In this two part article, ninotaziz attempts to explain the fascination the francophone world had with the Malay pantun and its bid to popularize it. Despite approval from the most renowned and respected poets in the literary world, the form sadly failed to take the world by storm. Yet in its beauty, nuggets of the Malay thought and culture survived 500 years of subtle resilience and quiet grace.

Part 1

Jikalau tidak karna bintang

Masakan bulan terbit tinggi

Jikalau tidak karna abang

Masakan datang adek ke-mari

If not for the stars above

Why would the moon venture high

If not for you, my only love

Why would I venture nigh…

In 1905, a Frenchman, Henri Fauconnier arrived in Malaya (today Malaysia) and established himself as a successful planter. But his aim was always to create wealth for himself so that he could write [I find this so enviable], and soon, it was pretty certain he wanted to write about

Malaya. The man very quickly became consumed by a deep love for all things Malay and his novel opened with the above classic pantun. Each chapter infact opened with a love Malay pantun or gurindam. The picture of idyllic mysterious and bewitching Malaya took the Francophone world by storm – and Malaisie or The Soul of Malaya was awarded the highest literary award in France – the Goncourt Prix in 1930.

The fact that Fauconnier opened the novel with a pantun showed how these gem of poetry truly portray the people and the land of Malaya. Joined in one rapturous stanza is the pembayang (metaphor of sound and nuance) and maksud, which is the true deeper meaning of the pantun. This interplay and connectivity between what is within and without reflects the Malay psyche so well. Simply put, what is not said or hidden is just as important as what is uttered out loud and obvious, if not more so.

The classic pantun

The classic Malay pantun and literature especially were penned by unknown authors and can be traced as far back to the 16th century Malay literature of Sulalat ur sulatin or the Malay Annals as well as Hikayat Hang Tuah, both recognized by UNESCO as literature heritage listed on the Memory of the World Register.

In general all records of the era was by royal decree and the scribes were part of the palace. The pantun was unique in that it was part of the language of royal courts and the plebeians alike. Grandmothers used to dish out age old wisdom in pantun and gurindam form. Lovers used pantun for secretly coded messages. Society at all levels were familiar with the art of exchanging ie ‘menjual’ [literal translation – selling the pantun, it means to offer a pantun] and ‘membeli’ [literaal translation – buying the pantun, meaning, accepting the pantun with your own reply.] Sadly today, Malay weddings seems to be the last bastion of the pantun.

The pantun has many forms. It covers love, wisdom, wit and comedy, stories anad more. The first and foremost requirement in creating pantun is a keen observation of one’s surroundings. The second, the conversion of this observation into a metaphor. Then the actual message of the pantun is conveyed in the formal form of the pantun. A pantun can be a 4 line, 6 line or 8 line stanza of the abab, abcabc or the abcdabcd form. In its most elegant form, the first half of the stanza is usually a metaphor or indication of what is to come in the second half. In the pantun berkait, the second alternating lines are repeated in the following stanza.

Alam Pantun Melayu

Passion for The Pantun

Another Frenchman in later years, Monsieur Francois Rene Daillie. wrote the book Alam Pantun Melayu – A Study of The Malay Pantun. In the very first chapter – The Malay Pantun as an Adventure in World Literature, he wrote, “I have always conceived literature as an adventure, that is, etymologically, something that happens to you, that you have to go through…happenings which have an impact on your intellect, your spirit… To me, the encounter with the Malay pantun has been until now one of the most striking episodes as well as one the main elements of the whole adventure of life… of life and literature closely mixed together.”

I was astounded by the impact of the Malay pantun on this man, I had until then, took our Malay pantun for granted. To Daillie, pantun was part and parcel of the Malay way of life and thinking. He shared his philosophy and research in a completely lucid and loving manner. This was the spark for me. By and by, I too embraced my own culture – especially the pantun with alacrity. I studied and appreciated the Malay Pantun like never before, and began writing my own pantun.

To Daillie, “If one of the assets of poetry at its best is the magic and beauty accomplished by language, the Malay pantun can be placed among the highest achievements of mankind in this form of art… the Malay pantun, as one of the fixed forms of poetry ever devised by man, can vie with such famous genres as the Japanese haiku or the European sonnet.”

Many tried to emulate the form and structure which gave rise to the French avatar of the Malay pantun, the pantoum. The late Monsieur Daillie said albeit with a tinge of regret, “…the pantun has never obtained the fame it deserves, in spite of its introduction into French XIXth century poetry under the adulterated name, ‘pantoum’.”

The pantun of old can be witty, passionate to the point of being downright erotic, and full of wisdom.I now agree with Monsieur Daillie that more should be done so that the Malay Pantun be internationally acclaimed for its ingenuity, form and sheer beauty.

About our contributor, ninotazziz:



She is a PR consultant and a multiple award winning author and storyteller of many generations from Malaysia. Born in Hobart, Tasmania, Australia, ninotaziz grew up in the idyllic village of Chenor, Malaysia and furthered her education in Canada. She specialises in Malaysian legends, or Hikayat, and wrote three anthologies of Malaysian legends and four YA novels – NAGA, ONANGKIU, SITI and NIK. ninotaziz firmly believes that the Malay classic pantun, literature and Hikayat are a rich world heritage that deserve an international audience.

An active member of the international poetry blogosphere in particular The Magpie Tales, Poets United and the dVerse Bar, ninotaziz embraces the online media as a platform for engaging poets worldwide towards peaceful and enriching cultural exchange. For poetry she blogs at http://www.poemsbyninotaziz.blogspot.com

Married to Rudy Daud, the family is blessed with five daughters and enjoy picnics in the garden, late night movies, ice skating and gamelan.