Ancient Jawi poem revived, captivates a new audience


'Syair Jaran Tamasa' is a narrative poem telling the story of the love affair between a warrior and a handmaiden at the Majapahit court. Photo: Fixi

Reaching a new audience with an archival book is always a good thing. Syair Jaran Tamasa, an ancient poem, exemplifies this. It is a book release by Fixi, known for its fiction in Bahasa Malaysia and English, published under its Fixi Retro label.

The transliteration of this poem from Jawi to Bahasa Malaysia (Arabic alphabet to Roman) was made possible by a handwritten manuscript dated 1804 from the British Library in London, titled MSS Malay B 9.

The manuscript, a copy made for Scottish philologist John Leyden (a scholar of languages), was discovered during his visit to Penang. The author of the poem is unknown, but the manuscript does bear the name of the copyist, albeit briefly: Encik Ismail.

The process of getting this manuscript transliterated was initiated by Dr Mulaika Hijjas, a senior lecturer in South East Asian Studies at the School of Languages, Cultures and Linguistics in London, where she is currently based.

“I was wanting to do a crowdsourcing project because I saw that in other fields like European Philology they do this community sourcing,” says Mulaika, 47, in a recent interview.

“So, if you’re working with handwritten manuscripts, there are all these new projects where they get members of the public to help you transliterate from handwriting to machine searchable text.

“And because a lot of people in Malaysia can still read Jawi and there is no character optical recognition for Jawi, I thought it would be interesting to see if we can make this available again (online) in a kind of community-based way.

“And I chose this one because I like syair and it had nice, clear, easy handwriting so I thought ‘Okay, this is going to be easy’ but it still wasn’t easy,” she added.

In Bahasa Malaysia, syair is associated with poetry, a rhymed narrative type of verse consisting of stanzas in four lines.

'I try to explain it to my students that the Panji universe is a bit like the Marvel universe; you get the same characters in the same scenarios, but it’s slightly different ... you also get the same things happening,' says Mulaika. Photo: Handout'I try to explain it to my students that the Panji universe is a bit like the Marvel universe; you get the same characters in the same scenarios, but it’s slightly different ... you also get the same things happening,' says Mulaika. Photo: Handout

Syair Jaran Tamasa appears to belong to the pre-Islamic Panji Melayu genre, which typically revolves around the romance between a prince and his beloved princess, the tragedy that separates them, and the ensuing battles. This genre is known for its rich, fantastical landscapes filled with mythical creatures, deities, and magic.

However, Jaran Tamasa, the name of the protagonist, is not of royal birth but a warrior under the service of the ruler or Raja of the Majapahit dynasty. The poem narrates Jaran’s love for the Raja’s concubine, Ken Lamlam Arsa, his kidnapping of her, and the ensuing chaos.

The Panji universe

“It belongs to this genre called ‘Panji’ stories and they are all set in this kind of universe which is pre-Islamic Java and it’s basically romance and fighting,” says Mulaika.

“I try to explain it to my students that the Panji universe is a bit like the Marvel universe; you get the same characters in the same scenarios, but it’s slightly different ... you also get the same things happening.

“So there’s lots of love affairs and then they are separated and they have to go looking for each other and then there’s the curse of the Dewa (deity) and then people get killed and they get revived, so all this kind of stuff happens and it’s a super popular genre in the 19th century,” she added.

Regarding the project’s timeline, Mulaika mentioned she began the project in 2018 and managed to transliterate most of the poem within a year, making the transcript available online.

“I spent a huge amount of time editing the work and trying to fix the words that none of us could figure out. But a huge amount of transliteration was done by one person who is a retired librarian from UKM (Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia) who lives in Bangi (Selangor) and whom I’ve never met called Zaleha Ahmat. She did a great job and I’m super grateful to her,” said Mulaika.

Despite the relatively short time taken for transliteration, Mulaika, in her role as editor, meticulously reviewed the text to ensure its comprehensibility for modern readers.

“The slowness had entirely to do with me because the initial transliteration is one thing, you can do it quite quickly if you’re not too worried about accuracy but there are all these words – five to 10 words on a page which don’t make any sense to a modern reader so someone has to figure out what it is and it took me an awfully long time to get through that,” she said.

While Amir is glad to have published the 'Syair Jaran Tamasa' book, he admits that it is a hard book to promote. Photo: The Star/Yap Chee Hong While Amir is glad to have published the 'Syair Jaran Tamasa' book, he admits that it is a hard book to promote. Photo: The Star/Yap Chee Hong

Another challenge Mulaika encountered was with the names of the characters themselves, as they originate from Javanese; for instance, “Jaran” is an old Javanese word for horse.

But even she is not sure how these names are actually pronounced.

“Yeah the characters’ names are difficult because they are Javanese names and the scribe who copied them in 1804 or 1805 he probably didn’t understand them. So then he copies them maybe slightly wrongly and I’m looking at what he wrote and I’m thinking ‘Well, okay ...’ and you kinda have to guess what’s behind it. It’s kinda like a Malay version of Javanese names.”

Poem to book

Following the completion of the new transliterated and edited text, Syair Jaran Tamasa was officially launched at the Kuala Lumpur Alternative Bookfest, held at Central Market in February.

The book is also drawing curious attention at the ongoing Kuala Lumpur International Bookfest 2024, which concludes on June 2.

Despite experiencing brisk sales at book festivals and through word-of-mouth, Fixi founder Amir Muhammad shared his thoughts on the response to the book.

“It’s been met with deafening silence! There isn’t a single review on Goodreads,” said Amir, 51, erupting into boisterous laughter at his own remark.

“I’ve received zero feedback. I think it’s the only book I’ve published where there’s not been a single review,” he added.

While Amir is glad to have published the book, he admits that it is a hard book to promote.

“I think it’s worth doing because at least it exists in Rumi (Roman) form but it’s sort of hard to promote because we’re unsure what aspect of the book to promote."

It’s not the first time however that Amir has published a book based on an old Jawi manuscript. His label Fixi Retro, has published Hikayat Raja Babi by Usup Abdul Kadir from a manuscript dated 1775 and Hikayat Nabi Yusuf, based on a manuscript dated 1802 by Muhammad Labai.

'Syair Jaran Tamasa' was released by Fixi Retro in February.  Book cover design by Mun Kao. Photo: Fixi'Syair Jaran Tamasa' was released by Fixi Retro in February. Book cover design by Mun Kao. Photo: Fixi

When asked how he became involved with Syair Jaran Tamasa, Amir responded with his usual wit and humour.

“It was totally against my will! I don’t know whose bright idea this was ...” said the publisher, before recalling the early days of the project.

“Mulaika had contacted me out-of-the-blue because she had bought Hikayat Raja Babi, I think, and she said that she’s starting this Jawi project .... So it just started from there with a conversation about ‘if we do this whole Rumi text as a book, could you publish it?’” he added.

When Amir received the transcript from Mulaika for publication, it still contained “some parts that were indecipherable, making it difficult to discern the words due to the manner in which they were written.”

And yet, this is the sort of thing which Amir personally enjoys.

“That’s what I love about this kind of thing; this mystery about what this word actually means because sometimes it’s like the vocabulary itself is so obscure," he said.

“You don’t know what they are referring to. There’s one word that seems to be describing a type of profession, but you just don’t know because nobody ever uses it anymore.

“And of course there’s margin for error because sometimes the scribe misspelled something so is it really a misspelling or is it a different thing? I think that’s delightful."

It turned out that Amir indirectly helped solve some of these ambiguous words through Arsyad Mokhtar, who was responsible for transliterating Hikayat Raja Babi and Hikayat Nabi Yusuf.

“I sent this transcript and the link to the original text to Arsyad to see if he could decipher it and he solved a few of them so Mulaika was quite pleasantly surprised, but the rest of it is still ambiguous,” said Amir.

It’s also worth noting that a syair was something one recited out loud and was more of a performance instead of silent book reading.

Mulaika also mentioned that they are in very early stages of planning a recitation of Syair Jaran Tamasa at the Tinta Budi bookstore in Taman Tun Dr Ismail in Kuala Lumpur in August.

Follow us on our official WhatsApp channel for breaking news alerts and key updates!

Fixi Books , Poem , Jawi , Bahasa Malaysia ,

   

Next In Culture

Weekend for the arts: 'Inventory Of Intimacies' exhibition, Jai draws at Ilham
Does street art belong in a museum?
Mid-year planner: performing arts and more in the Klang Valley
Italian artist Cattelan’s latest satirical work is a bullet-riddled golden wall
US Library of Congress spotlights its American 'treasures'
Reimagining M. Nasir's musical legacy through art
Late author Ursula K. Le Guin's home to become a writers' residency
Oldest privately owned book sells for RM18mil at British auction sale
Miniature diorama project revives 15th century Melaka
Picasso Museum opens vast online archive of works by the iconic artist

Others Also Read