaborations with actors and dancers from Johor Darul Takzim, Singapore Indonesian School, and Seniman Tulungagung were initiated. It would take two years of work before the play was ready to be staged at Esplanade.
The production faced many challenges. Sri Mamanda Bangsawan was newly formed and had no prior experience staging anything, let alone a production of this scale. The budget was estimated to be S$1.3 million, and sponsors were much needed. However, due to the new group’s lack of a track record, sponsors were hard to come by. Even Esplanade was apprehensive in offering a venue for the production.
By the time the venue was secured, the production had to rush out its marketing, which sadly proved too late to attract audiences. Another reason for the poor ticket sales was the ticket prices, which ranged from $88 to $300. Sri Mamanda Bangsawan insisted that the production was of an international standard and just as good as any Broadway musical. But Singapore audiences were not used to paying such high prices for a local production, especially one staged by a group they were not familiar with. The producers had plans for restagings and for the show to tour the region. So far, none of these additional shows have materialised.
More recently, the Malay Heritage Centre presented a bangsawan performance as part of its Malay CultureFest 2022. Produced by Sri Anggerik Bangsawan and directed by Nadiputra, the play was a longer version of Dang Anum, which the group had previously staged at ACM. This time, the main challenge was Covid-19. Due to ongoing restrictions, the play was not performed outdoors as planned. Instead, it was scaled down to fit the centre’s black box space. Instead of painted backdrops and elaborate sets, the production used LED walls and multimedia. Due to limited seats, the play was also recorded and streamed online, receiving up to 52,000 views to date, making it the festival’s most viewed digital offering so far. Based on the success of Dang Anum, the Malay Heritage Centre is in conversations with Sri Anggerik Bangsawan to organize a bangsawan festival later this year.
But before that, audiences will get a chance to see Bangsawan Gemala Malam, Teater Ekamatra’s staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the style of bangsawan. This might be an odd choice for this company, which has often stuck to more modern styles of staging. Nevertheless, if anything can be turned into bangsawan, it is the works of Shakespeare, which were once a popular inclusion in the bangsawan of old. As such, it would be refreshing to see the return of Western elements into the art form once again.
Bangsawan is not going away anytime soon. It has shown its resilience over the years. Through the various evolutions it has undergone, it has managed to keep its place within the Malay cultural landscape. We might be seeing a revival of bangsawan after all, though it remains to be seen which version will ultimately take the stage when the curtain reopens.
(Bangsawan Gemala Malam by Teater Ekamatra)