The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]
Culture, Society & Arts
JUNE, 1999 - VOLUME 7 NO.5

In terms of sheer dramatic interest, the performing arts of Burma are rivaled only by the country’s long and complex history. Even today, our writer finds, Burma’s leaders know how to put on a good show. The performing arts of Burma represent, in the words of scholar Noel F. Singer, “the charming and benign side of the nation’s character.” On the surface, the Burmese traditions of song, dance and drama seem to exist in a realm untouched by politics. But even a cursory look at the long and complex history of the performing arts in Burma reveals that they are closely intertwined with an infinitely more complex pageant of rising and falling reigns and regimes. Without attempting to take more than a glimpse at this history, we may begin to appreciate the interplay of light and darkness—the brilliant world of the Burmese performing arts against a backdrop of political upheaval—that gives this aspect of Burmese culture its peculiar fascination. In the early history of what is now Burma, culture could often play an important role in the defense of a weaker kingdom. Some twelve hundred years ago, the maharaja of the Pyu city of Sri Kshetra sent a troupe of entertainers on an arduous 214-day journey to the Chinese T’ang court at Ch’ang-an. The Chinese emperor was so impressed with their performance that he offered his friendship to these gifted “barbarians” and the rulers of their faraway land. Despite the success of this early instance of cultural diplomacy, however, distance prevented the Chinese from coming to the assistance of the Pyu when Nanchao (present-day Yunnan) turned on them in 832, ravaging their kingdom and paving the way for Burmese domination of their once-proud civilization. The value of cultural advancement was not lost on the Burmese, who absorbed many of the artistic traditions of the Pyu, and two centuries later, the Mon. The Mon word pantara became the collective term in Burmese for singers and dancers after King Aniruddha brought many of these entertainers back to his capital at Pagan following his conquest of the Mon at Thaton in 1057. Centuries later, during the reign of Maha-dhammaraja Dipati (1733-52), the Mon took control of the Burmese capital after the king decided that the end of his dynasty was at hand and there was nothing left for him to do but immerse himself in the pleasures of courtly entertainment. This reversal of fortunes was short-lived, however, and soon the newly established Konbaung dynasty, which put the Burmese back in power, was strong enough to sack the Thai capital of Ayutthaya. This in turn led to the introduction of the yodayar dance style, which represents the pinnacle of refinement in the Burmese performing arts. Ironically, great cultural advances were sometimes as much a product of political weakness as they were of conquest. The last Konbaung king, Thibaw, was an effete ruler but a great patron of the arts. According to Singer, “Despite the incompetence and cruelty of this reign, it was a time when the performing arts came into their own in a spectacular way.” During this period, the leading lady in court performances occupied a more prominent position than the male lead, reflecting the patronage of the powerful Queen Suphayarlat, Thibaw’s domineering wife. When Thibaw finally lost control of the Burmese capital of Mandalay to the British in 1885, further innovations resulted both from foreign influence and the merging of courtly and popular traditions. Tastes changed dramatically, as more traditional songs and plays based on Buddhist stories or ancient epics like the Ramayana lost popularity to new works that allowed greater displays of virtuosity on the part of performers. This was an era of intense rivalry amongst theatre troupes, with mixed results for the standards of performance. The response of foreigners to the Burmese performing arts was not always appreciative. Vincetius Sangermano, an Italian priest, described in 1893 how he mistook some Burmese dancers to be madmen because of their “continual contortions with their bodies, their hands, and their fingers.” An earlier English observer, Michael Symes, found a performance of the Ramayana at Pegu in 1795 much more appealing with its “showy and becoming costumes”. But perhaps the most interesting case of a foreigner being captivated by the Burmese stage is that of John Hammond, who at the age of 15 fell in love with a Burmese dancing girl and trained to become the mintha, or leading man, in her troupe. The British community ostracized Hammond for this betrayal of his race, but his Burmese audience embraced him with open arms, giving him the nickname In-ga-lan-Sein (English Diamond). A recent attempt by the current Burmese regime to revive the role of the performing arts in establishing friendly relations with foreign countries unfortunately betrayed the country’s less than “charming and benign” side. At a concert organized this May by the Burmese embassy in Tokyo, members of the audience were beaten for shouting out protests against the country’s military dictators instead of praise for the performers. Clearly the regime is not ready for a new era of audience participation, and it seems unlikely that it ever will be as long as it insists on stealing the show.

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