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The Bangsawan Hero

  • By Azwan Ismail
  • June 4, 2004

By Kathy Rowland

If you were in search of some rest and relaxation in 1930s Malaya, chances are you would have headed to the nearest town and got yourself some tickets to a bangsawan performance. For a few cents a piece, you would have been treated to an evening of raucous entertainment – didactic, moral plots taken from Malay myths, Chinese legends, Arab tales, Shakespearian tragedies, interspersed with vaudeville, bawdy humour, the latest Western hit songs, complemented by handsome warriors, seductive cabaret girls, shiny costumes and special effects.

It was a good time to be a bangsawan performer. Bangsawan stars were the celebrities of their time, garnering high fees and die-hard fans. For Haji Abdul Rahman bin Abu Bakar, better knows as Rahman B., a bright future seemed assured. Born into a family of bangsawan performers, at the height of its popularity in 1934, Rahman made his stage debut as a three-month old baby in a Klang theatre. By the time he was 19, Rahman was already playing the role of the orang muda or hero in bangsawan performances staged by his father’s troupe, Rahman Star Opera. Soon he was running the troupe himself, and taking it on tour to all parts of Malaya, Singapore and Brunei.

In March this year, Rahman B. was awarded the highest honour conferred by the State upon an artist, the Anugerah Seniman Negara for a career which spans more than 50 years, and over 200 bangsawan performances.

The Anugerah Seniman Negara, founded in 1993, however, demands more than longevity of its recipients. In the past, it has been awarded to art luminaries such as dalang Pak Hamzah (1993), artist Dato’ Syed Ahmad Jamal (1995), carver Haji Wan Su Othman (1997), Prima Donna Khadijah Awang (1999) and playwright Dato’ Syed Alwi (2002), each of whom have played pivotal roles in their chosen artforms.

Rahman B.’s worth as a Seniman Negara is perhaps best charted against the changing fortunes of bangsawan. Indeed, one can go so far as to say that his value and worth as a bangsawan performer has increased with the decline of the form.

Bangsawan traces its genealogy to the wayang Parsi brought by traders to the bustling, cosmopolitan town of Penang in the late 1800s. Unlike pre-existing artforms in the region, such as wayang kulit and mak yong, bangsawan was unencumbered by ritualistic or ceremonial imperatives. This was pure entertainment. Nothing was sacred so to speak, and it absorbed all manner of fish and fowl in order to feed the audience’s taste for melodrama and spectacle. And since the populations of the urban centers of Malaya were heterogeneous, the make-up of its patrons, actors, musicians, and audience too, was distinctly multi-ethnic. As Tan Sooi Beng in her book Bangsawan: A Social and Stylistic History of Popular Malay Opera notes, bangsawan was “heterogeneous, innovative and constantly adapting to new situations, and new audience” (191).

Instigated by the social, economic and political upheaval of World War Two, and the Japanese Occupation, however, bangsawan entered a difficult phase in the late ’40s. Rahman recalls that they could only perform with permission from the Japanese army. Rahman Star Opera became Ohaiyo Gozaimas Opera and had to perform stories celebrating Japan’s might.

The return of the British in 1947 did not restore bangsawan to its former position. Indeed, in response to the communist insurgency and the bourgeoning nationalist movement, the British imposed a series of laws making it difficult to hold public performances (or gatherings of any kind). More to the point however, the anti-colonial sentiment of the post-war period worked a change in the expectations of the audience. A new genre of theatre, the sandiwara, gained popularity. It eschewed the otherworldly realm of bangsawan stories in favour of historical dramas which alluded to contemporary issues and nationalistic themes. The nascent local film industry drew away both audience and actors, further exacerbating bangsawan’s decline.

The loss of audience, to a form dependent on ticket sales for its sustainability, spelt disaster for performers such as Rahman. Bangsawan groups tried to adapt to the brave new world of post-war-pre-independence Malaya, incorporating various elements of sandiwara for example, into their performances. However, the tide had turned, and by the 1950s, the form had ceased to garner much public support.

Bangsawan performers struggled to make a living, and many troupes had disbanded by the early 70s. The imminent death of bangsawan however, coincided with a major shift in arts and culture in Malaysia. In response to the Riots of 1969, a National Cultural Congress was convened in 1971 to construct a cultural identity upon which to unite the fractured nation. The National Cultural Policy defined national culture as those forms indigenous to the inhabitants of the region. It stated that Islam would be a crucial component of the NCP, and that elements from other cultures which were suitable and reasonable in respect to the indigenous and Islamic values, could be incorporated into the national culture.

In the wake of the Congress, bangsawan was one of the forms designated as “national culture” by the then Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports. It became the subject of scholarly research, and revivalist projects, backed by the considerable resources of the State.

This is not to say that the State was able to reverse the slide and engender a financially sustainable bangsawan industry. A few were employed to teach bangsawan in universities, while others, such as Rahman B, produced bangsawan dramas for TV. In 1974, Rahman B and his brother, Rahim B, formed Pertubuhan Seni Bangsawan Negara, an umbrella group for veteran performers to keep performing. His effort to keep bangsawan alive, under trying circumstances, is indeed one of the reasons he was awarded the Anugerah Seniman Negara. The majority of performers though, struggled to earn a living, taking on jobs as musicians at funeral homes, security guards, dish washers and so on.

When asked to comment on his feelings about receiving the Anugerah, which carries a cash prize of RM30,000, Rahman seemed nonplus, saying that that bangsawan runs in his blood and he has had the “minat dan cinta” for bangsawan long before the existence of such accolades. He seemed less interested in personal aggrandisement than in exploiting the prestige of the award to help advance the cause of bangsawan as a genre.

In association with his appointment as Seniman Negara, the Ministry of Culture, Arts and Heritage will organise a series of workshops around Malaysia, and hold three full bangsawan performances in KL. Rahman hopes to use the workshops and courses to promote a pure bangsawan, a form he dates to that practiced in the 1930s. As he says, there are many groups who claim to perform bangsawan today, but most lack any real depth of knowledge, resulting in a dilution of the form. For him, bangsawan represents the adat-peradaban (customs and civilization) of Malay society, and therefore, it must be preserved for future generations.

Indeed, he is one of the few remaining repository of the genre’s oral history and conventions. It is a role he embraces. His office in Kampong Baru is part props room, part museum, housing a rare-collection of costumes, props, photos and other bangsawan paraphernalia. Since the 1990s, Rahman has been writing down the stories, songs and dialogue of bangsawan, taking an essentially oral tradition and giving it some measure of permanence.

Does documenting an artform, however, necessarily become an exercise in defining it?

When it is put to Rahman that innovation and multiplicity used to be essential characteristics of bangsawan, he asserts that innovating a form first requires an in-depth understanding of its internal structures, its conventions, and the scope for innovation. He cites the frequent disregard for costume in contemporary stagings of bangsawan as an example – it is common now to see aristocratic characters decked out in costumes which rival that of the Sultan in grandeur. While embellishments and innovations are part and parcel of bangsawan, these changes must be conducted with respect to the social structure of the characters.

Anyone who has encountered bad poetry, written under the guise of “breaking free of the rules” can fully empathise with Rahman’s pain, and one is struck by Rahman’s sense of purpose, and dedication to an art which has, over the years, exposed its disciples to the capriciousness of Fortune.

However, his projection of bangsawan as a ‘pure’ traditional artform that reflects a dominant Malay esthetic, a point praised in the citation of his award, is revealing. The intervention of the State has, arguably, saved the form from completely disappearing, and brought some measure of respect to its proponents. However, it has, in the process, modified the nature of the practice fundamentally.

Bangsawan, as it is understood today is a very different animal from what an audience in 1930s Malaya would have enjoyed. It is now mono-cultural rather than multi-cultural, Art rather than Entertainment, Culture rather than Popular. In its heyday, bangsawan was heterogeneous in response to the dictates of its multi-ethnic audience, but since the 1970s, it has had a new patron to answer to, and a new set of criteria to conform to.

It remains to be seen what lies ahead for an artform that began its journey as a people’s theatre and seems destined to end its days as national culture.


Rahman Bujang, Sejarah Perkembangans Drama Bangsawan di Tanah Melayu dan Singapura. Dewan Bahasa Dan Pustaka, Kuala Lumpur, 1975

Tan Sooi Beng, Bangsawan: A Social and Stylistic History of Popular Malaya Opera. The Asian Centre, Penang. 1997.

First Published: 04.06.2004 on Kakiseni