Bangsawan, derived from the Malay term "noble", is a Malay operatic theatre form that features elements such as song and dance coupled with melodramatic narratives, and each performance can span across several days. Originating in the 1870s, bangsawan is a theatre form initially conceptualised to entertain the Jawi Peranakan and other South Asian communities in the British Straits Settlements.
Bangsawan was inspired by touring Parsi theatre companies, and also assimilates Western perspective scenery and lighting techniques with traditional Malay stories and roles. The bangsawan form is highly adaptable to different preferences and styles. It is multi-cultural in its inception, with various ethnicities coming together to perform. While the performances are in Malay, they often feature stories and folktales from other cultures.
Bangsawan productions typically consist of elaborate stage sets and costumes, and each performance is accompanied by musical instruments such as gendang (two-headed drum) and rebana (drum). The costumes in bangsawan are ornate, story specific and character specific. For instance, bright and royal attire are used for characters of nobility while muted and simple outfits are used for characters of a lower social class.
Bangsawan used to be an important source of entertainment for the Malay community before the advent of the television and modern day entertainment, and serves as an important platform for the transmission of local Malay legends and epics. Popular Malay heroes and kings such as Sri Tri Buana and Hang Tuah are often seen to be depicted in bangsawan narratives.
There have been efforts in recent years to revive bangsawan and update the art form to make it more relevant to Singaporeans. For instance, to cater to today's younger generation, the typical length of traditional bangsawan productions has been shortened from a multi-day event to a two-hour production.