08 February 2011

The Esthetics of Suffering: Two Karo Batak Laments from the

collection of Harley Harris Bartlett

by Uli Kozok


The two Karo Batak laments discussed below are part of the collection of Harley Harris

Bartlett (1886-1960), a professor of botany at the University of Michigan from 1915 until

1955. Bartlett acted as the chairman of the Botany Department from 1922-47, and as Director

of the Botanical Garden from 1919 until his retirement. In 1918 he conducted fieldwork with

the U.S. Rubber Company in Sumatra, which was aimed at developing high-yield strains of

rubber. He became acquainted with the inhabitants of the regions and developed an interest in

their language and culture. He returned to Sumatra in 1927 where he continued collecting

plants – some of them, including the Pentaphragma bartlettii Merr., were named after him –

and ethnographica that are now part of the Bartlett collections of the Logan Museum of

Anthropology, Beloit (Wisconsin), and the Michigan Museum of Anthropology, Ann Arbor.

Bartlett was a scholar with a strong interest in linguistics and anthropology. Between

1920 and 1953 he published thirteen essays related to his research in Sumatra, of which eight

are concerned with language, literature, and culture (Bartlett 1921; Bartlett 1928a; Bartlett

1929; Bartlett 1930; Bartlett 1934a; Bartlett 1934b; Bartlett 1951; Bartlett 1952), and the

reminder are on botanical subjects (Bartlett 1926; Bartlett 1928b; Bartlett 1935; Bartlett

1940). The quality of Bartlett’s scholarship – with no formal training in anthropology – is

evident from the fact that all but his earliest anthropological essays were republished thirteen

years after his death by the Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies of the University of

Michigan (Bartlett 1973).

Bartlett’s sister Hazel Bartlett donated a part of the Bartlett collection to the Logan

Museum of Anthropology a year after her brother’s death. The other part was given to the

University of Michigan Museum of Anthropology.

The Bartlett collection includes a number of manuscripts written on tree bark, bamboo,

and buffalo bone. Among the bamboo manuscripts are two Karo Batak laments (bilangbilang).

One is written on a tobacco container and is part of the collection of the Logan

Museum of Anthropology, catalogue No. 4166 (referred to as Manuscript A), and the other is

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written on a weaver’s shuttle from the collection of the University of Michigan Museum of

Anthropology, catalogue No. 48466 (Manuscript B).

Manuscript A

The lament is written in standard Karo Batak language and script but displays a number

of unconventionally spelled words. It is therefore important to address the spelling of the

manuscript, and this can only be done by first giving a short introduction to the Karo script.

As with other Batak scripts, the script of the Karo consists of a main set of 19 characters

called surat that are complimented by a set of eight diacritic marks called anak ni surat

‘children of the surat’. Most of the surat are consonants with an inherent vowel, – a. Only

three of the 19 surat are vowels. These are the surat I (I), U (U) and the surat Ha (a),

which can also have the value /a/ in the syllable-initial position, e.g. ‘anak’. The diacritic

marks represent the vowels (e, é, i, o, and u), final nasal and aspirant (Ì and Ó) and the virama

(penengen), which deprives the surat of their inherent –a vowel and can be added to the surat

of the main set. selanjutnya klik

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