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The Transformation of Epic Poetry in Sundanese Literature: Reading Sayudi’s ‘Madraji’ as a ‘Modern Carita Pantun’

Hawé Setiawan

Literature | Wednesday, 22 February 2012 | sundanesecorner.org


The narrative poem Madraji: Carita Pantun Modern ‘Madraji: A Modern Carita Pantun’ (1983) by Sayudi (1932-2000), which is claimed by the author as a ‘modern carita pantun,’ occupies a special place in the history of late twentieth century Sundanese literature. First published in 1983, this parodic work demonstrates a creative undertaking in preserving the style of carita pantun, a kind of epic poetry inherited from Sundanese oral tradition, by practicing a modern literary authorship. On the other hand the story of Madraji, with its elements such as characterization, theme, etc., appears to have been based on a modern novel by an earlier author, for, to a certain extent, it resembles the story of Karnadi in the well known work by Yuhana (d. 1930) entitled Rasiah Nu Goréng Patut: Karnadi Anémer Bangkong ‘The Secret of an Ugly Man: Karnadi the Frog Dealer’ (1928), so that Sayudi’s literary work seems to have a double purpose: revisiting an old language and revising a new one, and such an effort has proposed a remarkable instance of what it means to be modern in Sundanese literary world. By reading this boldly-composed literary work by Sayudi, this short essay intends to reflect on the transformation of Sundanese epic poetry from oral tradition to modern literature.

Keywords: epic poetry, literary transformation, modernity, narrative poem, oral tradition, pantun story




Medal Agung's 1983 publication of 'Madraji' by Sayudi

The narrative poem Madraji: Carita Pantun Modern ‘Madraji: A Modern Carita Pantun’ (1983) by Sayudi (1932-2000), claimed by its author as a ‘modern carita pantun,’ occupies a special place in the history of late twentieth century Sundanese literature. First published in 1983, this parodic work demonstrates the creative undertaking to preserve the style of carita pantun, a kind of epic poetry inherited from Sundanese oral tradition, through modern literary authorship. On the other hand the story of Madraji with its elements such as characterization, theme, etc. appears to be based on a modern novel by an earlier author, for, to a certain extent, it resembles the story of Karnadi in the well known work of Yuhana (d. 1930) entitled Rasiah Nu Goréng Patut: Karnadi Anémer Bangkong ‘The Secret of an Ugly Man: Karnadi the Frog Dealer’ (1928). Sayudi’s literary work, therefore, seems to have a double purpose: revisiting a dead language and revising a living one, and such an effort has  proposed a remarkable instance of what it means to be modern in Sundanese literary world. By reading this well-composed literary work by Sayudi, this short essay would like to reflect on the transformation of Sundanese epic poetry from oral tradition to modern literature.

Several questions have come into my mind in preparing this writing. Why does the author of Madraji claim that his poem is a ‘modern carita pantun’? What does he mean with ‘modern carita pantun’? Is such a claim merely a matter of stylistics in the sense that the author applies literary devices inherited from the oral tradition of carita pantun? Does it have something to do with a deeper problem, such as the view of the world to be revealed through this literary work? What is it that makes this poem different from the declined Sundanese pantun? The story of Madraji undoubtedly resembles the earlier story by Yuhana in his popular novel entitled Rasiah Nu Goréng Patut: Karnadi Anémer Bangkong ‘The Secret of an Ugly Man: Karnadi the Frog Dealer’, so what is it that distinguishes this poem from Yuhana’s modern novel?

The Recorded Ancestors

Our knowledge and understanding of the endangered  bardic genre known as carita pantun owe much to a documentary research project, i.e. Proyek Penelitian Pantun & Folklore Sunda ‘Research Project of Sundanese Pantun and Folklore’, undertaken by some Sundanese scholars and researchers under the direction of Ajip Rosidi in early 1970s. Facing the declining Sundanese oral traditions, they organized Sundanese pantun performances by some bards called jurupantuns (‘pantun reciters’ or ‘bards’) from all over West Java, and recorded their stories as well. As Ajip himself reported in ‘My Experiences in Recording “Pantun Sunda”’ in Indonesia (Vol. 16, October 1973), out of the research project some fourteen stories have been published, from among twenty-eight stories that have been recorded, for the benefit of a modern readership.

Indeed, they were not the first to approach the Sundanese pantun. In the beginning of the twentieth century, the Dutch scholar Cornelis Marinus Pleyte, for instance, documented some carita pantuns from West Java, and wrote general remarks on this heritage of Sundanese oral tradition. In his introduction to the story of Prince Mundinglaya di Kusumah, he states that:

The legend, … is [called] carita pantun, i.e., a love song to be presented with zither accompaniment. This is a rhymeless song from the long past: in which the land of Sunda, with its glorious center at Pakuan as the seat of the king of Pajajaran, was still ruled by its own kings.

As the heroes of our bards, in the middle ages, was struggling against foreign miscreants, the beautiful princess of the country was tried to be abducted, and at the same time the choice of Sundanese knights, in facing against tyrants and monsters, was keen on the mayang Sunda, Flowers of Sunda. And all of the imaginable and unimaginable dangers were defied and overcome, forcing also Sundanese knighthood to take comfortable rest still continue to retreat, and then the time bought victory celebration at the contest, with gold angels bosomed for the chosen one, and finally gained her faithful love.

In the Iron Age, however, the golden brightness of Pasundan, under the leadership of the illustrious and legendary Prabu Siliwangi, was broken. Pakuan was wiped out from the world stage, for Pajajaran was defeated by Banten. Then the Company crippled Banten’s power; what was left from Padjadjaran was completely destroyed, and nothing was left of its greatness but an inscribed rock in Batutulis and the humble kampong of Cipaku in the nearby southeastern region. (Pleyte, 1906: 9-10)

The recent prolific writings of literary critic Jakob Sumardjo concerning the ancient Sundanese cultural views reflected in the carita pantun, are mainly based on the transcriptions of carita pantun resulted from Ajip’s research project. Hence, our current knowledge about the carita pantun is based on a sort of transformation from oral folktale to written literary texts.

Sayudi: Between Poetics and Politics

Sayudi (1932-2000)

Sayudi was born in Bandung on May 1st, 1932, and died of heart and diabetes problems at a Bandung hospital on March 29th, 2000. To the best of my knowledge, Sayudi was one of the members of the research team mentioned above. It is said that for the sake of the project, he transcribed no less than ten Sundanese pantun stories.

Sayudi’s well-known collection of poems entitled Lalaki di Tegal Pati ‘The Man in the Battlefield’ was first published in 1963. Published by Kiwari, a Jakarta-based Sundanese study club initiated by writer Rukasah S.W. (1928-1995), Lalaki is the first collection of poems in Sundanese, consisting of 32 poems from the period from the mid 1950s to the early 1960s, one of which is an epic that tells a story about a Sundanese king who courageously faced his destiny on a battlefield. Some of the poems, including the epic, were republished in Kandjutkundang: Prosa djeung Puisi Sunda sabada Perang ‘Kandjutkundang: Post War Sundanese Prose and Poems’ (1963), an anthology edited by Ajip Rosidi and Rusman Sutiasumarga. His poems from the period of the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s were collected in Puisi Sunda Selepas Perang Dunia Kedua ‘Post World War II Sundanese Poetry’ edited by Iyo Mulyono and friends (1979). Some two decades after the publication of Lalaki, the Bandung-based Medal Agung published Madraji: Carita Pantun Modern ‘Madraji: A Modern Carita Pantun’ in 1983. Previously, in fact, the long narrative poem was published serially in the Bandung-based Langensari magazine in 1960s. His remarkable works include also the one entitled Lutung Kasarung, a series of lyrics, which consists of some 147 dangding stanzas, and tells a story about Prince Guruminda, a well-known characters in Sundanese mythology, which is sung by some tembang singers and recorded on tape in three volumes. He also wrote no less than ten children’s story books in Indonesian and several newspaper and magazine columns in both Sundanese and Indonesian. Sayudi was undoubtedly one of the prominent twentieth century Sundanese poets.

In his short introduction to the publication of Madraji, Rukasah S.W. states as follows:

In Sundanese literature, a lengthy literary work in the form of poetry like Madraji is altogether new. Although Madraji lies in the oral tradition of pantun, it is different from pantun. Similarly, although this work is written in a poetic form that consists largely of octosyllabic lines, Madraji is different from wawacan in its dictions. In Madraji there are none of the redundanciess we find in the wawacan, that used to be required merely because of the rules of rhyme and syllables. As for the difference between Madraji and pantun, this is clear from its characters, which are not caricatures. Hence, Madraji is undoubtedly a revolution in Sundanese literature, with its embryo that has been anticipated in ‘Lalaki di Tegal Pati’. (Sayudi, 1983: 5)

Due to his invaluable contributions to the development of Sundanese literature, Sayudi won the Rancagé Literary Award in 1994. In his account of his experiences as a jury-member in the awards, the poet and literary critic Ajip Rosidi stated that:

In the early 1950s, as an influence of Indonesian literature, Sundanese young poets composed “poems” in Sundanese. The poetical form was considered to be foreign by some people, for it was “dangding” that was considered as original poetry in Sundanese literature. In defending themselves against these criticisms, some of the young poets stated that pantun poetry was an instance of “poem” in Sundanese literature. Hence, they wished to declare that the “poem” had long been known in Sundanese literature. In fact, it was not until Sayudi’s poems began to appear in the second half of the 1950s that the elements of pantun poetry and other Sundanese traditional poetry began to appear on the scene. Even so, Sayudi does not simply use expressions from Sundanese traditional poetry, but creatively uses the elements such as purwakanti ‘sound patterns’ (alliteration, assonance, etc.) and rhythm to create new plastic and lively expressions to present original imageries. (Rancagé, 1998:119)

The story of Madraji, which forms a one-hundred-page book, consists of twelve parts and two thousands five hundreds and twelve lines of verse. Each part is a sequence, one relating to each other, together forming a plot for the story. It is composed in the form of narrative poem in that it tells a story eloquently in a poetical style: a string of stanzas with rhythmic line breaks. Like what we can read in the transcriptions of undanese pantun, it records the experiences of its main character in facing his destiny, and yet it is quite different from the traditional epic poetry for it contains no formulaic expression within an unconventional structure. Its rhythmic versification, unlike that of wawacan, is not constrained by octosyllabic lines.

The story is about an ugly villain named Madraji, who was deeply attracted and even sexually obsessed by the beautiful lady named Siti Saripah. Wanting to find out her daily life and family background, Madraji secretly pursued her from a market place, where she used to go for shopping, to her house in a Bandung suburb. By asking some people at the surrounding area, he found out that she was a daughter of a rich haji —a Muslim who had made a pilgrimage to the Holy City of Mecca— of Arabic origin named Umar, who made a living from lending money to the needy with high interest, so that many people sank deeper into poverty, and with his money he could pay local authorities for his own benefit. Assisted by his loyal sidekick Midun, who provided a set of nobleman’s costume borrowed from someone, the villain pretended himself as an aristocrat and newly appointed local government official named Raden Madenda, explaining that in the performance of his duty he was required to observe his new territory and and in the process had happened upon Haji Umar’s house. Expecting to gain some kind of political support for the sake of his business, Haji Umar cordially and generously welcomed his guest, and even allowed him to lodge in his private chamber for the evening. In the middle of the night, when everyone was sleeping, Madraji carried out his true mission: he raped the beautiful lady and stole the valuable belongings of the rich haji. On hearing a painful scream from the poor lady, the whole house awoke and vainly chased the villain. At the end, village security officials arrest the fugitive.

As far as its thematic aspects are concerned, the story is multi-dimensional in nature. It is humorous in its parody of human life, erotic in its allegory of (male) sexuality, and critical in its description of social reality. It demonstrates the poet’s insightful understanding and reflection of human life, mainly of its social aspects.

Centre to the narrative is the characterization of Madraji as the hero of this story. His reason for existence is something as —to literally adapt Heidegger’s description of human existence— a ‘thrownness-into-being.’  He has no clear family background, social position, or daily undertaking, as if he comes from the darkest uncertainty of myth. On the ‘genealogy’ of this man, the poet wonderfully depicts:

Gelarna taya raratan 

metuna taya nu ngaku

datang lain kahayangna

ngajuru ti beulah batu


Untraceable is his birth

unfavourable is his appearance

coming not of his own desire

born from beneath a stone

By means of such mystification, the profile of Madraji gains its supremacy in the narrative. Such a characterization of the lower class figure is apparently required to form an extreme antithesis of an upper class profile of the well-to-do family of Haji Umar with its princess-like heroine Siti Saripah. The life-world of Madraji does not match that of Saripah in any aspect, and yet this social inequality determines the whole plot; it is the epicentre of the whole story. Throughout the narrative we can see how Madraji carries out his apparently impossible mission to break the wall.

The social inequality represented in the story that, to some extent, implies social injustice, seems to give a justification for Madraji’s conduct against the family of Haji Umar. When the author is describing how Madraji collects hints of the family in finding access to their life, he is actually formulating the grounds for a kind of vengeance to be undertaken by Madraji. Here we find, among other things, a stereotype of ‘haji’—something we can also find in some of Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s stories:

Paingan haji kawentar beunghar

horeng disaeuran deungeun


—Atuh teu ngarah

mah mo bisa ngajajah Mekah

ratus rewu

kadar keur meuli bungkus hulu

ibadahna mah ngan dina letah

disebut jegud teu wudu

saparo tina warisan

sesana beunangna nipu

saampar desa bandana

puluh bau nu anuna

The saga of Madraji, however, does  end on a triumphant note when, having realized his real motifs, namely to taste the seductive beauty of the upper class and to take away their belongings, this destitute, ugly, and yet brave villain strongly reveals his true identity in opposition to his ruined and enraged enemy:

Eh! Haji!

aing ratu sagala napsu!

lalanang raja kahayang

moal bau nyium padung

moal sungkan nunjang bugang

geura tangkarakkeun aherat ka diri aing! 


Bisi sia panasaran kana ngaran

aing Madraji getih lalaki

metu ti beulah batu

turunan teu cadu nyatu

susul aing di pangungklukan

papagkeun ka pakalangan

sia nu bakal tumpak pasaran

At its final moment this well-planned insurgency of the lower class, for better or for worse, reaches nothing but a reaffirmation of the status quo. It is strikingly interesting to note here how the immoral trickster, in the middle of his effort to run away, suddenly becomes foolish and powerless before the ruling apparatuses that were to maintain law and order:

tutup laku juru tipu

lampahna meunang ganjaran

jagrag ka Balewatangan

that’s the end of the liar’s conducts

his behaviour was punished

summoned to the Court

With such an anticlimax, Madraji’s insurgency is completely different from that of Janté Arkidam in Ajip Rosidi’s well-known narrative poem of 1960s. The villain hero Janté Arkidam challenges the establishment until the end, too powerful and tricky to be arrested by the ruling apparatuses, leaving the authorities enraged in frustration. Instead, Madraji’s profile quite resembles his role model, namely Yuhana’s Karnadi who, at the end of his adventure, committed suicide by plunging himself into a river. In other words, as far as what we have read in the story of Madraji and Karnadi, the rebellious lower class is finally punished by the glorious upper class, if not by itself.

In this context, Rukasah praises of Sayudi’s work as a ‘revolution’ should best be understood as recognition of its innovation in poetical convention rather than political conviction. As shown in Table 1 below, the story of Madraji demonstrates Sayudi’s creative undertaking in transforming the style of an ancient pantun story from Sundanese oral tradition into the realm of modern literature. On the other hand, as shown in Table 2, Sayudi’s narrative poem transforms the prosaic style of Yuhana’s novel, and yet they apparently share the same political naiveté due to their representation of social reality.

Table 1 Comparison between Pantun Story and Narrative Poetry

Table 2 Comparison between Karnadi Story and Madraji Story

In other words, Sayudi’s attempt to revitalize the old languages of oral tradition and enhance the new ones of modern literature does not bring about a new consciousness about the relation between literary works and the social reality they represent.

(Provisional) Concluding Remarks

  • Modern Sundanese epic poetry, as reflected in the 1980s narrative poem by Sayudi, is rooted in oral tradition of the pantun story. The tradition provides materials to be explored with new approaches and perspectives.
  • As Sundanese literature is growingly modernized, it tries to transform traditional epic poetry from the realm of orality to the realm of literacy. Modernity, in this sense, does not merely pose discontinuities with the ancient, but rather transforms ancient residues to be mixed with the recent.
  • As Sayudi’s works have reflected, creative undertakings in transforming what is inherited from Sundanese oral tradition to modern literature, while developing modern Sundanese literature itself, tend to emphasize the stylistics, rather than the contents.

New insights and inspiring consciousness, mainly due to the relation between literature and the social reality it represents, seem to be found for the sake of future development of Sundanese literature.

This short essay was presented at the 2nd International Conference of Sundanese Culture (KIBS) in Bandung, Indonesia, 19-22 December 2011.



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Reader Feedback

One Response to “The Transformation of Epic Poetry in Sundanese Literature: Reading Sayudi’s ‘Madraji’ as a ‘Modern Carita Pantun’”

  1. jajang says:

    Nice view on a special character in the history of sundanese literary writing. It is about the transformation of ‘carita pantun’ from oral tradition to story writing. How do you feel when you read ‘carita pantun’ in silent reading? It is not comfort your feeling, isn’t it?

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