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 they
were 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.