Print, poetics, and politics: A Sumatran epic in the colonial Indies and New Order Indonesia

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This study presents the text and first English translation of a Sumatran turi-turian or chanted epic called the tale of Datuk Tuongku Aji Malim Leman, the hero’s name. This is a famous southern Batak story from the town of Sipirok. The version at issue, in the Angkola Batak language, was published as a folkloric but also rather novelistic printed paperback book for a popular southern Batak audience in 1941, at the end of Dutch colonial rule in the Indies. This sly book version of Datuk Tuongku by the novelist and newspaperman M.J. Soetan Hasoendoetan, gave southern Batak readers a great literary epic of their own to claim within Indies literatures: here was a touchstone for asserting their cultural excellence at a time when the Batak societies were often denigrated as “tribal” by both Dutch officialdom and other Indies residents. Soetan Hasoendoetan’s deft, elegant, but also playful and funny prose rendition of Datuk Tuongku allowed his Batak readers to imagine Batak traditions and Batak modernities simultaneously, and to mull over the relationships between high oratory and the Latin alphabet print literacy promulgated in the colonial schools of Tapanuli. The study also includes a lengthy anthropological interpretation of the 1941 text, seeing it as a work of both politics and art. The introductory essay draws on postcolonial theory and upon ethnographic fieldwork on literacy, oratory, and turi-turian in Sipirok. Susan Rodgers (1949) is Professor of Anthropology and Director of Asian Studies at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, USA. Her 1978 PhD from the University of Chicago concerned images of the modern in Angkola Batak ritual oratory. Since 1985 her research has dwelt on the linked politics and aesthetics of southern Batak print literatures and literacies, from the late Dutch colonial period through New Order (1965-1998) times. Among her publications are Power and gold; Jewelry from Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines (1985) Indonesian religions in transition, edited with Rita S. Kipp (1987), Telling lives, telling history; Autobiography and historical imagination in modern Indonesia (1995), and Sitti Djaoerah; A novel of colonial Indonesia (1997), a translation of another of Soetan Hasoendoeta’s books.

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