The Uniqueness of Traditional Malay Theatre

Written by Amni Ahmad

Malaysia is a very unique country. There are a lot of interesting culture and traditions that can be shared with the world. However, many Malaysians are still not familiar with the traditional folk arts in the country. Apart from traditional dance, traditional theatre is also one of the arts that should be promoted so that people will get to know more about the Malay culture and learn to appreciate it. Examples of traditional theatre are Mak Yong, Bangsawan, Mek Mulung, Main Puteri, and Barongan.

Traditional theatre in Malaysia is very special. This is because, the performances incorporate mystical elements that combine animism, Hinduism and Islam. Thus, the plot often includes aspects of divinity and the mention of learned religious scholars, and supernatural beings such as the angels, djinn, deities (such as Rama, Vishnu, Indera and others), mythical creatures, demons, spirits and others.

In the Malay community, traditional theatre is generally a form of entertainment, however, there are also some performances that are practised for healing purpose. Mak Yong, Wayang Kulit, Menora, Tok Selampit and Awang Belanga are all entertainment oriented. Whereas, for the healing purposes, we have performances like Main Puteri, Ulik Mayang and Mek Mulung.

There are three main elements in traditional theatre performances, which are dialogue, music, and dance. Some of the performances consist all three elements, but some do not. Wayang Kulit (shadow puppet theatre), Ketoprak, and Bangsawan for example, display all three elements. Besides that, all of these performances have real people as performers except for Wayang Kulit. Wayang Kulit uses puppets to represent the different characters involved in the performance.

Apart from that, in traditional theatre, there will be certain rituals that need to be fulfilled before starting a performance, called Buka Panggung (opening of the theatre). The purpose of conducting such ritual is to summon the spirits and unseen beings. A special offering is also presented to these beings as a sign of respect and as means of protection.

Mak Yong

The stories in Mak Yong are considered to be complete, original and possessing artistic values, as illustrated by its Dewa Muda, Dewa Pencil and Dewa Sakti characters. It is proudly placed in the World Heritage List under the category of ‘Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’ by the United Nations Educational, Science and Cultural Organisation in 2005. This proves that traditional theatre holds significant artistic value, portraying a sense of uniqueness to set it apart from other types of performances.

In Mak Yong, viewers will get to see several main roles, including Pak Yong, a young Pak Yong, Mak Yong herself, Puteri Mak Yong, comedians and handmaidens, and listen to folk songs such as Lagu Bertabuh, Mengadap Rebab; the singing of Pak Yong Tua, Sendayung Pak Yong and others.


The Bangsawan or Malay opera is a traditional drama that revolves around aristocrats. Its storyline talks of both the mythical and the real world. The characters in Bangsawan performance usually consist of warriors, handsome princes and beautiful princesses, slaves, djinn, nenek kebayan (witches) and monsters.

Truth be told, Bangsawan is actually the starting point of all modern dramas in Malaysia, as producers and script writers learn a lot from watching such performances. Consequently, Bangsawan performance is looked up upon as there are no prior scripts prepared, and all the actors are expected to create their own dialogue based on their own creativity, on the stage itself. They need to be spontaneous and creative to make the performance more interesting. The director only provides the storyline, and the actors must be able to improvise by creating their own dialogue. This would determine the effectiveness and originality of the story.

In order to attract viewers, Bangsawan not only applies spontaneous dialogue, but it also provides the elements of comedy, romance and melodrama in its storyline, and casts attractive performers.

Main Puteri

The Main Puteri is popular among the Kelantanese Malays. It is also known as Main Teri or Main Peteri. There are two main characters in Main Puteri, namely the Tok Puteri and Tok Minduk. Such performance is displayed as a form of entertainment, and can also be a practise of healing and shamanic rituals.

Accompanying the performance are various traditional musical instruments such as rebab, a pair of gongs, drums, canang and kesi. However, all these instruments are not played simultaneously, except for the rebab, which is played throughout the performance.

Apart from all the traditional theatres mentioned above, there are many other interesting performances existing in Malaysia. Although we are living in the modern era, it is still important for us to explore, and learn to love, and appreciate our valuable arts. Many of us do not realise that cultural products like traditional theatre can help the citizens stay united.

This is because, the arts and traditions help us gain a better understanding about history and how our culture developed. The sense of belonging can make people become patriotic. Besides that, it can also be made into a tourist attraction, a symbol of our country. As a result, the country’s economy can also improve.

If not us Malaysians, who else will appreciate our arts and traditions?

Photo credit:


Malay Theatre. (n.d.). Retrieved from Dance Malaysia:

Ramlan, M., & Quayum, M., A. (2010). Mapping the History of Malaysian Theatre: An Interview with Ghulam-Sarwar Yousof. Asiatic, 155-168.

Teater Tradisional. (n.d.). Retrieved from Jabatan Kebudayaan dan Kesenian Negara:

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