Otto Steinmayer: Classic Ground

The curling tendrils of Dayak poetry

[New Straits Times, 10 June 1992]


In a few days, on the first of June, the native peoples of Sarawak will be celebrating their Gawai, or harvest festival. In the old days, Gawai was held anytime shortly after the rice was taken in. Among groups of longhouses, parties might go on for a month. The date of 1 June was made official in the 60s.

At Gawai time the lemambang or bards will walk up and down the longhouse all night long, chanting the pengap or the myth of the origins of gawai and of rice. In honour of the day I would like to talk about Dayak literature. I hope only to give you the merest taste. Though Dayak literature is more familiar to me than any other in Southeast Asia, I'm afraid I know far too little, because the range and quantity of poetry, stories, and "nonfiction" is vast---almost unbelievable to us, who cannot fathom how it could have been composed and preserved without the aid of writing. One scholar lists 39 major genres, and 220 sub-genres. Furthermore, two dozen or more different peoples live in Sarawak, each with their own language and learning. 

The Dayaks give the most prestige to the epic, long poems of heroic deeds. Kelabit epic is especially elaborate. Like the Iliad, a Kelabit epic may take many days to recite. The Ibans celebrate the men and women of the celestial longhouse in Panggau Libau, and in particular the hero Keling, and his wife Kumang.

As the Iliad taught the way of the Greek warrior, Dayak epic poetry helps each people define themselves and their ideals of virtue. Through epic Dayaks also tell how the world and its creatures came to be, and how human beings received rice and rites from the gods. Epic thus preserves adat and has connections with religion.

On a less serious plane, the Dayaks compose songs and stories for amusement. Parties are one place to hear them. If the entertainment is handled with class, the offer of rice wine to a guest should appropriately be accompanied with a sung invitation
to drink it, with improvised references to the guest and the occasion. For example, this Bidayuh poem, with its moments of arch irony, translated by Carol Rubenstein (who has done more than anyone else to collect Dayak poetry and make it available to the world outside Sarawak):

Who dared cut down the spiky nibung palm
which fell onto the top of a high cliff?
Which of you brave young men dares
to drink this large bowl of tuak wine
offered by an awful female ghost,
bowl offered by the evil spirit of the forbidden?
Walking along the riverbank,
meeting a big crab under the rocks.
I am sorry I was so drunk
on the outer veranda of the longhouse---
it was the tuak offered me by the charming Dara Bunchu.

Love finds a large place in all Dayak poetry. Iban epics give many versions of the courtship of Keling and Kumang, and in long poems called renong Iban women poets describe the progress of love between the human bujang and dara, in all its detail and hardships, with sensitivity and humour.

Poetry is also the medium for expressing one's own emotions, like the lyric style that is the dominant mode in modern poetry in English. The following is a contemporary poem composed by a Penan: 

Ii Ii The voice cries out, pulls until the end.
Like white early morning mist lifting away
all the herds of wild boar have vanished.
Catching the darting fish---to leap to the bait
and fall back stunned, each lonely giant tree now strung in a row-
to fall back stunned, each lonely giant tree now strung in a row:
A floating raft... [trans Rubenstein]

In addition to the high-styled epics, Dayaks also compose stories for relaxation. I especially enjoy the Iban stories about Apai Sali ("Father of Sali"), an ugly old man who is both foolish and cunning, endearing and exasperating. Apai Sali belongs to the family of the mythical heroes; but his greed, cowardice, and laziness violate all standards of proper Iban conduct. He is constantly getting into trouble, the despair of his wife Encelegit.

Epic poetry is carefully composed in formal verse; stories like the Apai Sali stories are in prose and have a much less fixed form, so that the storyteller can embellish it as inspiration comes to him.

Iban literature is still developing in modern styles. In the early 60s, the late Adria Ejau began to write novels in Iban, dealing expressively with traditional life and the way it was changing. 

If I am supposed to be writing about classical topics here, what then, you may ask, is classical about Dayak literature? I am afraid that when Malaysians in cities think of Dayak life, they imagine something crude, and not remotely classical. Hardly. 

In the first place, Dayak poets compose verse in the same way Homer did, by ear and memory. Like Homer, the Dayak poet gives his characters descriptive epithets, and uses formulae to fill and ornament the line. The visual equivalent is the beautiful patterns of curling tendrils painted or carved by the Orang Ulu, that fill up artistic space just as life fills up the forest.

Dayaks take the power of poetry seriously, and in this they agree with the Roman poet Horace, who justified his art to the Emperor Augustus thus:

The poet shapes speech in the tender and faltering mouth of the child
And turns his ear away from indecent talk.
He forms the heart with friendly precepts,
Corrects sullenness, envy, and anger.
Poetry records good deeds, it builds the rising times
With remarkable examples. Poetry solaces the poor and sick...
Singers ask help and feel the presence of the spirits,
They beg for heaven's rain with well-made prayer.
Poetry turns away diseases, banishes fearful dangers,
It obtains peace and a year rich with grain.
With poetry the gods above are pleased, with poetry the souls of the Dead...

Much Dayak poetry is sacred---or rather, as with the Greek, it is hard to tell where the sacred ends and the secular begins.
Or maybe that distinction doesn't exist, and everything is part of a world that is to be respected, the land, the people and their ancestors and history, even the daily chores of growing rice, hunting, weaving, or making baskets. The following is a prayer appropriate to recite at Gawai time, in which one asks for the good things as Dayaks see them:

O-ha! O-ha! O-ha!
Aku ngangau, aku nesau,
Aku ngumbai, aku ngelambai.
Ngangau ka Petara Aki, Petara Ini.
Aku minta tuah, minta limpah,
Aku minta raja, minta anda,
Aku minta bidik, minta lansik,
Minta tulang, minta pandang.
Awak ka kami bulih ringgit, bulih duit,
Bulih tajau, bulih segiau,
Bulih setawak, bulih menganak
Aku minta bulih padi, bulih puli.
Agi ga aku minta gerai, minta nyamai,
Minta gayu, minta guru!

[I cry out, I summon, I call, I invoke, calling on God of our Grandfathers, of our Grandmothers. I ask good fortune in full measure, wealth, prosperity, luck, and insight; I ask strength, and good fame. So that we may gain ringgits, cash, jars of value, gongs; so we may have children. I ask we may gain padi and pulut. At last, I ask health and peace, long life and wisdom.]
Carol Rubenstein's collection of translations, The Nightbird Sings, is published by Tynron Press. Her huge and magnificent collection of Dayak poetry from all peoples is published in two volumes by the Sarawak Museum as Special Monograph no. 2.