IO – Lt. Gen. Besar Harto Karyawan tells the story of how when he visited Japan it was the cherry blossom season. He saw how the Japanese had planted cherry trees along their rivers banks and he was struck by their great beauty in spring when the trees were in blossom and thought to himself, “But we have a tree in Indonesia that is just as beautiful and that is the flamboyant tree.”
So, when the President gave him the task of cleaning up the Citarum River the General ordered his men to plant rows of vetiver grass; then fruit trees and the beautiful flamboyant. “Our river banks can be just as beautifully strewn with flamboyant trees,” he asserts.
The flamboyant tree originates in Madagascar and was discovered more or less for the rest of the world in the 19th century. Its Latin name is Delonix Regia and of course, such a magnificent, eye-catching tree would need a name associated with royalty although why it is also associated with the Greek island of Delos remains unclear.
The blossom’s striking beauty soon made it a very popular tree all over the world in the tropics and in areas with mild subtropical climates. It grows throughout Africa where it is often referred to as the flame tree; also in tropical Asia and South America and it seems to thrive especially well on lush, steamy islands near the Equator imbuing their cities and towns with tones of crimson hues. Philippe de Longvilliers de Poincy is believed to have introduced the tree to South America. Hence, its other name royal poinciana.
In Indonesia, not only Indonesians but also the Dutch colonialists arriving on its shores were enchanted by blossoming flamboyant trees and were delighted by the trees’ beauty in the Indonesian landscape. Dutch artists who painted in Indonesia were inspired by the beautiful Indonesian landscape and the blossoming flamboyant trees immediately caught their eye, often appearing in their paintings. A typical landscape would be of rice fields with blue mountains in the distance and a lone flamboyant tree standing like an exotic fiery beacon in the foreground. Didier Hamel, the curator of Duta Fine Arts Museum in Kemang says, “The flamboyant tree was much painted by Dutch artists during colonial times in Indonesia. One of the most well-known of them for that sort of painting was Gerard Pieter Adolfs (1899 -1968). At the time such paintings were collected by many Dutch people.”
In 1937 the Indonesian artist, S. Sudjojono (1914-1986) criticized this style of painting which he referred to as the Mooie Indie or Beautiful Indies style of the colonialists who did not look at the reality of the suffering of Indonesians under the yoke of colonialism although later he himself painted these sort of romantic landscapes, himself. Hamel commented, “During the Sukarno time, several Indonesian artists still painted flamboyant trees but it seems that less and less did so after Sudjojono’s Mooie Indie criticism. To paint the natural beauty of Indonesia was considered to be non-intellectual work! And today, after the invasion of European modern art in Indonesia, less artists paint landscapes and paintings of the flamboyant have almost completely disappeared except in some souvenir shops in Bandung.”
Nonetheless, it is an extremely beautiful tree and many Indonesian artists have nevertheless painted it. Included amongst them are Otto Djaja, Basuki Abdulah, Lee Man Fong, Suriosubroto, Widayat, Sudjono Abdullah, Koempoel Sujatno, Sunarno and Hasan Bisri. It is said that Basuki Abdullah’s flamboyant trees captivated Soekarno who avidly collected his paintings.
The flamboyant also frequently appears in Indonesian music. One of the most famous songs about the flamboyant tree is sung by Trio Bimbo, a musical vocal group from Bandung that still performs but was especially popular during the late 1960s and 70s. The song Flamboyan is a melancholy song but in the end hints at hope. Its lyrics are by Naura Alifa Rania:
In the evening it sheds its blossoms.
A young maiden watches entranced
As one by one its leaves fall through the air
To scatter on the Earth’s broad lap.
She picks the blossoms
With a wistful face.
The flamboyant sheds its blossoms.
They fall and scatter
And as they do her hope revives…
Tomorrow there’ll be spring again.
The flamboyant tree appears again as a symbol of hope in Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana’s novel Defeat and Victory, published in 1978. Here the Indonesian nationalist, Hidayat sits in a Japanese prison cell during the Second World War after being caught by the Japanese with a plan to fight for an independent and free Indonesia. He is starved and threatened with death by the Japanese and as he struggles with the thought of facing death it is the flamboyant tree that gives him hope and courage as he thinks to himself, “They want to turn this cell into hell for me but I shall turn it into heaven. It will be a place for my mind to further grow as a responsible human being and as a man who loves life and all the universe. I shall turn it into a place for reflection and spiritual struggle which I shall use to search for the secret of being human, for the Divine and to try to understand the universe a little better. I have never had the time to really sit back and truly think on the meaning of life, and here in this place suspended between life and death, I shall make that my goal…”
As Hidayat struggles with his thoughts he looks through the small hole in his cell door and looking beyond the policemen at the guard post he sees, “… the flamboyant tree in front of the police station. Its blossoms a glorious, flaming red; a bedazzling symbol for him of the struggles in his heart.”
The rains have begun and so has the flamboyant season in Indonesia. The flamboyant tree has always been one of the most beautiful trees in Indonesia bringing not only relief after the hot and arid dry season, but with the coming rains the tree begins to bud; it brings joy and a reaffirmation of life and the vitality of life.
The flamboyant tree is rarely found in Indonesia’s province of Nusa Tenggara Timur nevertheless, in the town of Kupang it is known as the sepe tree which means fire tree as its flowers look like a raging fire amongst the green trees of the forest and it has become the symbol of Kupang. The trees start to flower at the start of the rainy season and are seen as a sign of gratitude to God for the life-giving rains.
In India flamboyant trees are known as gulmohar trees but in the Indian state of Kerala they are called kaalvarippoo which means the flower of Calvary and they have a special religious connotation. Saint Thomas who was one of the apostles of Christ went to India after Christ’s death. Consequently, in Kerala there is to this day the Saint Thomas Christian denomination which traces its origins to Saint Thomas’ evangelical activities in Kerala. They are also known as the Nasrani and they believe that when Jesus was crucified, there was a flamboyant tree next to him and that some of Christ’s blood during the crucifixion fell on to the flowers of the flamboyant causing them to become a deep blood red shade of crimson.
The flamboyant is the city tree of Tainan in Taiwan and also of Xiamen in the Fujian Province of China. It seems to be especially beloved on islands for it is the official tree of the Northern Mariana Islands and it appears to hold a special place in the hearts of the islands of the Caribbean. It is the national tree of Sint Maarten and the national flower of St. Kitts and Nevis.
Another Caribbean town that has taken the flamboyant as its flower is the town of Concepción de la Vega in the Dominican Republic. This ancient 16th century town is known for its traditional carnival in February each year where at times some of its flamboyant and resplendent red costumes look as though they had been inspired by the vermillion flamboyant blossoms. Beginning as a religious activity to celebrate the time just before Lent, El Carnaval de la Vega’s theme revolved around the victory of good over evil. The city is known as the City of the Flamboyants.
These spectacular and vibrant trees have inspired artists and writers in numerous lands across the globe. For many they reflect a deep romanticism seeped in the glorious hues of their scarlet and orange flames.
In the Caribbean the flamboyant tree appears in one of the most eerie yet moving lines in a well-known book called the Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, published in 1966. The book builds on a character in Charlotte Bronte’s famous novel Jane Eyre namely Bertha Mason, the violently insane wife of Edward Rochester hidden away in the attic. In the book she is a Creole heiress from Jamaica whom Rochester brought to England. It describes her life on the island in the Caribbean, and how she came to lose her mind. In one part of the book she is sitting in the bitter cold of an English winter staring at the flames of a coal fire trying to remember why she had been brought there when she sees a red dress lying on the floor that she wore on her last days on the island and suddenly the past comes rushing back to her.
“Time has no meaning. But something that you can touch and hold like my red dress that has a meaning.”… In a desperate effort to connect her dislocated life with some “meaning” she clutches the colour of fire and sunset ” …
“the colour of flamboyant flowers” and she recalls the old saying of the island: “If you are buried under a flamboyant tree your soul is lifted up when it flowers.”
And in the 21st century the flamboyant trees of the Caribbean continue to inspire artists, including Zaira Dzhaubaeva, an artist from the distant province of the Karachay-Cherkess Republic in Russia where there are no flamboyants. She comes from a very cultured family and her father Husey Dzhaubaev was the People’s Poet and a well-known television and newspaper journalist. After a career in television Zaira turned to art. In Russia her favourite tree was the horse chestnut but in 2013 she married an American from Puerto Rico and lived there until the devastating category 5 Hurricane Maria ravaged the islands in 2017.
During her time in Puerto Rico she too, was entranced by the flamboyant and a black bird called chango and she says, “I saw Flamboyant trees and chango birds for the first time in Puerto Rico in 2015. They are both very common there. Flamboyant flowers are fascinating. It’s my favorite tropical tree. Changos are very intelligent and interesting grackle birds. I love them. As an artist I couldn’t resist painting the beautiful red-orange blossoms and the black chango bird together. The contrast is very nice and strong. I love colour. They are majestic. Puerto Rican artists love to paint flamboyants. There they symbolize pride.” (Tamalia Alisjahbana)
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Part I: A love of cherry blossoms and the spirit of Japan. Please see: https://observerid.com/part-i-a-love-of-cherry-blossoms-and-the-spirit-of-japan/