CORONAVIRUS CHRONICLES: POETRY FOR THE PANDEMIC AND BEYOND

KEZIA LAKSMONO WRITES — I was reminded of “Pantun,”  an oral literary form of expression traditionally used amongst Indonesians, during this pandemic.  In its most basic form, it consists of even-numbered lines which are recited according to a fixed rhythm.  For example:

Kalau ada sumur di ladang, bolehlah kita menumpang mandi.
Kalau ada umur yang panjang, bolehlah kita berjumpa lagi.”
(If there is a well in the field, may we take a bath.
If there is a long life, may we meet again.)

This particular example is a farewell to a loved one destined to be met up with again someday.

Now, you might wonder why the topic of Indonesian poetry has come out of the blue and into the conversation. I honestly would not have thought of it if not for the fact that this year in December, UNESCO jointly designated Pantun poetry as an Intangible Cultural Heritage for Indonesia. And although it couldn’t have been more of a perfect time– since it offers a way to gently and humorously evoke critical issues like COVID-19 – the question of its usefulness and relevance overall as a cultural tool still stands.

Personally, I like to see Pantun as a social means of communicating jokes, moral propositions and hard realities. All of those who enjoy music, dance, painting and other art forms know their power to help express emotional and personal struggles and in turn inspire one to cope and even overcome.

I’m glad to see this Indonesian art form continue to make inroads in the wider world. Especially in this digital age, Pantun has not gained as much popularity as some other artistic means of expression, but it is highly valuable as a means of social communication while also placing deep reliance on the balance and harmony of human relations.

I can only hope that the Indonesian community-all communities, actually – could use our timeless cultural traditions and assets as an anchor for the uncertainties we often face and cannot control.

“Di muara Padang banyak buaya,
Buaya timbul manusia lari.
Virus Corona sungguh berbahaya,
Mari Bersama menjaga diri.”
(In the estuary of Padang,
there are many crocodiles.
Crocodiles appear, humans run.
Meaning: Coronavirus is really dangerous,
let’s protect ourselves together.)

Pantun is a truly versatile form of art, as it speaks of intricate, deeply personal ideas while urgently promoting larger themes of balance, harmony, and, most importantly, social unity. Don’t we all need some of that?

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