Februari 13, 2008

Pantun: The Romance and The Laughter of The Archipelago


The pantun of the Malay World, in its various names and forms, has captured the imagination and scholarship of many people form within and without the area. It is found to be indigenous and unique and is often considered as a kind of capsule of Malay life, thought and aesthetics. More than in any other form herein is to be found the genius of the Malay, his wisdom and wonderful shades of meanings, and modes of expression. For many, including the Malays themselves, here is to be found the magic of literature. Winstedt (1961) in his introduction of a collection of pantuns observes that `no one can estimate the mental scope of the Malay without an understanding of the pantun…’ This is the treasure house of thoughts, poetic and the life of the Malays.

The pantun is essentially an oral form – it was born from an oral past and continued this charmed life essentially as an oral form. However, over time, and with the popularity of the printing presses since the end of the 19th century, collections have been published in many dialects of the language, including the Malay of the Peninsula, Betawi, Riau, Melaka and Jakarta Peranakan, Minangkabau, Ambonese and Achehnese. In the meantime there are almost a hundred manuscripts of the pantun collected in the libraries of Jakarta, Leiden, Paris, London, Berlin, mostly of the pantuns from the end of the last century, and composed of various collections by scholars from England, Holland and Germany.

A recent study (Muhammad Haji Salleh and Bazrul Bahaman, 1999) was able to collect pantuns from 39 dialects of Malay and 25 non-Malay languages. These Malay dialects begin with Acheh in northern tip of Sumatra, through Langkat/Deli/ Serdang, Jambi, Minangkabau, Kerinci, Insular Riau (Bengkalis, Penyengat), Mainland Riau (Rokan, Indragiri Hulu, Kampar, Proto-Malays, South Sumatra, Ogan Komering, Lahad, Basemah, Musi, Prabumulih, Muara Enim, Lampung, Serawai). In the Island of Borneo the task of collecting was divided into two areas: West Borneo ( Sintang, Ketapang, Sambas, Hulu Kapuas) South Borneo (Kutai, Banjar, Pasir). Sulawesi (Celebes) too is similarly divided into two parts, namely, Manado and Gorontalo, while from the archipelago of Maluku (the Moluccas) pantuns were collected from Ambon and Ternate. The Malay dialects of the island of Java are spoken by Jakartans and the Peranakan Chinese. In Malaysia itself collection was done in the North (Kedah, Perlis, Pulau Pinang), East (Kelantan, Terengganu), West (Johor, Pahang, Melaka, Selangor, Perak), Negeri Sembilan, Sabah and Sarawak. Peranakan Chinese, Indians of Melaka and the Aslian (Proto-Malays), among others the Semak Brik, have a special contribution to the treasury of the pantun. In Brunei poems in Brunei Malay were similarly gathered, though from collections and various products of research and radio/tv programmes.In the non-Malay speaking areas of Sumatra the pantun is to be found among the Karo, Toba, Mandailing, Simalungun, Achehnese, Gayo and Alas. In Java itself pantuns are composed in Javanese and Sundanese languages. In Bali there is an old pantun form among the Bali Agha, while in the West Nusa Tenggara there is a version in Sasak. In Central Celebes the following groups use the pantun: Saluan, Kaili, Pamona, and Tanemperar. In Northern Celebes we find it among the Gorontalo, Sangihe-Talaud and the Minahasa peoples. In East Malaysia the pantun is found among Iban, Bidayuh, Melanau, Kedayan and Bajau. Pantun is popular among the Pattani Malays of in southern Thailand, who use a dialect of Malay quite akin to the Kelantanese.

A Collection of Definitions

The term pantun is an old one in Malaysia and Indonesia - from written records at least 400 years. But we cannot go wrong if we guess that it is much older than that. Those found in the texts of the Hikayat Raja-raja Pasir and Sejarah Melayu/Sulalat al- Salatin betray an already mature form and sophisticated tradition. The term itself grew and developed through the many centuries.

As shall be shown later the initial culture of the form is the Malay, and its original language likewise Malay. If we trace the development of the term’s recorded meanings we will notice that in the earliest Malay-English Dictionary (Bowrey ( 1701), a basic and quite rough work, a pantoon,’ is defined as a `meeter, rhime, verses, a Poem.’ From this basic definition a pantun is both a form and also a poem and rhyme. About a century later, in 1812, Marsden notes it down as, `an epigrammatic stanza or a poetic sentence, consisting of four short lines rhyming alternately, in which the thought is expressed by comparison or allusion. A comparison, allusion: simile, proverb.’

There is yet another new meaning to the two already noted, which likewise sees it as a camparison or a proverb. The 1907 Malay-English Dictionary (Wilkinson,) and the 1970 Kamus Bahasa Melayu by Winstedt stress the same two meanings as outlined by Marsden.

Wilkinson (1907) though is more thorough in his definition:a simile, a proverbial saying; (by extension, a quatrain, the first line of which rhymes with the third and the second with the fourth. In Sumatra sa-pantun is used where saperti would be used in the Peninsula, and the word sa-pantun occurs in this sense in Shair Jubili Melaka. In some romances (e,g, the Ht. Hg. Tuw.,and Ht. Hamz.) the word pantun is used with the meaning of `proverbial saying (umpamaan); in other romances it is confined in use to the well-known quatrains.The connection would appear to be in the use of proverbial sayings meaningless in themselves, but used as intelligible sayings rhyming with them; e.g., sudah gaharu cendana pula being used for sudah tahu bertanya pula. The transition from `proverbs’ of this kind (based on sound) to proverbial rhymes would be simple.

For Wilkinson, the first meaning of proverbs, with allusion, to the second of a poetic form is an easy transition. In 1934 Za’ ba more consciously defines the form as:The pantun is the oldest mode of verse and Malay in its origin. Even before the Malays knew how to write theywere already well-versed in the pantuns and were used to answer each other in the form. Even now the pantun is an original mode of poetic writing used by village Malays to describe their sad thoughts and the shades of their beautiful emotions, as in the graceful teasing and love making.

Klinkert( 1934), likewise defines panton with both the meanings, a special form among the Malay peoples and comparison or allusion.Later definitions too stay much along these two main meanings though some do expand on the characteristics, the rhyme and parts of the pantun, especially in Abdul Rozak Zaidin, Anita K.Rustapa, Haniah, 1991, Kamus Istilah Sastra. The total number of lines are from four onwards, with possibilities of expansion. There are various types of pantuns - the adat, religious, children’s, humorous, travellers’, introductory and riddles. This also would often lead to berbalas pantun, sessions where quatrains are replied with other quatrains.

Among the most famous and perfect of pantuns is the following poem where a network of sounds – parallels, assonance, alliteration, repetition of sounds and words produce a symphony of music and connotations.

Air yang dalam bertambah dalam
Hujan di hulu belumlah teduh,
Hati yang dendam bertambah dendam
Dendam dahulu belumlah sembuh.

In the Alas and the Banjarese dialects of Malay the same word pantun is used while in the Achehnese language, the word panton refers to the same form of poem. In Kerinci it is panton and in Manado Malay it is pantung.

In the Toba Batak language it is called ende-ende or umpasa, the latter recalls the Malay term umpama, meaning comparison or allusion, and therefore similar with it. It is mostly used in ritual and social meetings and ceremonies. However, in the Simalungun Batak language pantun means the same verse form though with a nuance of respect, which gives it an additional meaning. In Iban it can denote a song or an old saying, both of course closely related to the old meanings of the there Malay word.

In the great and yet unfinished search for the origins of the form Brandstetter has looked for the term in various Nusantara languages, including Pampanga, and concluded that the syllable tun means arranged, straight etc. However, this does not lead to a conclusive notion that the basic meaning does really refer to the still to be conceived form. According to Harun Mat Piah ( 1989:106) however, there is yet another view that the word originates from Minangkabau panuntun. However, no proof is given for this line of thought. One thing seems certain though - in all this discussion the word pantun is quite common for most of the Malay dialects and related languages of the Archipelago.

Van Ophuijsen, a collector of Sumatran pantuns, on the other hand, is of the opinion that the leaf language of the Bataks is the source of the pantun. He says that the Malays have no leaf language. This, though, is not totally true because there is a great code in Malay poetry in which words referring to leaves and trees in the first two preparatory lines would echo the meaning proper in following two lines. This code is perhaps even deeper than just a language of flowers and trees, for philosophically Malays see nature as a mirror of man and his fate. They read nature to understand their own situation. Alam terbentang menjadi guru, nature is spread out to be a teacher, says a famous proverb. Thus the pantuns posit the natural elements in the introductory lines and in the second part propound the meaning proper, often one already referred to indirectly by the first part or foreshadower. Not only names of leaves echo meaning but fishes and animals too lend themselves to doing the job.

In the following early two-line pantun names of common salt-water fishes – siakap, senohong, gelama, ikan duri, are arranged to echo human weaknesses: if once you tell lies, then you will start to steal:

Siakap senohong gelama ikan duri
Bercakap bohong lama-lama mencuri.

The relationship between nature and the human world through phoentic and semantic allusion has perhaps at an early age created pantun or proverb couplets, children’s songs, like the one above.

The couplet developed into a quatrain to allow a greater and more satisfying play of sounds, meaning and music, which finally became the famous and popular four-line pantun. Often used and often by very talented poets, the form underwent various experiments and emerged later as the six-, eight-, ten-, twelve-, fourteen-, sixteen-, eighteen-, twenty- and twenty-two line pantun, which still retain the two parts of foreshadower and meaning.

Meanwhile there developed a linked form. This is a series of linked quatrains, also a result of experimentation. Another line of experimentation produced the pantun alif ba ta, (the alphabet pantun), where the first word of each verse begins with a letter, in the proper sequence, pantun rejang, (where Malay horoscope symbolised by the different animals is cast into the pantun form. Finally, we find the rare Si Bungsu Babilang Malam in which a story is told night after night in verse, displaying its own special sophistication.

The form, variety and language of the pantuns are proofs of their age. The parallel lines, the children’s jingles and the riddles no doubt are the earliest forms. As it is delightful, funny but intelligent and wise the pantun came to be adopted and used in the different sectors of public and private life, from the lullabies to romantic emotions, from wise communal proverbs to observation of life. It is interesting to note that this form which hailed from primitive beginnings has not only been able to survive the centuries but is able to prosper in a more technological age, which has in fact killed other forms like the syair, seloka and the mantera.

When Srivijaya, on the southwestern coast of Sumatra became a great maritime power in the 8th century and influenced many states to the east, north and southwest of the Malay Archipelago, the language that was already quite sophisticated then continued to grow along as a medium of international communication and administration. Hundred of tribes/ethnic groups of Indonesia and Malaysia, which did not possessed a common language of communication were in need of one intelligible to all. Malay played this role to some degree and therefore was quickly seized upon to do the job. It was widely accepted -- not only did it become a language of interregional communication but there developed special Malay dialects in Betawi, Manado, Makasar, Ambon and Kupang to serve their specific regions.

The pantun is the most beautiful flower in the garden of the Malay language and literature. A simple form, it is yet capable of romance, humour, and could even carry customary laws which are the unwritten rules of conduct and guidelines for the communities. Many are pithy and wise, parcelled in chosen words, and therefore lend themselves to being easily memorable and often taken back on ships by sailors and traders, sung in the markets and to be spread to the hinterland of the ports. As they struck the imagination of many who heard them they attracted yet still many more new poets and imitators in the language or others in the different islands and regions such as Bali, Lombok, Nias, North Sumatra, Aceh, Sarawak (Iban, Melanau), Minihasa, Sangihe-Talaud and so forth.

The very complex network of maritime voyages and trading, spread by the Buginese, Malays, Jawanese, Minangkabau, and the Bajau, all found in the different parts of the Archipelago, also helped to transport the pantun throughout the islands. Most probably the Malay pantun was brought from one community to another island or part of it, that was perhaps a thousand kilometres away. The case of the Bajau who are to be found in Southern Philippines, the east coast of Sabah, Malaysia and the eastern and western ends of the Flores Island as a carrier of the form is indeed a notable one. While they fished and traded they took the pantun from their ports of call and brought it back to their communities, which were many as they often travelled from one to another. There is yet another example of its spread. Sintang, an old sultanate in the middle of the island of Borneo saw the coming of two Muslim missionaries, one from Banjar, and the other from Johor, in 1600. They taught religion and used Malay as the language of instruction. Besides religion they were also asked of the general cultural aspects of their home countries. Among the most important aspects of their of literary culture that they spoke of was the pantun. When the Sintang Sultanate developed and the language developed, the pantun too began to become popular, and composed in many Dayak languages, besides the Sintang Malay. This was the special Sintang method of spreading the form.

The next example is the Cocos Islands case. The islands to the south of Indonesia were taken over by Clooney-Ross in the late 1880’s. When there were not enough workers to work the coconut plantation the owner brought in Indonesian and Malaysians as indentured labourers from various parts of the Archipelago. They in turn brought with them their cultural baggage, and among it was the pantun, which not only later became the main form of entertainment but also a developed literary form. Over time it grew with the community and no doubt also marked the history of the language itself. Thus the Cocos pantun has special words that are not known in other parts of the Malay-speaking world.

The Sri Lanka case is a little differerent from that of the Cocos, but contains a typical pattern of Malay migaration. When the British were exiling rebels from their colonies some Malays were expatriated to the island of Sri Lanka. With them they carried their language, religion and literary treasury, including those in the written form. The pantun was easily transported, and became an element of their identity in the new and foreign land. Yet the pantun always enriched itself with local input, and the Sri Lankan Malay was no different. It developed within Sri Lankan surroundings, and flavours itself with local words or variations only to be found on the island.

In the Malay-language area of Sumatra, Peninsular Malaysia and the coastal areas of Borneo the development of the form was especially rich, partly also because it was easy to carry to all the areas by sea, rivers or land. Thus we see the pantun among the Komering and the Kerinci, and the Bangkahulu and Lampung peoples. From Palembang there were many sailors sailed the straits to Kedah, Perak and Pahang. This allowed the attractive pantuns of Palembang to be enjoyed in Pahang, Kedah and Perak. It seemed that there was an internal network among the Malay communities, while there was another, a bigger one, though looser, among the non-Malay groups, which we might call it an external network, but also overlapping with the Malay network.

When Melaka itself began to grow as an entrepot port during the 15th century the pantun was already a mature form around the Straits of Melaka, and possibly also in the Betawi, Ambon, Manado and the Makasar areas. The process of the spread was now more intense, for it was carried to even more distant islands and countries like Nias and Cambodia. As many would like to imitate the American pop songs in our times so would the songs of the Melaka imitated by the inhabitants of its colonies and hinterland. When Melaka fell to the Portuguese in 1511 the Malay language and the pantun could develop at its own rhythm, initially created by these two sultanates. After Melaka, Johor and Aceh were the centres, and the pantun spread further. The lingua franca, so-called the bahasa Jawi, was already a sophisticated language, known throughout Southeast Asia and also beyond - to Persia and Arabia, as traders sailed back and forth along this maritime silk route.

In the twentieth century the pantuns were more spread more formally though. When the Balai Pustaka was established in 1920 in Batavia and the Pejabat Karang Mengarang in Tanjung Malim in 1930’s part of their main responsibility was to write school textbooks and collect local literary works for publication. The pantun was included in the syllabus of the schools and collections, letting it spread far and wide, throughout the Archipelago and the different generations.

The Ecology of the Pantun

Nature is the closest neigbour to the Nusantara man. As he lived with it he saw and absorbed their ways and styles. For his survival or curiosity he observed the trees, the animals, the hills and mountains, the valleys, rivers and seas, the night and the day, the seasons and so on. In his village he took note of the different cultural artifacts like the house and its parts, the boats, weapons, tools of agriculture, clothing and so forth. So when he composed his seloka, syair and pantun he redrew them in as part of his world. In the pantun these elements of the environment may come in as the pembayang, the preparatory images, or even directly, into the meaning proper. Thus nature is not only the setting, but also the metaphor for human life.

The images most present in the poems are undoubtedly the flora and fauna. Each day the peasant went to his field to plant and care for the padi, to the orchards or vegetable gardens, or if he lived close to the sea or river he caught fish, and if he was close to the forest he went hunting. All these activities put him on an intimate contact with these parts of nature. He did not only observe nature but learned to understand its ways by interpreting signs, sounds and also behaviour. The sounds of the forest were not happy ones, and they were often reproduced, to reflect the difficult predicament that he must live through.

Padi is the staple food of most of the Nusantara peoples. A great part of the peasant’s life was spent in cultivating, caring and processing it. So it is no surprise that it reappeared as correlatives of his feelings. Better still, the word padi rhymes with two of the most important Malay concepts - budi and hati, kindness and heart. The following pantun allows a great play of the padi connotation and a network of echoes. The last two lines impatiently demands, If you love me, say you do, Let me not wait endlessly for your decision.’

Kalau padi katakan padi

Tidak kami tertampi-tampi

Kalau jadi katakan jadi

Tidak kami ternanti-nanti.

In yet another verse the padi, now in the form of hay, is again the pembayang to the meaning: `Only after seven years of drought did I realise the grass on parched land.’

Orang berhenti tepi surau,

Lihat padi campur jerami;

Tujuh tahun musim kemarau,

Baharulah sedar rumput di bumi.

Many other plants from the fields, equally crowd the pantun as the kacang (bean), mentimun (cucumber), kelapa (coconut), labu (pumpkin), kundur (gourd), lada (pepper and chili) and terung (brinjal).

Like the vegetables, fruits of all kinds and tastes find their way into the pantun lines. Many of them provide a connotative link with words that have almost a similar sound. For exmpale the mango, pauh rhymes with jauh, far, manggis, mangosteen, rhymes with manis, sweet. In the lines that follow exotic fruits like the pomegranate and chestnuts are metaphors for surprise.

Satu dua tiga enam

Satu dan enam jadi tujuh,

Buah delima yang ditanam,

Buah berangan hanya tumbuh.

Winstedt translates it thus:

I find one hand has five fingers,

I count up to ten upon the two;

What is the matter man alive,

Pomegranate, and gourd grew.

(Winstedt and Wilkinson 1961)

Like in other cultures flowers are the colourful symbols of happy situations, of love, gaiety and general happiness. In the tropics of the Malay Archipelago there are many of these that are wonderfully colourful or fragrant. The colourful but not fragrant is often the metaphor for a beautiful girl without decorum or politeness. But most often the flower, fragrant and bright, is the emissary of love.

The variety of images of the trees, fishes, the sea, river and the like is amazingly fecund and also finely recreated in the poems for ambience, poetic and semantic effect. In the following the Argus pheasant is conscripted to assist in our lover’s lovemaking:

Di mana kuang bertelur?

Di atas lata di ruang batu!

Di mana abang nak tidur?

Di atas dada, di ruang susu!

Hamilton translates it thus:

Where does the argus pheasant nest?

Above th falls, in ricky clefts!

Where shall your lover seek to rest?

Upon your bosom, `twist your breasts!

However, Malay poets have never limited themselves to nature alone to introduce their thoughts or become envoys of their feelings , for as they live in their houses and in the villages the artifacts of village life too become the sub-conscious world of their art works. In the verse below, the wick, with its connotation of the male organ or burning desire, is a powerful instrument of suggestion, though taken from an ordinary context.

Apa guna pasang pelita

Kalau tidak dengan sumbunya?

Apa guna bermain mata

Kalau tidak dengan sungguhnya?

Winstedt renders it as follows,

If there’s no wick within the lamp,

To light it toil is thrown away;

And what reck I of loving looks,

Except as fuel for love’s play.

An Ever Developing Form

In its earliest meaning the term pantun perhaps did not refer to the form that is divided into two parts of foreshadower and meaning, as we know it today. However, by the 17th century the word came to stand for the form. In many regions of the Nusantara, interestingly, the term essentially meant poetry of the kind to be found among the Malays. The exception was among the Sundanese, who use the term for a long narrative that was sung to an accompaniment of musical instruments.

The Malay language is a heavily vocal lone. In this language wherein music is buried in the repetition of consonants and vocals, words lend themselves to endless play - that subsequently created parallel lines and structure. Its first form perhaps may be seen in what the Malays call kata-kata berganda, double words that almost repeat each other but for a little change in the vowels normally. They are used to show quantity, as in bukit bukau (many hills), gunung ganang (many mountains), kayu kayan (many types of woods). In the meantime society was in need of a form of speech that was effective, on the one hand, but on the other also pleasant to the ears and full of possibilities of language and musical play.

The Nusantara peoples were especially sensitive to their environment – they read nature as signs, or metaphor for the human condition – they saw the world spread out before them as a teacher, an example, and instructor - alam terkembang jadi guru. They knew the trees, the flowers, the fish, the valleys and mountains intimately. They interpreted them and their ways so that they might learn the lessons of living.

Living in a feudal society that was forever full of uncertainty has ironically helped the Malays to create means and expressions that were less direct, and more tangential, which was finally to become the great art of metaphors and allusion. These were some of the factors that contributed to the birth of parallel poetry that has since continued to develop and grow.

While they were at their work in the fields, forest or at sea poems were spontaneously composed. As they were born to games of alliteration and assonance they could not help but overhear shadows of meaning in the words that are used for the trees, flowers, animals and parts of the sky and earth. In the word selasih (basil) they heard kasih, love, in the name of the island Daik they heard the word baik, good, and so on. The two lines about nature in the introductory part or pembayang was completed with next two lines (maksud) or meaning proper, dealing with their experience and predicament.

There is much evidence of the existence of a type of poetry based on sound and word play. The Nusantara literary heritage has a rich store of riddles and description in oral stories or nonsense children’s jingles which revel in the feast of sounds and their psychological connotations. Early poetry was mostly images that did not give importance to the meaning proper. The national pastime of saying things indirectly too has a big hand in the development of the pantun. Images and metaphors are used as emissaries of the desired meaning.

In their life the Nusantara peoples have been conscientious of nature, partly for the sake of their very own survival. They have watched the seasons, the seas, the jungle, and the river, so that they may live a more harmonious life. In all that they did nature was always present consciously or sub-consciously. Thus when they wrote their poems the images of nature of course flowed in and took its rightful part. In the view of the pantun, the rightful part is half of the lines, and must precede those that deal with human beings for nature preceedes and frames human life.

The earliest of the pantun forms would probably be two-line verses, that have similarities with concise proverbs. They contained a line that prepared, or to translate from the Malay term, pembayang, foreshadowed, the music and significance of the lines composing the maksud, meaning proper. For example this very famous teasing/love poem. The first line says:

Sudah gaharu cendana pula

Sudah tahu bertanya pula.

After agila, then the sandlawood,

Though you already knew, ask you would.

The second poem speaks of the need to repay someone’s kindness,

Ada ubi ada talas

Ada budi ada balas.

Tubers in the ridge

Kindness will see repayment.

In the following pantun proverb the pembayang line arranges four different types of fishes, which seem to echo other words in the language. The second line offers the reason as to why the names of fishes were included. Each fish-word rhymes with words that when strung together means, when you first start to lie, you will begin begin to steal.

Siakap sinohong gelama ikan berduri

Bercakap bohong lama-lama mencuri.

The two-line verse developed into a four-line form after poets struggling to express themselves noticed that a mere couplet could not do justice to the complex world or the rumination of the serious observer of human life.

Thus the four-line pantun was born. The four-line model is perhaps the most successful of the many forms. However, the restless poets were never satisfied. They experimented with the basic 4-line, 8-12 syllable poem. Some tried to bend the strict rules - the syllable-count is not adhered to strictly, letting their lines run to over 12 syllables or less than 8. But tried as they did they could not surpass the basic quatrain with the 8-12 syllable-count. It was simple and melodious, teasing listeners with metaphors and allusion. It is supremely open, and capable of any subject at all.

The Nusantara breath seems to fit in well. In delivery the first breath is for the first four words and the second the next four words and so on. But there is a caesura after every two words. Of all the pantun forms this is the most popular, with thousands of quatrains in Malay and many of the other languages, like Javanese, Achehnese, Balinense, etc. Though the Javanese and the Batak have two-line pantun-like forms, however most of the Malaysian and Indonesian ethnic groups compose in four lines. This however, does not kill off the two-line form, which has its own attraction – it is simpler, more compact and easier to remember while zooming in directly onto the point desired.

It is famously capable of humour:

Gendang gendut tali kecapi

Kenyang perut senang hati.

Though many are for children they do contain a certain moral inclination. There are to be found advice and pointers to help the young, as in this pantun,

Ada ubi ada batas

Ada budi ada balas.

As the form become popular so does its functions. Thus the four lines consequently become a constraint. In such cases poets have tried to modify it to allow it to accommodate more. One of the methods is to increase the number of lines. Thus we find 6, 8, 10, 12, and in Minangkabau even up to 22-line. The following example is a result of an experiment to add two more lines to the classic four,

Hilirkan rantau Mentulik

Bermalam di rantau Jonggi

Hilirnya menepi-nepi

Dalam sirih nan secarik

Dalam pinang nan setoni

Ada juga kehendak hati.

The principle of the division between foreshadower is closely adhered to, with the first three lines as the preparatory lines and the next three as the meaning proper. This is also true for the other longer variations.Another rare variation is the 5-line, where the first two is the introduction and the next three the meaning, as in this Minangkabau pantun,

Talantuang carano kaco

Badarai carano kendi

Oluik samo dirandangkan

Kok diranggang karano baso

Kok bacarai karano budi.

Contemporary developments have also seen the three-line poem, again very rare, as is seen in the following example,

Siakap sinohong

Gelama ikan berduri

Engkau memang pembohong.

The Linked Pantun

A serious poet is always in search of the prefect form. While the four-line pattern is perfect as a short form, yet in its space it is obviously limited, not able to narrate a sequence of events. It is a form to catch the moment or a singular fleeting experience. A successful way out is the linked pantun or the pantun berkait, composed of a sequence of quatrains that repeat two lines from the preceeding quatrain. The second and fourth lines of the first verse become the first and third lines of the second verse and so on, always keeping to the rhymes and the syllable count. Thus the poem progresses to the end until the story is satisfactorily completed. The following is excerpt is chosen by Za`ba from Hikayat Indera Mengindera. Note the repetition of the lines,

Lebah terbebar terbang sekawan,

Hinggap di celah kayu berduri,

Alangkah cabar rupanya tuan!

Dagangan indah tidak terbeli!

Hinggap di celah kayu berduri,

Kepayang tumbuh di dalam dulang,

Dagangan indah tidak terbeli,

Sayang sungguh nyawanya hilang.

Kepayang tumbuh di dalam dulang,

Burung merpati terbang ke awan,

Sayang sungguh nyawanya hilang,

Tidak seperti Raja Pahlawan.

Again there are variations when not the whole line is repeated, only some allusion is made to the preceeding lines.There is yet another form, the berbalas pantun, where on an occasion like the dondang sayang or the dikir barat, a man or a woman will sell’ his pantun to his partner. The partner must answer him or her within the rhythm of the song.

Variety and popularity are evidence of age. The pantun has achieved such popularity to such a point that most anybody knows and can compose it. The more adventurous poets find new forms and variation to add to its repertoire. An interesting example is the pantun alif ba ta. In this form each first word of the verse is begun consecutively with letters of the alphabet. In the following excerpt the old Malay alphabet is used, and therefore dubbed pantun alif ba ta. Here are three verses from a manuscript of the Royal Asiatic Society, (Maxwell 48),

Alif berdiri seperti tiang

Tempat raja membuat rumah,

Tuan dipandang seperi wayang

Wujud anggota habislah lemah.

Bahil emas cibu suasa

Tempat minuman raja Kelantan,

Duka nestapa senantiasa

Memandang warna cahaya intan,

Tentang burung Si Rajawali

Singgah menyambar anak ketam,

Angkat sembah menyanjung duli

Mohonkan nilam puspa ragam.

There is still yet another variety but not too different from the alif ba ta pattern. This is the Si Bungsu Babilang Malam sequence, in which each night is enumerated and the happening filled in,

Si Bunsu Babilang Malam

Malamnyo malam ka oso

Anak anso parang jo anso

Parang jo anak nan sabuah,

Manga Si Bonsu tagak di siko

Mananti tanun nan balun sudah.

Si Bonsu babilang malam

Malamnyo malam nan kaduo

Uo-uo di kayu anak

Mari den adang jo sumpitan,

Badan baduo badunsanak

Surang lah lare dilawitan.

Si Bonsu babilang malam

Malamnyo malam katigo

Rigo-rigo ka Padang Panjang

Sutan Amaik pulang di jao,

Urang mambia den mamulang

Kok tak ameh sabuangkan nyawo.

It is a very dynamic form indeed. Tested over the centuries, experimented with, accepted and opened again for new forms and expression, the pantun is perhaps the only traditional form that is still alive and still growing. It is found in modern poetry, in the mass media etc.

The pantun has not only been absorbed into the life of the society as a literary form but also play a very important social role . These role interestinglly not only cross all social borders but also age demarcations. Yet essentially it is found to be used as a tool of entertainment, among children in their songs and games, and among adults as a lightener of the burden of work, a social tool of advice, and a repository of rules and regulation and governance, and finally, and not least important, the wisdom of the race.

The pantun, as we have tried to show, began with children’s word play and jingles. These poems are sung to accompany certain games, sung by adults while playing with them while caring for them, or spoken by the children themselves. For example among the Serawai of Sumatra (Mardan Waib, Sofyan, Zufiyardi 1994/1995: 25-32) there is a game that is called cuit-cuitan (touching), where a baby is let down to touch ground and the following lines are said,

Cuit-cuit pandai

Elalang jungkit-jungkit,

Ecuit dengan pandai

Agak dengan kuungkit-ungkit,

or at another game called rendai adults clap their hands while rhythmically singing these lines:

Pok pok andai

Belalang kupu-kupu,

Bepuk dengan pandai

Kaagi kaupah aih susu.

Aih susu lemak manis

Bersantan kelapa muda,

Oi ading jangan nanges

Kuagik kuupah susu.

The following pantun is spoken by and among children, older ones than those in the above cases. Among the Serawai children sing these line while bathing in the river,

Gong pak degong

Perahu kelipas jantung,

Berjalan ke Bundang Banding Ngambek pisang raje talun

Minte neng jarum.

The poems are either of two or four lines, as they are more suitable for simpler words and meaning, usually taken from everyday language.A very famous one to be found in many places of the Archipelago is this poem,

Timang tinggi-tinggi

Sampai cucur atap,

Belum tumbuh gigi

Dah pandai baca kitab.

It is not only a lullaby, but one that encourges the child to quickly master the alphabet and read the kitabs - the religious books.

The pantun is fortunate that it is taught in schools unlike the syair or the seloka. Being in the system helps to continue the tradition.

Another form of `entertainment’ is the work pantun, sung while at work. (Our forefathers really knew how to live and enjoy themselves!)

The Archipelago society was essentially a peasant community, except for fishermen and traders who formed a small protion of this farming community. They planted rice, tubers and vegetables, cut trees and searched for forest products, caught fish in the rivers and sea, and sometimes herd animals. Most of it was backbracking and monotonous work that had been lightened by sharing of the burden and by singing. Sometimes the members of the community gathered together. The occasions might be at rice or sugar-cane harvesting times. Food was often contributed by the host and it might turn into a feast, as in many areas planting, reaping, winnowing of padi were communally.

However, communal work was also a place where boys might be allowed to meet girls and given a chance to exchange words, often enough through the pantun, in song or in spoken replies. On days like these social constraints were relaxed to allow possible romance and marriage. Poems like these are to be found in Riau while villagers sow hill padi,

Balibi tobang saatui

Mati dikubik sapu tangan,

Umpan la abi kaye laputui

Tingge juaghan di tapak tangan.

Elok elok manyingkok belek

Belek baisi kue loyang,

Elok-elok mambukak sughek

Sughek baisi kasih sayang.

When work is done alone, the pantun is a friend in need. It became a companion through monotonous and lonely periods. While cutting wood or tapping rubber the workers would sing to themselves, letting the pantun carry their emotions.

Pantun in Performances

It is during harvest, circumcision and marriage that we find the different traditional performances staged in the Nusantara villages. They may take the form of wayang kulit (shadow play), the makyong and dike dances, and the verse-capping songs as in the dondang sayang, dikir barat and the berbalas pantun. There are indeed many occasions when the pantun is employed - to introduce a story or character, to describe a situation or the beauty of a girl, to become instrument of her romance and love play, etc. In the dondang sayang a young woman and a man sing and banter through the medium of poetry while teasing and making verbal love. A musical instrument or an ensemble often accompanies the delivery of the pantuns. Below are two verses that may be used by the dondang sayang singers of Melaka or the mukun singers of Sarawak, the first by a man and the second by a woman. The additional two lines, lines three and five are repetitions or fillers, and the basic form is still the four-line pantun. The woman asks, `How big is our world?’ and the man answers that it is easy to measure. It is as big as the eye can see.

Dondang Sayang Takdir

Burung merebuk burung tekukur

Masuk ke sangkar terus berlaga,

Burung merebuk burung tekukur

Kalau tuan pandai mengukur.

Alahai sayang

Berapalah besar dunia kita?

Padi di sawah ditumbuk jemur

Bawa sekarung dari ladang

Padi di sawah ditumbuk jemur

Dunia kita senang diukur

Hinggalah sayup memandang mata memandang.

Traditional Malay songs or Lagu Melayu Asli are often wellknown for their pantuns, or have been instrumental in popularising certain poems, as has been shown above. While in dondang sayang the poems are spontaneously created those in the traditional songs are often popular ones, though it must be acknowledged that some were composed especially for the songs, like the Seri Sarawak and the Seri Mersing. Even modern songs do not totally avoid the pantun, because the form is popular and very much appreciated by the audience. In a nutshell the singer in the song below laments his situation. He does not want to be separated from his beloved, but who knows the wishes of Allah? However, he may not cry because he is no longer a child, and he may not fly to her/him, because he is no bird. But for the meantime he suffers, for his love is unrequited.

The following are the lyrics of the `Seri Siantan.’

Tiup api embun berderai

Embun berderai

Patahlah galah haluan perahu,

Niat dihati tak mahu bercerai

Seri Siantan

Kekuasaan Allah, kuasalah Allah

Siapa tahu?

Runtuh bumi tempat berpijak

Tempat berpijak

Patahlah dahan tempatku bergantung,

Hendak menangis bukannya budak

Seri Siantan

Hendaklah terbang, hendak terbang

Bukannya burung.

Terbang sekawan burungnya belibis

Burung belibis

Jatuh seekor di tepilah pantai,

Hatiku sakit hiris bagai dihiris

Seri siantan

Kasih kuharap, kasih kuharap

Balas tidak berbalas.

Lullabye Pantuns

As a complement to children’s pantuns mothers and relatives to put their children to sleep sing the lullabies. They are mostly sung to simple tunes. Though even sung to the very young they often contain advice and hopes of mothers that their children will grow into good citizens and useful human beings.

These quatrains were collected from Kampar, Taluk Kuantan, and Serawai in Sumatra:

Omua kito poi mandi

Mandi jangan bakubang tana

Omua la kito poi mangaji

Mangaji jangan buek pitona.

Potang iko potang sotu

Potang isuak potang had,

Indak basuo ujud nan satu

Cubo tengok dalam tarikat.

Jatuh seludang pinang tinggi

Jatuh ke laman raja-raja,

Penat sembahyang petang pagi

Tidak beriman payah saja.

Tebang tebu sampai ke ujung

Sampai ujuangnyo ka Malaka,

Tuntuik alemu ganti payuang

Payuang pandendeng api noroko.

Tobang tobu tinggi-tinggi

Tobang rumbio ta pangkal,

Tuntuik alemu samaso kini

Iduik di dunio indakkan kokal.

These are fairly religious poems that speak of the ephemeral and transient nature of human life and world. Thus the child is urged to study the religious books and conscientiously worshio God so that he may go to heaven

Adat Pantuns

The Malays have an old adage: Hidup dikandung adat, mati dikandung tanah. In life we are contained in adats (customs), in death we are contained in the earth.

As we have tried to show earlier the pantun has special oral qualities dear to the Malays. It lends itself to numerous functions. As social rules and proverbs need to be compacted in a small form, the pantun again, already known to many, offers a special space into which adapt laws fit well. Arranged in a fine format it is easily committed to memory and easily reproduced when needed. Over the centuries it has become one of the main forms where the adat laws are stored, and also a favourite with those who must remember hundreds of them. These verses later came to be known as pantun adat.

The verses tend to cover a large area of human activities, including strategies and challenges of making a living, social decorum, religion, rights and responsibilities of a citizen, concepts of the divine etc. The first pantun relates the need for a flexible and comonsensical approach when confronting a hill, the posture of that must be chosen while going up and down hills, literally and metaphorically, and the second gives guidance on the type of earth to be planted.

Tasindorong jajak manurun,

Tatukiak jajak mandaki.

Adat jo syarak kok tasusun,

Bumi sanang padi manjadi.

Sasukek duo boleh taie

Dicupak mako digantang

Nan lunak ditanam baniah

Nan kareh di buek ladang.

Dealing with an aspect of social heirachy and responsibility of the various chiefs the following pantun notes how when each member plays his part and function, then the community may become `elok,’ harmonious.

Elok nagari dek penghulu,

Rancak tapian dek nan mudo,

Kalau akan memegang hulu,

Pandai mamaliharo puntiang jo mato.

The adat proverbs cover a whole range of spheres that we do not have space for. But it suffices to say that the pantun has been a successful medium for the innumerable themes and functions of the adat, from advice to the young in human relationship, to care of the old, to the division of property after the death of parents and the like. And they still speak with versatility, on the one hand, and on the other help to mythify regulations and the adat itself. They have become what is called “hadis Melayu”, traditions (like those of the Prophet) of the Malays.

The Pantun as Intellectual Symbol

As the pantuns are full of rumination on life, laws and regulations, they are in fact the unwritten books of the knowledge. He or she who masters the laws, in the form of the pantun or otherwise, is also the master of communal knowledge, and as knowledge is power; the knowledgeable person is likewise powerful. The knowledgeable is usually the elder, the reference point, the chief or teacher. Idris Hakimy, a noted writer on the adat, for example, remembers several hundred pepatah, berbilangan and pantuns. Researchers and chiefs consult him for his proverbs and his more contemporary approach to the adat.

For some, the pantun may provide a path into the upper echelons of a society. One who knows no pantun is very rare member of society indeed, and may even be categorised as desiring to avoid the main route to social exchange and a sophisticated group. To enter into it is also to be raised in the status. The pantun expert is highly respected in Malaysia and Indonesia. Tan Sri Aziz Tapa of Melaka, a long time Member of Parliament is respected all round, by politicians as well as scholars, by Chinese traders and Indian civil servants. He is in possession of the finest of the Malay literary arts and thus often consulted and invited to preside over meetings and to give inaugural speeches.

Elders at meetings and inaugural ceremonies - at installations of chiefs, at marriage ceremonies, and among the Bataks and Pernakans of Melaka, even at wakes often use Pantuns. In the Rokan district of Riau there is an upah-upah ceremony to express gratitude to God that a catastrophe is avoided, or it may take the form of a prayer - for a healthy life, an honest and harmonious relationship between husband and wife, etc.

Gadih munyosah di ateh akik

Bujang munyomua dipaneh ai,

Jauhkan ongkau dai punyakik

Nak jangan tuhalang poi mencai.

Munokuik kijang dalam imbo

Dukuik dibuek dai tanuk uso,

Takuiklah ongkau kupado doso

Momohongi bini/laki jangan di cubo.

Ku hutan muncai otan

Kuladang munanam padi,

Olah dibuek puholatan

Munjadi ongkaow laki bini.

(Al-Azhar 1985)

Among the Talang Mamak (an aboriginal community in Riau) who have not become Muslims the oath of marriage or divorce too is taken in the poetic pantun form, thus,

Jati si kumbang jati

Daun lirik talian naga,

Patah tumbuh hilang berganti

Aku mendirikan adat pusaka.

Apit dinding berapit

Akan mengapit serunjunya,

Kalau baik ambillah kapit

Apakan bisa sembarang gunanya.

Sedang mengkudu lagi berpawal

Kunun pula cempedak muda,

Lagi penghulu lagi bergawal

Kunun pula budak muda-muda.

Hanyut kaca dari hulu

Hanyut guntang-guntang,

Apa daya tenggang pengulu

Aku menyerahkan budak berutang.

Tang si kuntang-kuntang

Kedidi pandak kaki,

Aku menyerahkan budak berutang

Apa teriba dalam hati.

Apa tebe dilunda-lunda

Akan pelemang sauh bekal,

Sepantun manau dua sejunjungan

Tidak tau hujung dan pangkal.

Adi-adi andai-andai

Angkarang mudik perigi,

Cerdik-cerdi pandai-pandai

Emas dikandung jangan pergi.

Here the pantun takes over the function of religious rituals. On the other hand, among the Toba Batak, however, the closing of a marriage ceremony is concluded with pantuns. They are spoken by hula-hula or nobles.

Pantun as Mantera

The mantera, curing incantation, perhaps came into being earlier than the pantun, for it was most probably one of the earliest of literary forms, and also as a mode of relating man to the supernatural powers that control over human beings and their health. The poetic pantun words were of supplication and of request that they be helped in their physical needs.

In another mantera the hunter is gathering his spiritual power in an attempt to neutralise spirits that dwell in the bodies of animals or trees. In the following the hunter declares that he is lifting the evil spirit of the deer so that he may easily overcome the animal:

Sirih lontar pinang lontar

Terletak di atas penjuru,

Hantu buta jembalang buta

Aku mengangkat jembalang rusa.

(Skeat 1965).

Some mantera verses are in fact full-fledged pantuns, but others are composite, with other necessary non-poetic elements included. When pantuns are used on such occasions they exhibit little difference from other pantuns. The following mantera for snaring the mousedeer was collected by Skeat in the last decades of last century, in Selangor:

Sirih unta pinang unta.

Kerakap memanjat puar,

Pesan pada jembalang rimba

Kutu hutan suruh keluar.

Suruh keluar anak beranak

Suruh keluar bercucu.

(Skeat 1965).

The first quatrain is a full-fledged pantun, while the next two lines are added on to enhance the mantera, and spoken in a voice of a time-tested hunter. Besides overpowering animals and spirits the mantera also helps to drive away the source/cause of illnesses - stomach aches, in the case below.


Lotong kekah ijuk tali

Aku menawar kembung segah

Kentut jadi.

Malam senak mudik ke limbung

Singgah mari rumah mak encik,

Menawar senak dengan kembung

Lantas turun ke kaki.

Turun bisa

Naik tawar

Aku menawar bisa perut.

(Hasan Junus and Edi Ruslan 1993).

The fantastic or surrealistic is more discernible in these mantera-charged lines, though the pantun itself often elects to include these elements as a show of metaphorical talent and prowess, not least to its adversaries. Here they are used to provide a link to the supernatural. However, it must be noted that that there is a great sense of respect and propriety in all the lines, as a kind of necessary decorum.

Pantun in Narratives.

The pantun is exceptionally important in the narratives and art of narration. It seems to be very old and go back to oral tales like the Hikayat Malim Deman, Hikayat Malim Dewa and Anggun Cik Tunggal. On the other hand it is also found in oral stories newly collected, but have roots in the distant past, like those collected by Mustafa Mohd Isa, 1987. In Riau too this verse form is generally scattered throughout the many stories of the Nyanyi Panjang (long narrative songs) of the Aslian groups of Riau (Tenas Effendi 1997), Awang Belanga in Perlis (Mustafa Mohd Isa 1983) kaba in Minangkabau (Suryadi 1994) and kokoba in Kampar (Derks 1993), and finally even in the modern “kaba,” that makes use of contemproary situations and settings. In the story of the Lubuk Sikaping People (Suryadi 1993), for example, we find this narrative poem,

Dari Alai mudiak ka Ampang

Ka pulang ari la gak sanjo,

Ambo bapangkek kato urang

Dek ambo ado nan taraso.

(Suryadi 1993).

In the oral stories the pantuns are to be found at strategic points in the tale itself, i.e. at the beginning, change of episodes, end of story, dialogue between characters and while the narrator is describing a character or an event. As an example we see these opening lines of the Nyanyi Panjang in the story of Bujang Tandomang. The narrator greets his audience and announces that he would open with the verses of the pantun, and implores that if he does err he should be corrected.

Finally, in the last verse he names the title of the story to be told that evening.

Indang donai


Buah lakom di dalam somak

Padi seumpun ditimpo bonto,

Salamualaikum kepado sanak

Kami bepantun membukak ceito.

Indang donai


Padi seumpun ditimpo bonto

Kalau patah tolong togakkan,

Kami bepantun membukak ceito

Kalau salah tolong simakkan.

Indang donai


Pasang pelito di topi-topi

Pelito dipasang betali-tali,

Konang ceito di dalam ati

Citonyo Datuk Domang Serial.

(Tenas Efendi 1997).

The strategic use of the poem in the stories is also seen in Aceh, where it is included also in the opening lines of a hikayat or poetic narrative, as a khuteubah (sermon), or to announce the change of episode, as in the following excerpt of Hikayat Pocut Muhammad. The narrator informs that he has come to the end of the episode and now wants to shift to the story /episode of the Banta Muda.

Aneuk siwaih jipho u blang Anak rajawali ke sawah terbang

Daruet canggan susah raya Belalang jangkung susah hatinya

Bah lon peuduek si’at ohnam Kisah saya ini cukuplah sekian

Lon kurangan Banta Muda. Saya alihkan cerita Banta Muda.

(Drewes in Imran, 1979:70)

In order to relate to the audience the narrator often changes gear in the middle of the narration and bursts into pantuns, which also often introduce more humour, emotions and teasing, in an act of reaching out to the different sectors of the audience. This is teasing in Dendang Pauh of the Minagkabau. The following line praises the host who has kindly invited the troupe,

Dari Alai taruih ka Jati

Ka baruah jalan ulak karang

Luriuh masuak ka jambatan,

Tando baralek paramisi.

Jauah jo ampia kawan datang

Karano budi basangkuitan.

These words praise the audience,

Rang tabiang ka lubuak bayo

Mambaok nyiru ka tapian,

Akie jo buyuang tibo pulo

Karano bodi basangkuitan.

Finally the end of the story is likewise neatly sealed with a pantun or two, as illustrated by this rhyme,

Cobalah siriah kuniang gagang

Nyo makan anak panyalinan,

Balun tairik labiah panjang

Bia jo saluang panyampaian.

(Suryadi 1991)

In the nazam and the syair, the monotonous four-line monorhymes are often broken up by the introduction of the pantuns, which again are awaited for their promise of humour, romance and play, which the other forms seldom offer in such a quantity. It is as though a new episode, structure or dashing character is introduced after a long while. It presents a welcome change of rhythm, order and ambience.

Pantun in Proverbs

As in the adat laws the pantun mould is also put in the service of the proverbs, which in general may be viewed as a great and wonderful treasury of social ideals, norms and values. In scope these cover an even wider area than the former.

The earliest proverbs perhaps preceded the pantuns, as products of the Nusantara man’s observation of nature and his human neighbours. In its historical development it has found its way into numerous sectors of human endeavour and modes of speech and discourse. Some of the proverbs probably began life as a mere line or couplet. But because the mature pantun so easily accommodated new functions and was considered to be attractively concise some of the proverbs have been recast into this form, with one, two, or even three lines added.

The proverb pantuns are normally of exceptional quality; their words are well chosen and the foreshadowers highly imaginative. The lines are well balanced, as products of a more conscientious process and not spontaneously composed like love poems of the berbalas pantun. Let us take an example,

Anak angsa mati lemas

Mati lemas di air masin,

Hilang bahasa kerana emas

Hilang budi kerana miskin.

There is a possibility that the proverb in the last two lines, concerning how decorum is lost when gold intrudes, and budi is lost because one is poor, has already been known for many years or centuries before it found a new form for its meaning. In order to cast it into a pantun two introductory lines were composed, to prepare for the meaning proper, and give it a pantun structure and completeness.

There is yet another variation where only the fourth line is a proverb, and the three preceeding lines are composed after the fact. This is of course more challenging. The first two preparatory lines are composed, then a line is further added to precede the proverb proper. This process enlarges the meaning of the proverb and provides details which might have escaped the listener/reader,

Ada seekor burung pucung

Leher panjang laksana terong,

Tiada tahu sendiri kosong

Sebagai kaduk naik junjung.

The proverb says, a semi-wild kaduk creeper (thus of a lowly status) forgets itself when it climbs a tall wooden support. The pantun poet has added a line before this, to refer to a person who does not know that he is but an empty shell. This lines completes the meaning of the poem.

In yet still another version, the form used is still the four-line verse. The old proverb is only to be found in the third, here in italics, (meaning if you have done something that should not be known by others, you must keep it out of sight), while the first, second and fourth lines are the contribution of the new poet. Here again he provides the extra details that would help explain the meaning, while providing the preparatory lines and metaphors.

Anak ikan dimakan ikan

Anak sia di dalam tua,

Tahu makan tahu simpan

Rahsia jangan bagi keluar.

However, there are also two-line proverb pantuns. Here, for example, the proverb is normally in the second line, while the first is creative product of the poet.

Spoken in a situation of awe or advice, these poems are invaluable, and perhaps because they employ the time-tested pantun mould they are more effective. Many are, however, spoken half in jest, and hits tangentially, to protect the person targeted from feeling malu or shame.


The pantun has admitted itself into almost all the important spheres of life. It is widely appreciated, enjoyed and composed by both king and subject. Throughout the community, from the leaders to villagers, from folk healers to singers, from retainers to slaves, from elders to children, the pantun is known and well employed in rituals and dialogues between neighbours and friends.

The themes of the pantuns can be guessed at even from afar, through their many functions, for function is closely related to the contents and the occasions.

Among its more dominant themes are firstly, love, secondly, social values, thirdly, fate, fourthly, family life, fifthly, the children’s world, and sixthly, situations during work. But in truth such division of themes is never mutually exclusive. A poem may touch on more than one theme; for example a love poem may touch on the whimsical nature of fate. And the themes listed here are mostly the popular and obvious ones. As the pantun is by nature indirect and considers direct statements less poetic, thus some themes are purposely hidden or made vague, as vague as the metaphors or symbols in which they are offered.Love, as a theme is the single most dominant, as the pantun is often seen as a medium of the heart and emotions, especially among the young. These poems are spoken or sung at harvest, marriage and other social occasions, as described earlier. They are most popular when they are sung before an audience with a man and a woman mutually teasing each other, in fine allusion, and within the decorum of the society. Related subjects may include longing, unrequited emotions, parting, jealousy, and dejection, the love triangle and anger.

Other occasions when love pantuns may be heard are in the lyrics of love songs, in the dondang sayang of Melaka and the dikir barat of Kelantan, kentrung of Java and also the traditional songs of the Malays. This love song touch on a myriad of subjects, all experienced or imagined. In the earlier stage of an affair there is the difficult relationship. In the subsequent stage we may revel in poems of praise, or suffer those of uncertainty, despair, longing, anger, jealousy and so on.

Praise is usually directed at a girl’s beauty, her budi bahasa, and other similar qualities. The following is in praise of a young woman’s surprising beauty and fragrance.

Anak itik terbang ke hutan,

Disambar buaya patah kakinya;

Bunga cantik jadi suntingan,

Tak sangka begini harum baunya.

Cik Dayang berkain batik,

Memakai tudung sutera Cina;

Semakin kupandang bertambah cantik,

Makan tak kenyang tidur tak lena.

Social Norms, Values and Interpersonal Relationship

Next to the love theme, are the poems of social norm and values, that make up a big portion of the pantun’s repertoire. Budi - goodness, and the sense of indebtedness for someone’s kind deeds, etiquette, ethics, decorum, the values of patience and hardwork, respect for the elderly and each other - all find their argument in the verses. Let’s take a closer look at each of these.


Budi has a very complex meaning, covering the areas of goodness, wisdom, decorum, kindness, behaviour, morality, and service (Kamus Dewan 1994:180). Among the Malays budi is considered the highest of values, one that makes for a good human being, and must be embraced by one and all. Says a famous pantun,

Yang kurik kundi

Yang merah saga,

Yang baik budi

Yang indah bahasa.

The spotted is the gold weight

The red is the Indian pea,

The virtuous is kindness

The resplendent is decorum.

This value/ideal can have a wide ranging influence - a race is strong because of its budi, and is destroyed because its budi is impaired.

Kuat rumah karano sandi

Rusak sandi karano rumah binaso,

Kuat bangso karena budi

Rusak budi hancuala bangso.

And budi is the very environment, the very air, the beautiful art of living. Among the Malays the budi and the adat are two moulds that make them the useful citizens that they should be. There is no exception to this rule, and neither can it be an object of trade or profit.

Anak Cina mengirim surat,

Dari Jawa sampai ke Deli;

Hidup kita dikandung adat,

Budi tidak dijual beli.


Living in a difficult environment and ruled by feudal rajas and chiefs who were often unjust or cruel, to be patient was a necessary quality. Children as well as mature members of the community were taught early its virtues. As in the following lines, there is little use in worrying over things, but patience is beneficial in so many ways,

Apa guna pokok kiambang,

Sehari-hari gugur daunnya;

Apa guna menaruh bimbang,

Menahan sabar banyak gunanya.

In human relationship the pantun has offered many an advice. The pantuns are a great store of this advice and ready to be quoted by any one at all. In the following poem, for example, the duties of a man is enumerated - his own child should be placed on the lap, cared for intimately, while his nephews and nieces must be led, and the villagers too as neighbours come within his sphere of responsibility.

Kaluak paku kacang balimbiang,

Tampuruang langgang-lenggangkan,

Bawo manurun ka Saruaso.

Anak dipangku kamanakan dibimbiang

Urang kampuang dipatenggangkan,

Tenggang nagari jan binaso.

Again decorum plays a supreme role in interpersonal relations. In the following lines, thrift is encouraged and the six qualities of a good person practised.

Bajalan surang tak dahulu

Bajalan baduo tak di tangah

Hemat dan cermat dio salalu

Martabat nan anam di pakaikan.

Another quality of the good citizen is that he or she follows the precepts of religion. As many of the Malay values overlap with the religious ones, like the qualities of patience, hardwork and justice, these values are thus doubly stressed. On topics that are religious proper we often hear the themes of the existence of Allah, morality and the good person, worship, of the prophets, his Companions and the hereafter.

The following series of poems is an advice on how to achieve a strong bond with God, through Sufism of the tarikat school.

Potang iko potang sabtu

Potang isuk potang ahad,

Indak tajumpo di ujud yang satu

Cubo tengok di dalam tarikat.

Potang iko potang ahad

Potang isuok potang sanoyan,

Indak basuo di tarikat

Cubo tengok di simpul iman.

Potang iko potang sanoyan

Potang barisuok potang salasa

Indak basuo di dalam tarikat

Di sanan umat maraso susah.

(Siti Johari 1992)

Family Life

If religious life is paramount, family life is perhaps as important too. As many poets and observers of Nusantara life cannot help but live through it and its related issues - from the problems between husbands and wives, to those between siblings - they naturally become the subjectmatter of their literary creations. The following quotation tells of the tight-rope existence of a daughter-in-law. Her parents in-law are angry, therefore the wife makes a decision to return home.

Pucuk perah selera perah,

Pucuk kundur ngelai ke hulu;

Ibu dan bapa sudahlah marah,

Biar saya balik dulu.

Finally the pantun has several other themes, for which this essay, unfortunately, has no space. Among them we hear of those concerning unmarried girls, widows and widowers, poverty and justice and the fate of the dagang - the sailor or trader who has to be away from home for long periods of time.

It is thus quite clear that the pantun enter into numerous sectors of human exsistence and contributes to an undertanding of man, life and nature – all of this a knowledge necessary for his survival and development.

Contemporary Poems

Oral literature of the many ethnic groups in Malaysia and Indonesia is fighting for its life, while some are beyond resuscitation. This is the tragedy of our times, and their blood is on our hands. Their contact and great clash with the colonialism that foregrounded an alien culture, language and modes of living have caused them to be marginalised, especially if they have chosen to be themselves and follow the cultures of their forefathers. In the meantime the coming of modernisation and the unstoppable globalisation has all but killed the indigenous artistic forms. The coming of the radio, movies, television, and now the computer, is a loud death knell for much of Malaysian and Indonesian oral works. However, within this grim narrative only that of the pantun can tell a more pleasant tale, not (yet) with a tragic ending. While the other forms are dying the pantun is still alive, both as a classic form and also a contemporary one.

In this new world the pantun still stands its ground, albeit after certain adjustments. As it is flexible on the one hand, and on the other, being deeply rooted in the mind of Malays and Nusantara man, it was easily carried over into new genres and uses. Thus it is no surprise that we find pantuns in advertisements, lyrics of songs, comics, introductory lines of TV and radio programmes, in the plays and films. In a Malaysian TV advertisement a quatrain or two is composed to sell Everyday Milk, or MasterCard. The Everyday poem sounds as follows - it is not a good one - but colourful enough and quite direct, spoken by two children answering each other. One of them says, if you want to know the secret it is the new Everyday.

Mak ke pasar bajunya merah
Adik diiring berbaju biru,
Nak tahu apa rahsianya
Inilah susu Everyday baru.

In another advert the representative of a bride asks the bridegroom to `buy’ the fan she is holding, before he is allowed to sit by her. She does so in the pantun form, as is usual on these occasions. The man replies in also with a pantun but presents a MasterCard as payment. In faraway Bali we find another use of the modern pantun. Listeners to a radio programme sponsored by a company may send in pantuns in praise of a sponsor’s product, for example a brand of coffee. The chosen poems are read over the air, and their poets are rewarded with a song each.

This Indonesian-language pantun on Radio Aneka Rama, in 1993, a commercial Balinese radio, praises Fumakilla, a mosquito repellant,
Burung crukcuk cukup banyak
Suka makan buah pala yang kenyal,
Ubat nyamuk memang banyak
Ubat nyamuk Fumakila yang cukup terkenal

Kusir planduk suka makan ketela

Ketela juga makan pokok kita semua,

Usirlah nyamuk dengan si Fumakila

Kerana nyamuk adalah musuh kita semua.
The next one drinks in the the delicious praise of coffee,
Terima kasih atas kiriman fotomu
Wahai adik dara madona yang manja,
Kopi cap kupu-kupu sangat bermutu
Karena aroma dan rasanya telah diracik istimewa.
In quality these poems are not good, in fact very bad, however, for the programme they provide a popular traditional form for a new medium.
While traditionally the berbalas pantun was a village event, at present this event is taken into campuses, state competitions and even national ones, sponsored by the a newspaper company or by the RTM. Between the Radio Kuching and the Radio Brunei there are other forms of the berbalas pantun, called the mukun - where famous singers are replied in pantuns that are sung on radio - during the idilfitri or other important festive days. There are also programmes for the senior citizens on Radio Tiga Seremban, but the poems of the berbalas pantun, mostly phoned-in, may be found on RTM and Times Highway Radio. A quote from Radio 3 Seremban, in the `Pantun Ria’ programme in 1998, would better illustrate this point. The first poet replies that as her adversary was so obsessed in asking the contribution of the women, what did he think was the contribution of men. He avoids the question but answers that there are many, more than she would be able to count on her two hands.
Pulapa tersayang pulapa tercinta
Pelatihnya cergas lagi berani
Asyik bertanya sumbangan wanita
Apakah pula sumbangan lelaki?
His answer,
Dapat gaji habis dijoli
Tengah bulan mencari-cari,
Sumbangan kami banyak sekali
Kalau dikira tak cukup jari.
Malaysian calendars too includes pantuns to attract their customers, usually in combination with pictures of cultural artifacts, as in the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka calendar for 1992. That year featured the hand-woven, gold- and silver-thredded songkets. Poems like these were selected to enhance them,
Orang Sarawak menenun songket
Songket ditenun bertabur bunga,
Tengah malam bulan terbit
Bintang sebiji membawa cahaya.
Punca potong namanya songket
Warna seakan sayap pekaka,
Kasih tidak pada yang lain
Tuan seorang di hati saya.
The first introductory lines refers to the designs of the songket, the second allude to the romantic emotions of the speaker.Modern songs too compose pantuns for their lyrics, though they are played with western instruments and in non-traditioanl modes. In a song aptly called `Pantun,’ a well-known lyricist and singer sings his pantun lines, of which the following is an excerpt. In it is described how one of the lovers, was clearly seen, but, unfortunately, no one said a word.
Alam hanya sementara
Buana biru belantara,
Salah orang nampak ketara
Salah kita tak bersuara.
There are also cases where the old pantuns are still remembered, but some of their lines or metaphors are replaced by new images, sometimes to give a humorous edge. For example, in the following verse the old `ada ubi ada batas/ ada budi ada balas’ line is changed to `ada lori ada bas/ada budi ada balas,’ `there is a lorry, there is a bus/ there’s budi, it must be repaid.’
Pantuns are also as famous in speeches, to clinch an argument and at the same time to strike a commonly recognisable cord. As one introduces a pantun the atmosphere is lightened and much of usual constraint loosened.
These verses are often spoken to introduce an occasion, a ceremony, and a person, praise somebody, or even apologise. Anwar Ibrahim, a year ago the Deptuy Prime Minister of Malaysia, composed two quatrains to dispel rumours that he has problems with the Prime Minister. He reiterated that they were loyal to each other - it was others who were uncomfortable with the situation that had made up the rumour. He went on to remind the audience that loose words could destroy them. At the UMNO Supreme Council meeting he was applauded. But the pantun is weaker than backstage politics - he is now in jail.
Cantik nian menara kita
Hingga mencapai awan yang tinggi,
Kami sebenarnya setia bersama
Orang lain yang panas sendiri.
Menahan pukat ke seberang
Dapat seekor ikan tenggiri,
Jangan cakap sebarang-barang
Kelak memakan diri sendiri.
Across the Melaka Straits in Pekan Baru, at a meeting to demand that Suharto step down, Idrus Tintin, the Head of the the Arts Council of Riau, himself a poet and dramatist, opened his speech thus,
Bukan tamban sebarang tamban
Tamban berenang di lautan
Bukan uban sebarang uban
Uban menyaksikan kepincangan,
while saying that his white hair is no ordinary one, for it had witnessed much destruction and evil.
The pantun is clearly the artistic flower of the Nusantara peoples, their pride, a part of their creative talent, a flower of the brightest colour, which unites them and lets them share a common heritage. It is long a part of their identity. In it is also to be found its wisdom, special discourse, unique aesthetics, lingusitic music and the core culture of the people.
The mystery of the pantun lies not only in its beauty and variety but also in its flexible form and longevity. This little essay may perhaps throw some light on this great form, one that has entered into the many spheres of Nusantara life and performed difficult tasks. It has not only found avid practisioners in Nusantara but also in France, Holland, Britain and Germany. Of the many poetic forms around the world only the sonnet and haiku have travelled as far and lived as long. Now it has attained a new lease of life, been bestowed with new functions, to which it is contributing a time-tested space and a rich culture.

Muhammad Haji Salleh

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