Sluku-Sluku Bathok: The Meaning of Meaninglessness

Sluku sluku bathok
Bathoke ela elo,
Si Rama menyang Solo
Leh oleh-e payung motha

Mak jenthit lo-lo-bah
Wong mati ora obah
Yen obah medeni bocah
Yen urip goleka dhuwit….

I am often struck by the nonsensical quality of tembang dolanan. Despite the best interpretive efforts of dalangs and scholars, most people would agree that the tembang dolanan is meaningless. These are certainly not the first nonsense poem to be written nor is Java the only place to produce such haute-nonsense–as pretentious and silly a term as anyone has ever produced. :-)

In the West, Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky is perhaps the most famous of nonsense poems. The English have made such a study of this poem that the slightest misspronounciation of a word, which in fact does not exist in the English language, causes them to trip over themselves to correct you as quickly as possible. No, no, it is the “slithy toves” with an ‘i’ as in ‘kite’, not as in ‘sit’–they will correct you with all the passion they can muster. Similarly, the Javanese take their nonsense very seriously.

It is modern art that gives me a clue to the interpretation of the Sluku Sluku Bathok. Abstract painters and sculptors are fond of avoiding any descriptions and programs within their works. If there is any consistent trend in modern art, it is to let the viewer supply the meaning.

It would be unfair and ignorant to suggest that modern and post-modern art are meaningless, rather than that the meaning, which only the artist knows for sure, is often unavailable to the viewers of the work. Therefore, we are invited to do our own work and to bring our own connections and experiences to the piece in question.

I believe that the same can be said of the Sluku Sluku Bathok. Probably those who wrote it had their own meanings in mind. This may be an attempt on the part of the pujangga to liberate themselves from the rigidity of the pakem (academic classicism within Javanese tembang). They deliberately made the work enigmatic for the purpose of inspiring our imagination.