I AM sure many of you have heard of Bangsawan, the eatrical genre known as Malay opera.
But very few have heard of Sandiwara, supposedly the transitional genre that emerged after the demise of Bangsawan and before the rise of modern Malay plays.
Perhaps it was best remembered as an "alternative" to the lavish and extravagant nature of Bangsawan. While Bangsawan was largely mimicking Western-style operas, Sandiwara was largely influenced by Indonesian theatre groups.
Back in the 1930s, when Bangsawan was a great hit among the local populace, Indonesian drama groups came to perform a different genre altogether. Contrary to Bangsawan`s opulent style, these groups staged simple plays based on local and contemporary issues. The more famous groups were Miss Ribut, Dardanella and Bolero.
On the eve of World War Two, the legendary Anjar Asmara group came to Malaya. They were not able to compete with Bangsawan in terms of popularity. Bangsawan was entrenched among the Malays. The actors and actresses were the best in the business.
The "Orang Muda" (those playing heroes) and "Seri Panggung" (heroines) had massive followings. They were more famous than the stars of the fledgling Malay cinema. Bangsawan was the craze of the time. But the drama troupes from Indonesia presented the audience with a new potential — plays that were relevant and rooted in reality, unlike the world of princes and princesses or the courts and kayangan of the Bangsawan.
It was only much later that a genre was born, based on the Indonesian theatre model and rooted in the quest for more contemporary plays. Sandiwara, of course, had its beginning earlier than the 1950s. Many believe that since as early as the 1930s there have been attempts at "modernising" Malay plays. But it was only after World War Two, as the Bangsawan influence dwindled, that Sandiwara as a form began to make its mark.
The legendary Za`ba (Zainal Abidin Ahmad) wrote that there had been practically no drama written or published before World War Two, despite the popularity of the Bangsawan shows among the Malays of "the less cultured classes".
Bangsawan did not use scripts. The actors needed only a storyline to carry them through the entire performance. Little wonder the first published Malay drama, Megat Terawis, was written in 1951.
Za`ba, who was better known as a nationalist, thinker and linguist, apparently was following the development of Malay plays, particularly the Bangsawan. He was harsh in his assessment of the genre. He was particularly piqued by Bangsawan`s obsession with "fables and fantasy stories which make little sense to the people of today".
Za`ba was more of a believer in "realistic" plays and argued the case for modernising Malay plays. He didn`t just preach, he translated many plays from English and Arabic to prove his point. It was probably his critique of Bangsawan and the influence of Bolero, Anjar Asmara and the like, that created Sandiwara. Dr Abdul Rahman Napiah, or "Mana Sikana", in his book on Malay drama pointed to Shahrom Hussain`s Pembelot as the first Sandiwara play. It was performed in 1930 on a Bangsawan stage and acted by mostly Bangsawan actors.
But it was not a Bangsawan play. It was staged at Kampung Peserai, near Batu Pahat, Johor. The response to such drama masyarakat (literally, a play about the people) was overwhelming. He staged another play, Anak Setia, in the same year, and later Nasib Si Buta.
It is interesting to place the first written script in Malay. While researchers agree that the first published play was Megat Terawis, the first scripted Malay play was still a contentious issue. It was probably Pembelot, for Shahrom was a teacher who was capable of writing a script.
Shahrom was hailed as the "Father of Sandiwara". He was better known for writing Si Bongkok Tanjung Puteri in 1956. But he had been writing plays since the 1930s. There were others like him who wrote Sandiwara plays — Syed Alwi Alhady and Kalam Hamidi to name a few.
There is another twist to Sandiwara lore. Its popularity transcended the stage. There was "Sandiwara Radio" on air. Perhaps, the notion of Sandiwara as contemporary theatre made radio producers adapt the concept for radio. But Sandiwara can be period plays, too, like Shahrom`s Si Bongkok Tanjung Puteri, Wak Cantuk or Lembing Awang Pulang ke Dayang.
Perhaps there is no hard and fast rule in defining Sandiwara or to differentiate it from drama moden, or modern plays. Some argued that it was Mustafa Kamal Yassin ("Kala Dewata") who started "realistic plays" ("realism plays", some would label them) with his Atap Genting Atap Rumbia.
The 1960s was when Usman Awang (better known as "Tongkat Warrant"), Awang Had Salleh and A. Samad Said came out with their own plays. They reigned supreme until the "absurdists" came into the picture in the form of Nordin Hassan, Dinsman, Hatta Azad and this scribe.
My Kotaku Oh Kotaku and Angin Kering were lumped together with Nordin`s Bukan Lalang Ditiup Angin, Dinsman`s Bukan Bunuh Diri and Hatta`s Kerusi as "experimental plays" heralding an absurdist influence on local dramas. Well, that`s another story.
I was introduced to Sandiwara back in the 1960s. When Bintang Timur Opera, the Bangsawan troupe belonging to Bakar M, went bust in my kampung, Sungai Balang Besar, Muar in 1965, many of the materials collected over the years were left behind. Some of these props were salvaged by a teacher, Misdi Abu Bakar.
He started a Sandiwara group known locally as Badan Bistari. I was involved very much later, writing scripts for them and later acting in some of the plays. Sandiwara, too, was waning in popularity at the time. Television had come to the kampung and people shunned the stage.
Perhaps Sandiwara did not enjoy the glamour of Bangsawan, the popularity of the "realist" playwrights, or the attention of the experimental dramatists of the 1970s. But the Sandiwara marked the emergence of "the thinking class" in Malay drama productions. Many of them were teachers. Unlike the Bangsawan, the scripted plays of Sandiwara set a new standard for stage plays in the country. Sadly, too little is known about the genre today. There have been many attempts to revive Bangsawan, yet nothing is done for the lost genre of Sandiwara.
Source: www.nst.com (16 Juli 2007)