Stone Telling

[HOME]      [ISSUE]      [ARCHIVES]      [ABOUT]      [GUIDELINES]     [BLOG]

Visions of Courtly Life Translated into Contemporary Meditations:

Muhammad Haji Salleh’s Sajak-Sajak Sejarah Melayu

by Nin Harris

Poetry is the act of giving voice to words and may be cautiously described as an active form of textual expression. The intimacy that is part and parcel of this art-form may be discerned in the Malay sajak. Although the traditional forms of Malay poetry (puisi) are the pantun, the gurindam, the syair as well as the seloka, the sajak became a popular form of poetic expression in the twentieth century. It was first introduced in print during the 1930s, due to the efforts of the renowned Malay man of letters, editor and writer extraordinaire, Abdullah Munsyi. The sajak is generally spare, in free verse and very often conversational. Although the earlier poems still retained some of the conventions of the pantun, more contemporary sajak have grown freer in form, although there are still elements of introspection, Islamism as well as public sentiment.

The first kinds of sajak a Malaysian student would learn are those with either patriotic or public (‘rakyat’) sentiments. But there are also different kinds of sajak which are quieter, more poetic, but no less direct and intimate. Some of the best poets of this form are Usman Awang, Mohammad Haji Salleh, Salleh Ben Joned and Baha Zain. An interesting point to note is that the sajak form is no longer restricted to Malay. While most of Muhammad Haji Salleh’s output consists of translations of his Malay poems, his English sajak stand as poems in their own right. His poetic reworkings of the Malay mythic and historical epic Sejarah Melayu (The Malay Annals) is well-known in Malaysia. What he brought to this dense, prose historical epic was a discerning, modern and hybrid eye capable of bringing the quietest nuances out from description and visuals. The relative freedom of the sajak form allowed Muhammad Haji Salleh to capture these nuances and to evoke well-known images out of history within a contemporary context, imbued with more hybrid sensibilities.

The term for reciting the sajak in Malay is known as “deklamasi”; the savvy will have realised that this is a borrowed word. Declaiming is a very active kind of verb; one would consider it more suited to speech. The sajak is often speech-like in quality; it may be recited in an oratory manner, with grand, rolling sentences or hand-gestures. It is as though the poet is an orator, inciting the masses to join his or her cause. Muhammad Haji Salleh, however, turns the form to suit his quieter, more meditative style, evoking imagery that is lush, complex, yet still imbued with the directness of speech and sentiment that can be associated with the sajak.

The Sejarah Melayu
Revered prime minister, tun mamat
Write us our history,
Of the Malays and all their islands,
Take us back to soaring siguntang,
To samudera, across the waters,
To the Javanese in the southeast, the
Buginese on the sea’s belly,
To the people in the fields, forests and sands.
            (Muhammad Haji Salleh 83)
Part historical narrative, part mythic romance, the account of the history of Malays linked to the Malaccan Sultanate was compiled in its present form by Tun Sri Lanang, a courtier of the Johor Sultanate, formed after Malacca fell to the Portuguese. The court in exile in Johor most probably desired a historical link to the golden age of their forefathers. It would have been a matter of both self-preservation and pride to create a comprehensive textual testimony to their identity as Malays.

V. F. Braginsky classifies epics such as the Sejarah Melayu as “a combination of genealogical elements and stories about individual events [...] which could be read as complete in themselves, having but weak logical connections with one another” (25). I think anyone who has read and loved the Annals would realise that the different stories do add up to a rich, layered tapestry that tells a bigger story about the Sultanate. Braginsky later notes that “the second half of the Sejarah Melayu resembles an intricate wicker of motley branches woven in and out of sight like a series of dotted lines” (26). In my opinion, this connection between intricacy and simplicity adds to the power of the Annals. The stories of the Sejarah Melayu weave together the origins, golden age and eventual decline of the Malaccan Sultanate. The different cultural influences that create the rich brew we associate with Malay culture, storytelling and art may be discerned in this epic compilation. One of the more fascinating examples of this is Alexander the Great’s march through Asia (Iskandar Zulkarnain) and his descent into an underwater kingdom in an elevator-like contraption made out of glass. The connection between Alexander the Great and his descendents to the formation of the Malaccan Sultanate makes for some of the more intriguing chapters in these Annals.

The Annals also relate the intricacies of the Malaccan Sultanate’s relationship with China, sealed with the marriage of one of the Sultans to the Princess Hang Li Po. Stories of China’s majesty underscore the feeling of threat the Sultanate must have experienced, wedged in between two great civilisations. Far from being merely a historical romance, the Malay Annals also provide a subtle political commentary about statecraft, the disparity between the riches at the palace with the poverty experienced by subjects. There are also many elements that are obviously appropriated from other histories in order to add to the mystique associated with the rulers of the Malaccan Sultanate.

Muhammad Haji Salleh’s Sajak-Sajak Sejarah Melayu

Muhammad Haji Salleh’s poems in Sajak-Sajak Sejarah Melayu are not straightforward adaptations, but are rather poetic interpretations of different stories within the epic. The poems were originally written in Malay, but Muhammad Haji Salleh wrote English translations for selected poems from the anthology. They may be found in Beyond The Archipelago, a collection of poems from Salleh’s various anthologies. In these poems, Muhammad Haji Salleh creates a sparse and lyrical counterpoint that unpacks the denseness contained in the often tight-lipped commentary of the Sejarah Melayu. I have found this juxtaposition between the emotional restraint in the text of the Annals with the lavishness and denseness of description enthralling. It leaves so much to the imagination and is so ripe for interpretation. The poems remain true to the spirit of the Annals, although the contemporary eyes of the poet create an effect that is more lush, evocative and meditative.

An example of this may be discerned in the first time the two young maidens, Wan Empuk and Wan Malini meet the three brothers whom, according to legend, were descended from Alexander the Great. The account in the Sejarah Melayu, while full of metaphor was a traditional retelling of events, but Muhammad Haji Salleh gives us a more sensitive, contemporary look at the events on Siguntang Hill.

night has filled the universe
two maidens leant against the twilight
waiting for their padi seeds to swell.
waiting loosened time’s rhythm.
at the moment between day and night,
the yard seems to widen at the edges,
the sky’s clouds are sad as flowing water (89).
Here, Muhammad Haji Salleh foreshadows the events of the hill coming to light as three princes on white cows descended from a mythical otherworld known as “Kayangan”. The events of the night caused the formation of the state of Palembang, and the founder of Malacca, Parameswara is said to be descended from one of these three princes.

Muhammad Haji Salleh, in a style that is both minimalistic and lavish, focuses on the rice paddies, and the effect of gold upon the blossoming grain. The sensuousness of the rice is juxtaposed against the youth of the two sisters. I often return to this poem because it pretty much defines the entire anthology for me.

from siguntang’s peak
a bud of fire glints yellow,
trembling in the air, its flame fine-leaved,
for a moment shining forth as the morning star,
empuk holds malini’s hand,
wonder is suffused with fear (89).
This is the most ambiguous and almost abstract poem of Muhammad Haji Salleh’s Sajak-Sajak Sejarah Melayu – and yet it is the one that best captures that feeling of confronting the supernatural and the uncanny.

Another example of how a historical event is given the epic Malay treatment (in a manner that is curiously both terse and ornate), is the story of Hang Li Po’s marriage to one of Malacca’s most successful rulers, the Sultan Mansur Shah. Muhammad Haji Salleh starts the poem decorously enough, with a description of the princess’s various charms which would satisfy any epic storyteller:

her eyes almond, like the deer,
but widened by the black mascara
as dark as her long hair
falling straight from her shoulders
now knotted for marriage (117).
The first verse sets the reader up for understanding the deeper implications behind the politics of conquest and treaties, the sensuousness of the marriage bed ironically underscoring the requirements of the state. Most of these matters are discreetly referenced in the Sejarah Melayu which is full of these fascinating princesses who are used to broker agreements.

The poignancy of their fates is underscored by the impact of their beauty. However, Salleh romanticises this union in passages that are subtly erotic as well as meditative.

he embraces her heat and cold,
inhaling the fragrance at the edge of the bed
and both of them dissolve to become sea at this edge of the beach
roaring, churned by the winds into the bay.
from afar to descend and climb mountains of water
following time’s flow (119).

In the epic, the events were embroidered with mythic symbolism. There would be lavish detail of outfits and court regalia. The thoughtful, sometimes almost intimately meditative elements within Muhammad Haji Salleh’s sajak would not be contained within those lines, as this would have been unthinkable. This was a culture so ornate that a wedding procession could not proceed before a war of poetry (using the pantun) was not won by the groom’s representatives. Time, hybridity and the shifting forces which create the dynamic society of Malaysia also changed the ethos, the patterns of speech for all of the main cultural proponents of Malaysia. The direct, open sensuality of Muhammad Haji Salleh’s bold recreation of the royal marriage bed speaks of this dynamic and more contemporary pattern of speech. Even so, a more delicate and introspective sensibility can be discerned in his words. His concern is not with the prurient aspects, but into what else such a union may bestow upon a married couple. Instead of focusing on power and conquest, on the reality that Hang Li Po would have been the Sultan’s fifth wife, he gives us this haunting final line that lets us understand that these poems are not only about the events of Sejarah Melayu, but about the realities of the human condition.

sleep completes a marriage (119).
Muhammad Haji Salleh challenges the conventions which define the consummation of marriage. In doing so, he allows the hidden humanism of the Sejarah Melayu to come to the surface. Although the Sejarah Melayu may seem to be an epic which extols the exploits of rulers and conquerors, there has been discussion which suggests that the level of irony within the epic is high, and the public-spirited message of the text speaks not just about the glory of the Malaccan Sultanate, but also about the factors that led to its downfall. This includes a growing lack of accountability towards the needs of the ‘rakyat’, excessive taxation and laws to benefit the rich but not the poor.

One of the most telling of the legends and fables contained within the Sejarah Melayu is that of the Princess of Mount Ophir. The legend of this mythical and powerful princess outlines clearly what happens when a ruler is so drunk on power and lust that he forgets the things that really matters. In order to win the love of this mythical princess, the Sultan was willing to take all of the jewellery of his subjects and was almost willing to kill his own son. Fortunately for his son, the Princess appeared to him in a supernatural form, literally wigging out to appear and reappear in the guise of many women within a single moment. She chides him for his greed and tells him that because of his cruelty he could never win her for a bride. This was one of the many instances where the corruption of the state was subtly criticised by the authors of the Sejarah Melayu.

Muhammad Haji Salleh captures this spirit of subtle censure in the following lines.

the author tells of Melaka
swallowed by its sins,
the laws of the young
are written on dreams and passion,
pouring forth from original freedom
there are no binds that are not loosened
when desire flooded a country
dreams are streamed into distractions. (131)
In this manner, the sajak allows the poet to be more direct about his or her intentions, but it still draws from the wealth of past forms of narration and storytelling in the Malay Archipelago (Nusantara).

Bridging the Past and the Present

Is the sajak different from the free verse associated with poems by the twentieth century modernist poets of Britain and the United States? On the surface, there may not seem to be that much of a difference, but if you pull aside the layers which seem familiar, you may find yourself in deeply unfamiliar territory. Even with poets who have travelled and lived abroad, like Muhammad Haji Salleh, an ethos that fits within the rhythm of Malay speech fills the lines of their sajak. Spare, subtle, full of irony, Muhammad Haji Salleh’s sajak are some of the best examples of this medium, which grew in the 1930s from the first few published sajak in a teacher’s periodical, and evolved along with the rapidly modernising culture within the hybrid, polyglot racial composition of Malaysia. There are other sajak which are not so subtle, which are meant to be proclaimed loudly, as protest poetry or paeans to patriotism.

Therefore, in an answer to that question of what makes a sajak different, a sajak is different because it contains the nuances we associate with the rhythms of speech in Malaysia, whether it is the language of the Malays, or the Malaysianised English which draws from the Malay language, Tamil and various Chinese dialects. The rich intermingling between different languages contributes towards the evolution of the patterns of both speech and interaction in Malaysia. This allows for that fluidity which can be both ornate and minimalist. Poetry, in every culture and language is a communication that is both direct and indirect, which contains both the nuances and rhythm of music and speech. Although the sajak is perhaps more direct than most other forms, there is still a subtlety that reminds us of its roots - the ancient epics and the older forms of Malay poetry such as the pantun and the syair.

Works Cited

Braginsky, V. I. The System of Classical Malay Literature. Leiden: KITLV Press, 1993.

Salleh, Muhammad Haji. Beyond The Archipelago: Selected Poems by Muhammad Haji Salleh. Ohio: Center for International Studies Monograph Series, 1995.

---. Sajak-sajak Sejarah Melayu. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 1981.

Iskandar, Yusoff and Abdul Rahman Kaeh (trans.) Sejarah Melayu (Edisi Shellabear). Kuala Lumpur: Heinemann Educational Books, 1978.

Further Reading

Unesco’s Memory of The World Entry for The Malay Annals

Sejarah Melayu: A History of the Malay Peninsula

Sabri Zain’s write-up on the Sejarah Melayu

Encyclopedia Britannica’s entry for Sejarah Melayu

National Library of Australia’s Library record for Sejarah Melayu; or, Malay Annals; an annotated translation by C. C. Brown, with a new introd. by R. Roolvink

National Library of Singapore’s record for a translation by John Leyden.

R. Roolvik’s The Variant Versions of the Malay Annals(pdf file)

Amir Muhammad’s Sejarah Melayu Reloaded

Nin Harris is a South East Asian poet, writer of literary and mythic gothic fantasy fiction, visual artist and PhD student in postcolonial gothic literature. She believes in exploring the potential and gaps that lie between different storytelling forms. Her novel in progress, Watermaidens, is a partially secondary-world mythic fantasy set on the ornate island Yraveri, which has been central to a hypertextual storytelling project by Nin since 1997. She has been published in Jabberwocky 3 and The Harrow.

Read Nin's discussion of Malay poetry at the Roundtable!