The pantun is a form of poetry that is highly popular throughout the Malay world. It thrives in diverse communities in Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and Singapore, and has also been found in Southern Burma, the Cocos Islands and Sri Lanka.
The earliest surviving written examples date from the 15th century, in the texts of the Sejarah Melayu, the Hikayat Raja-Raja and the Hikayat Hang Tuah; however, the sophistication of these pieces suggests a much earlier date of origin. Later examples include the verses of Munshi Abdullah in the Hikayat Abdullah (1845) and those of Lydia Rahman in Pantun Temasek (2005). Many pantun are anonymous, having become common proverbs.
Pantun may take may different forms, but the most common structure is as follows:
- There are four lines of roughly equal length—usually four beats per line.
- The rhyme scheme is abab. Half-rhyme is completely acceptable: it’s more common than full rhyme.
- The first two lines make up the pembayang (shadow), which set the tone of the poem—often, they’re a proverb, a set of symbols, a question or a riddle.
- The second two lines make up the maksud (meaning), which give a more literal answer to the riddle. Specifically, the third line explains the meaning, and the fourth line delivers the punch.
Pantun often make reference to flora and fauna.
They frequently include kata-kata berganda: pairs of words which are nearly identical, e.g. bukit bukau (many hills), gunung ganging (many mountains), kayu kayan (many types of woods)
Pantun are often shorter or longer than four lines. A two-line pantun follows the rhyme scheme aa; a six-line pantun follows the rhyme scheme abcabc, an eight-line pantun follows the rhyme scheme abcdabcd, and a ten-line pantun follows the rhyme scheme abcdeabcde. Each of these still consists of two halves: the pembayan and the maksud.
In dondang sayang performances, sequences of pantun are improvised as a dialogue between two voices: male and female. A traditional subject, or tajuk, is chosen beforehand, e.g. budi (good deeds), kasih (love), bunga (flowers), buah-buahan (fruit), harimau (tigers), emas dan intan (gold and diamonds), dagang (the wanderer), nasihat (advice), sindiran (scorning).
A famous but often misunderstood variation is the pantun berkait, or woven pantun. In this form, the second and fourth lines of each quatrain become the first and third lines of the next, i.e. ABCD, BECF, EGFH, etc. This form has become popular in Europe and is now known as the pantoum.
Folk pantun, trans. A. W. Hamilton
Manis sungguh tebu seberang
Dari akar sampai ke pucuk.
Manis sungguh mulut orang
Kena tipu di dalam pujuk.
The sugarcane on yonder shore,
From root to crown is passing sweet.
How honeyed are the words which pour
From lips which coax but plan deceit.
Folk pantun, trans. Rasiah Halil
Apa ditakut pada kumbang
Kerana menyengat tidak bias;
Apa peduli batu dan karang
Hati berjahat kurempuh jua.
Why be afraid of bees
Their stings are not poisonous;
Why bother about boulders and reefs
A purposeful heart rams through obstacles.
tunku’s dilemma, by Christine Chia, from “Separation: A History”
like bile that sticks to the liver,
such is a love you cannot dissever;
such is a love you cannot dissever;
if you can’t marry for love, marry for silver,
she’s too chinese but at least she’s clever.
Thomas, Philip Lee. Like Tigers Round a Piece of Meat: The Baba Style of Dondang Sayang. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1986.
Ho, Stephanie. “Dondang Sayang”. Infopedia. 9 March 2015. http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_495_2004-12-20.html
Muhammad Haji Salleh. The Pantun: A Shared Heritage. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 200-.