The 18th edition of the Boh Cameronian Arts Awards (BCAA), which takes place at PJPAC this Sunday, includes the nominations of two bangsawan troupes across six categories, including best actor in a leading role, best ensemble/group performance, and best director.
These nominations have brought recognition to the traditional art form and celebrates its representation in the Malaysian performing arts scene.
In the lead up to the awards, arts practitioners Dr Marlenny Deenerwan of Mekar Budaya, Nik Afiq of Revolution Stage, and Rahim Jo of Liveinmypoetry share their bangsawan journey and how they are striving to keep the art form alive.
Paying homage to a legend
Mekar Budaya’s story began in 2002, when a group of friends under the tutelage of the late Abdul Rahman Abu Bakar, better known as Rahman B, came together for their shared love of local theatre and the bangsawan art form. For the past two decades, the team has performed a variety of modern and traditional Malaysian theatre but has primarily performed bangsawan theatre productions, one of which was Hikayat Si Miskin Menjadi Raja.
Hikayat Si Miskin Menjadi Raja was written by Marlenny, or Lenny, inspired by the novel Anak Raja Dan Anak Papa by literary icon Pendeta Zaaba in 1958. The latter was adapted from Mark Twain’s The Prince And The Pauper.
Lenny’s text was adapted to ensure that the content and context of the narrative were more relatable and accessible to the Malaysian audience. “(Datuk) Faridah Merican of The Actors Studio approached us to create a local bangsawan theatre production. As such, the team agreed to use Hikayat Si Miskin Menjadi Raja as we felt it was a suitable script for the production,” said Lenny.
“There is a structure to our bangsawan theatre, rooted in the foundational narrative of a hero’s journey. There is comedy, tragedy, and other themes like love and loss. But the overarching narrative always results in poetic justice, which is evident in Hikayat Si Miskin Menjadi Raja. The script also had elements of social commentary and criticism on what it means to be a leader, especially a leader of a country, which we felt was very apt for our current times.”
What makes bangsawan theatre such a versatile art form is its flexibility within the structure of performance and presentation. Although bangsawan productions are typically based on traditional or classical narratives, there is often an incorporation of modern tools and techniques, providing varied experiences to a bangsawan theatre production.
As such, Bangsawan theatre can be categorised as traditional theatre, transitional theatre, innovative theatre, and, as Lenny suggests, contemporary theatre, with bangsawan weaving in traditional narratives with technology and modern resources from each era to present and perform, making the bangsawan a local theatre art form that is relevant and accessible across generations.
Lenny further explained how Hikayat Si Miskin Menjadi Raja was a tribute to the late Rahman B, a national arts icon and recipient of the National Artiste Award (Anugerah Seniman Negara) in 2004.
“The play is rooted in the teachings we inherited from Rahman B, who taught us the structure of performance and method of presentation for the bangsawan theatre. We felt a production grounded in his school of thought was the right way to pay homage to him.”
One of these fundamental aspects is the "tirai," or backdrop, each a unique scene to mark the change between acts. However, due to limitations in finances and facilities, the production team needed to develop a different approach to maintain the use of the "tirai."
“Our members came up with the idea of using five panels which moved back and forth; each panel was manually turned to create a new backdrop. We’re proud of this because what was a setback initially became a form of innovation.”
“We had teachers and students from schools where Bangsawan is taught as part of the arts syllabus who commented on how this solved the issue of retaining the element of 'tirai' for productions with financial constraints. What we presented through Hiyakat Si Miskin Menjadi Raja proposed a cost-efficient and effective method of presentation which can be helpful for future productions.”
Hikayat Si Miskin Menjadi Raja, presented by Mekar Budaya and produced by The Actors Studio Seni Teatre Rakyat, is nominated for the best ensemble/group performance and best actor in a supporting role categories for this year’s BCAA.
'Bangsawan indie' new wave
Another group making waves in the arts industry is Revolution Stage X Liveinmypoetry, which jointly produced Raja Bersiong Bangsawan Indie and is nominated in six categories for BCAA.
Raja Bersiong was the first time the contemporary arts group experimented with "bangsawan indie", proposing a new way of performing, presenting, and viewing bangsawan theatre.
“Bangsawan productions are usually presented as big-scale productions, so we decided to devise Raja Bersiong into an indie concept while preserving all the essential features of a bangsawan theatre production,” said Nik Afiq of Revolution Stage.
Rahim Jo, director of the play and founder of Liveinmypoetry, added, “Bangsawan performances can be costly because of the many aspects that go into its production. The financial aspect can be daunting, so we thought of a way where bangsawan theatre can be devised and performed within a minimum budget and narrower scope.”
Yet even with a narrow scope, the group strives to retain the disciplines of bangsawan theatre, including the use of the "tirai" and “extra-turns,” the latter of which is another unique feature in bangsawan and functions as an intermission-of-sorts allowing stage crews to prepare and arrange the set and props between scene changes.
“We also used a smaller space for the play, and even though there was still a stage, we found that the performers and audience members were closer to each other. This provided a more immersive feel to the production,” said Rahim Jo.
Following the positive response from audiences and industry members, as well as being the recipient of several awards at the Anugerah Teater Malaysia 2023, the team has been working hard on its second bangsawan indie production on the captivating tale, Puteri Gunung Ledang (PGL).
“Our upcoming production of PGL will see a bigger ensemble, and while we continue to experiment with the indie concept, the production is filled with Javanese influences through its dance, costumes, music, and language use,” said Nik Afiq.
Regarding language use, Rahim Jo explains that the maintenance of forms of classical language (rather than a play on languages or dialects) is to create a deeper awareness and appreciation of the beauty of classical words and linguistic features, especially among the younger generation.
“With this approach, through both the indie concept and upholding bangsawan features, we hope that the younger generation, even the cast and crew, some of whom are young practitioners in the arts, will find a place to engage with the language, cultural influences, and our local Malaysian theatre,” said Rahim Jo.
“It’s a platform that calls us to remember the past while we continuously evolve as a society,” said Nik Afiq.
Revolution Stage X Liveinmypoetry will present Puteri Gunung Ledang Bangsawan Indie at Studio Revolution Stage in Petaling Jaya from May 17-28.
It has also created "Projek Sastera Indie", a live series that performs plays from the Bahasa Malaysian literature textbooks studied in schools.