My heart embraces the mountain
To what avail, the hand cannot reach it…
(from Amir Hamzah’s poem Buah Rindu 2)
IO – Amir Hamzah’s life and death is one of the great romantic tragedies of Indonesian literature. He was Indonesia’s noblest and perhaps greatest poet. Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana likened Chairil Anwar’s poetry to a rujak (fruit salad) as the starter at the beginning of a meal but for him Amir Hamzah’s poetry was the main course. His use of language and images was superb. Amir Hamzah’s verses evoke an atmosphere of the old Malay Islamic world with his descriptions of “the voice of fruit doves in the ears of this Malay boy” and “the scent of kenanga blossoms in the valley wasted for they cannot reach the mountains” and yet he was also a part of the drive to create a new modern Indonesian literature, language and culture and a new free Indonesian nation. He created subtle shades of nuances with his prodigious skill with words and he summoned the depths of loneliness and desolation into his poems and the struggle but also the ultimate tranquility of surrender to God and eternity that played such a strong role at the end of his life and in his ultimate fate.
On the 2nd and 3rd of February 2019, well-known actress, author and film producer Happy Salma via her Yayasan Titimangsa Foundation staged a drama based on the life story of Amir Hamzah at the Gedung Kesenian, Jakarta. The drama, Nyanyi Sunyi Revolusi or “A Lonely Song of Revolution” is a play on the title of one of Amir Hamzah’s books of poetry entitled Nyanyi Sunyi or “A Lonely Song”. Happy says, “Well, one is never completely content with a play nevertheless, I feel happy that I was able to unite the energies to bring this play into fruition. It was such a collaborative effort. People involved in it were in Lampung, in Jakarta, in Bandung and I myself live in Bali – and getting the team together required a great energy. Yesterday,the tickets sold out but of course, the audience each has their own interpretation but personally, I felt very satisfied.”
The actors performed very professionally with excellent costumes, lightings, stage settings and music. Happy’s Titimangsa Foundation was created in order to promote people’s interest in Indonesian literature and Happy commented, “Two years ago we worked on the poet Chairil Anwar with his poems and the backgrounds that led up to them and how these represented Sumatra and its modern elites at the time; not to have included a play on Amir Hamzah would have left things lopsided. In this I was very much influenced by N. H. Dini’s book: Amir Hamzah, Pangeran Seberang or “Amir Hamzah, the Prince from Across the Sea” and also Anthony Reid’s “The Blood of the People: Revolution and the End of Traditional Rule in Sumatra”. Last December I was in Bandung and was scheduled to meet Ibu Dini but then she was killed in a car accident. It was such a shock and terribly sad…
What draws me to Amir Hamzah was his innocence: his conviction that he was safe because he had done nothing wrong. He was a moderate and although many were killed and he was warned to leave he didn’t. This play is part of reminding Indonesians that our freedom and democracy did not come easily. They were born of blood and tears.”
His full name was Tengku Amir Hamzah bin Tengku Muhammad Adil, Pangeran Indraputra (Lord Amir Hamzah, Prince Indraputra) and he was born on the 28th of February 1911 in Tanjung Pura in the district of Langkat in what is now the province of North Sumatra. His uncle was the third Sultan of Langkat, Sultan Mahmud Abdul Aziz Abdul Jalil Rahmadsyah. Amir Hamzah was sent to Java for his secondary school education in Jakarta and then Solo after which followed law school in Jakarta or Batavia as it was once called.
The period that Amir Hamzah studied Eastern literature and languages in Solo was when the most important event in Indonesian history took place namely the Youth Pledge of 1928 when young Indonesians gathered from all over the Archipelago to pledge that they were one nation one people and that they chose Malay as their national language. It was the spiritual birth of Indonesia and an extremely exciting period especially for young educated Indonesians who in fact were behind the Youth Pledge. Amir Hamzah may have been brought up steeped in the Malay Islamic traditions of a Sumatran nobleman but like nearly any other young educated Indonesian of that period, he was moved to the bottom of his heart by the ideals of the Youth Pledge and its ultimate vision of a united and free people. In Jakarta he had already involved himself in the Jong Sumtranen Bond and in Solo he became head of the Solo branch of Indonesia Muda or Young Indonesia an important youth organization born of the Youth Pledge.
Later, he became deeply involved in the cultural aspect of the nationalist movement mainly the creation of a modern Indonesian literature and language. Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana writes in Amir Hamzah, Penyair Besar Antara Dua Zaman or “Amir Hamzah, a Great Poet between Two Eras” that he first came to know of Amir through poems which Amir had published in Panji Poestaka a journal that Takdir edited. Amongst the hundreds of poems sent to the journal Takdir immediately singled out Amir Hamzah’s poetry as far superior to anything written by anyone else. He invited him to his house and they became friends, a friendship which later included another North Sumatran, namely a Batak named Armin Pane whom Amir Hamzah already knew from his high school days in Solo. Together the three of them established Poedjangga Baru or “The New Writers”, a literary journal intended to help develop and promote a new modern Indonesian language and literature for the new Indonesian culture that would be needed to help form the base for the new people and nation that the Youth Pledge envisaged.
Takdir Alisjahbana and Armin Pane’s efforts were to create a new modern Indonesian literature and language influenced by Western concepts and ideas and this was to be very different in form, atmosphere and ideals than that of the past. For Amir Hamzah however, his efforts at modernization would always be a continuation or further development of the old Malay Islamic literature and language of his youth and the traditions and customs of the Sumatran nobility. In this he acted as a bridge between the old Malay literature and the modern Indonesian literature that Poedjangga Baru was attempting to help create. In this role Amir Hamzah’s life was to reflect the great cultural evolution and clashes of his time which expressed themselves dramatically and ultimately violently in his own life.
Iswadi Pratama who directed the play “A Lonely Song of Revolution” says that he sees two waves of equal force in Amir Hamzah’s life: the first is the wave of revolution for a free people which Amir Hamzah fought for through the Poedjangga Baru and his activities as a student leader. The other was his position as an aristocrat and part of the Langkat royal family. These two waves shattered his life into broken fragments.
The second important factor in Amir Hamzah’s lfe was Ilik Sundari. Her name translates as “Ilik the Beautiful” and she was the love of Amir Hamzah’s life, the muse who inspired and drew forth his enthusiasm and passion to write poetry, to help create a national language out of Malay, to join the struggle for freedom as a student activist. Amir Hamzah met her at his high school in Solo where gradually an unbreakable emotional bond was woven between the two. He taught her Arabic and Malay literature and language and she taught him old Javanese literature and language.
Happy Salma remarked that the play was a heavy one. Her father-in-law who is the Tjokorda of Ubud is also a poet. “I discussed the philosophy of it all with him and he explained to me that in Bali people believe in dase, kale, patre or “time, place and situation” which determine the fate of a person and of course, these also in the end decided Amir Hamzah’s fate.”
By 1937 Amir Hamzah had moved back to Jakarta where he was working and enthusiastically helping to create Poedjangga Baru. On weekends he would go to Lembang or Majalengka to meet his beloved Ilik Soendari. Life must have felt sweet and full of promise.
In Sumatra however, dark clouds were starting to gather. The small but wealthy Sultanate of Langkat was bound to the Dutch colonial government for oil revenues to survive, to pay for its nobility and court, to build its palace and grand mosque, to run its great Islamic school where students came from as far away as Malacca to learn from its teachers some of whom were even from Egypt. His uncle, the Sultan could not afford to anger the Dutch whose spies had informed them that Amir was involved in the nationalist movement and must desist especially if he were later to become a high official in Langkat as his uncle wished. Amir Hamzah received instructions to come immediately to Langkat. There the Sultan explained to him the situation and asked him to return to Langkat and marry his cousin Tengku Kamalia, the Sultan’s eldest daughter. It was a choice where whatever Amir chose it would be wrong and a betrayal.
At the end of the day Amir’s aristocratic upbringing and loyalty to his family and king won the day. In her book N.H. Dini writes of him, “He was a prince from his face to his heart, from the ends of his hair to the tip of his toes” and he chose sembah patik sembahkan, titah paik junjung or “a vassal submits homage and upholds the commands of his lord”.
Amir was allowed to return to Java for a month to sit his exams for his law degree and to pack his belongings. In that time he met his love Ilik Soedari and went away with her for ten days during which they visited beloved places that held meaning for them both and made peace with his decision. Dini writes that he made clear to Ilik that there was only one love in his life and that was her. He married only out of duty.
At the end of that month Amir Hamzah went to Takdir’s house and handed him a collection of poetry to be published: Nyanyi Sunyi or a “A Song of Loneliness”. He had been forced to turn away from the modernization, the democracy, the liberalism, the freedom both personal and of his people that Amir had been struggling for and most of all he had to turn away from the love of his heart, Ilik Soendari. Takdir Alisjahbana writes of not only the deep torment of having to choose between these two worlds but also the sense of guilt and betrayal that were for him a cry from the heart and how Amir Hamzah succeeded in turning that cry into not only beautiful poetry but the most beautiful poems ever produced in the annals of Indonesian Malay literature. They were his best work.
Throughout the Second World War and in the first year of the Revolution that followed it Amir Hamzah performed his courtly duties and those of a husband. After Indonesia proclaimed its independence he worked with the Republican army and served as the government’s representative in Langkat. In 1946 social revolution broke out in Sumatra led by the Communist Party. Amir Hamzah was kidnapped and on the 20th of March 1946 he was beheaded and thrown into a mass grave. Before he was executed Amir asked to be allowed to pray and to have his blindfold removed for he wished to look death in the face. His executioner was his own martial arts teacher as a child.
Ahda Imran, the scriptwriter of Nyanyi Sunyi Revolusi uses this theme movingly to create drama and give meaning to Amir Hamzah’s life. His opening scene is of Amir Hamzah as a boy learning Malay martial arts with his teacher and the teacher explaining to him that a person must let go of feelings of anger or revenge as they have no place in martial arts. After Amir’s execution his martial arts teacher has visions of the small boy he once taught saying to him, “So now you understand what it means to have no anger and seek no revenge?”
There is a melancholy that floats through Amir Hamzah’s life which becomes not only the central theme of the play but essentially the only theme of the play. Perhaps the only criticism of the play is that had the writer created some more sharply joyful, happy scenes it would have contrasted with the overriding sadness and brought it into a more dramatic and striking light.
Two years later Amir Hamzah’s remains were removed and buried in the grounds of Azizi Mosque in Tanjung Pura. It was his family’s mosque. In 1975 he was declared a national hero. J.B. Jassin referred to him as Raja Penyair or “the King of Poets”. Amir Hamzah is remembered for helping to slowly change the voice and content of traditional Malay poetry to modern Indonesian poetry.
Happy Salma’s favorite Amir Hamzah poem is Padamu Jua or “Also for You” with the lines that appear in the play: “Loneliness is sadness, loneliness is sacred, loneliness is to forget, loneliness is a fading away…” (Tamalia Alisjahbana)