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Sutardji Calzoum Bachri: From bottle poet to sufism

Features News - Monday, December 24, 2007

Leon Agusta, Contributor, Jakarta

"I am not `Malin Kundang' like Goenawan Mohamad is. I am not the `Man of the Frontier' like Sitor Situmorang. I am not the `Heir of the World's Culture' like Chairil Anwar was. I just bequeath and the world transliterates," said Sutardji Calzoum Bachri in one quick spurt of words while delivering his Cultural Oration during the Jakarta Academy Awards Ceremony on Dec.10, 2007.

With those words he affirmed his position as one of the links in Indonesia's historic chain of poetry, which as a mode of cultural communication arts introduces signals to itself and to each poet of the passing generations and eras; it is his sensitivity to these signals that has distinguished Sutardji Calzoum Bachri from other poets.

Sutardji's relationship with the art of poetry was revealed in his intimate, almost confessional oration.

He said of his working process, "I write on a piece of paper that already bears text. I write upon those texts; the mantras that are the cultural manifestation of the subculture with which I am best acquainted, namely the culture of Riau."

As artists and creative souls often do, when Sutardji delivered his oration, he deviated from the precisely set out text that he was holding in his hands. He let his mind wander, once again, creatively -- his talent emerging, and inspiration flowing and filling his oration with confessions and observations, replete with energetic interlacing expressions of thoughts about the art of poetry, human character, cultural roots, the history of the nation, and the oaths of youths.

"In creating history, poetry has its own unique role. On one hand, poetry is the fruit of history. On the other, poetry becomes the seeds for history. One of the bitterest fruits forced down the craw of the Dutch colonialists was to us a sweet, big fruit in the form of a piece of writing titled the Youths' Oath ... Like that of a poem, the content of the Youths' Oath is imagination.

"This Youths' Oath poem became the seed that grew into the history of the nation's struggle to attain its independence; rendering the imagination behind the words therein into reality."

Sutardji, who is most often called Tardji among his friends, is not only an authentic poet, but also an authentic intellect.

His way of reinterpreting the Youths' Oath (Sumpah Pemuda) is evidence of this.

The Melayu Stage Foundation (Yayasan Panggung Melayu) celebrated his birthday for one week in Taman Ismail Marzuki, July 13 - 19.

A thick book that documents the Working Papers of International Seminars and a number of essays concerning him, including writings from local and foreign writers, was published under the title The President of Poets, The King of Mantras (Raja Mantra Presiden Penyair).

"Apparently Sutardji is even bigger than Chairil Anwar," writes the editor Maman S. Mahayana.

The moniker "The President of Poets" was first uttered by Sutardji himself "in 1974, when he was really drunk," said a friend of his, painter Hidayat LPD.

Also present during the "self-baptism" were Sanento Yuliman, Jeihan, Wilson Nadeak, Jakob Soemardjo, Hamid Jabbar, and a number of other artists and friends.

It was already common among his colleagues to refer to him as "poet of booze" at that time. His performances then were always accompanied by a bottle.

Later, however, this "bottle poet" developed a strong urge to turn to Sufism when in 1989, with Mustafa Bisri and Taufiq Ismail, he was invited to the International Poet Conference in Baghdad, Iraq.

On that trip, he visited holy and historical places like Najjaf, Karballa, Kufa, the tomb of the king of Sufis Abdul Kadir Jaelani, and the Abu Nawas Garden. Sufism became the new direction of his works. He even went on the pilgrimage to Mecca.

According to Abdul Hadi WM, the Sufi spiritual tendency was actually visible in his early works, but was always hampered by the skepticism and nihilism that were also somehow strongly alluring to the poet.

During the Jakarta Academy Awards 2007 program, the title "The King of Mantras" was never heard. The term "The President of Poets" was also unheard. The Director of the Jakarta Academy, Taufik Abdullah, without mentioning the names of the award recipients, simply said, Jakarta Academy Awards are given to recipients with lifetime achievements, not merely monumental works."

Alfons Raryadi, one of this year's judges said regarding the basis of the choice of Sutardji Calzoum Bachri for the honor, "A long time ago Chairil Anwar coined the phrase "Three Unravel Destiny"*, and now "One Tarji Unravels Chairil'."

* Tiga Menguak Takdir = can also be interpreted as Three Push Aside Takdir [Alisjabana], by Asrul Sani, Rivai Apin and Chairil Anwar.  Estabishing the 45 Generation, they were claiming the new focus of Indonesian literature, in contrast to Takdir Alisjabana. who was seen as being part of the old "Pujangga Baru."
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