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Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Violent polemics polluted the air of the middle "20s" over the question: Who originated the balagtasan?

Researches reveal that the balagtasan is the modern counterpart of the ancient duplo, an extemporaneous debate in verse participated in by men called bellaco, and women known as bellaca. The "king" was a sort of judge who meted out "punishment" to those who committed mistakes. The balagtasan, on the other hand, is a modified form of the duplo. Ordinarily, there are two rival poets who, as in debates, defend their side of the question. In its early form, the balagtasan had a lakangdiwa (sort of referee), a Gat-Payo (Honorable Adviser) and a Lakangbini or Gat-ilaw (muse). Later, the Honorable Adviser was dispensed with, and to add color to the event each poet chose his Muse.

In March, 1924, the Tagalog writers met in a convention at the Instituto de Mejures to prepare a program to commemorate the anniversary of the birth of Francisco Balagtas, April 2nd. It was agreed to modernize the old duplo, but a question popped up which balked the conventionalists, to wit, a new name for the modernized duplo. Lope K. Santos claimed that it was Jose N. Sevilla who coined the word balagtasan in honor of Balagtas.

The importance of the balagtasan lies in its effect on Philippine literature. It inspired the Filipinos to appreciate and notice what is genuinely their own. For once, the proud and condescending writers in English and Spanish took notice and even "aped" the balagtasan. The Ilokanos followed the Tagalog in having their own bukanegan (from Pedro Bukaneg, the supposed author of the Ilokano metrical romance Bian ni Lam-ang), while the Pampangos evolved their crissotan (from Crisostomo Soto, the Father of Pampango literature).

Those were the "golden days" of the balagtasan. Today it is definitely dying; its practitioners are limited to the vulgar, illiterate mass of poetlings who, for lack of any poetic gifts, resort to word juggling and peddling around of their unreadable line in order to propagate their names. No wonder the writers in English scoff at them with comtemtuous condescension.


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