A Tradition Revived, and a Cartoonist Remembered
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A Tradition Revived, and a Cartoonist Remembered

By AUNG ZAW Saturday, November 12, 2011

A drawing of Ba Gyan hangs in front of an exhibition of cartoons being held at his former home in downtown Rangoon. (Photo: Moemaka)

If Ba Gyan, the father of Burmese cartoonists, were still alive today, he would no doubt delight in drawing some of the figures who dominate the country's current political landscape. But even more than this, he would take real pleasure in witnessing the revival of a tradition he started long before Burma achieved independence, and which continued long after his death in 1953.

That tradition is the annual cartoon exhibition held at his home on Lower 13th Street in Rangoon, now named U Ba Gyan Street in his honor. For years, the exhibition was one of the local highlights of the Tazaungdaing festival of lights, which falls on the first full moon after the end of the Buddhist Lent. But in the late 1990s, the exhibition fell foul of Burma's censors and quietly faded away.

Now, however, it has returned, in the latest sign of a modest cultural reawakening stirred by the Burmese government's recent relaxation of restrictions on artists and journalists.

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It was nearly a century ago that Ba Gyan started developing his talents at the Burma Art Club (BAC) in Rangoon. Founded by a high-ranking British railway official named Martin Jones in 1918, the BAC offered drawing and painting lessons to young Burmese artists, and a place where they could meet and exchange ideas. It was here that Ba Gyan met Ba Gale (another pioneering  cartoonist), Hein Sunn, Saya Mya, Ba Zaw and Ohn Lwin, who all became famous national artists.

Ba Gyan got his first break when one of his cartoons appeared in the Rangoon Gazette. He quit his government job and soon established himself as a household name. In addition to editorial cartoons that  he used to spread a message of peace and reconciliation, he illustrated many children's books and directed Burma’s first animated film.

One of his fans was Burma's then Prime Minister U Nu, who thought that Ba Gyan's popular cartoons could be used not only to promote peace, but also to portray the dark side of the enemy—the communist insurgents who were waging war against his government. But Ba Gyan, who led a simple life and showed little interest in government offers of opportunities to study overseas and other perks, always said that the was too busy to meet U Nu.

This is not to say, however, that Ba Gyan spared the communists in his cartoons. Both the government and the insurgents were regular targets of his sometimes biting sarcasm.

But Ba Gyan also had his critics. The late Ludu Daw Amar, one of Burma's most famous leftist writers, described Ba Gyan's politics as simplistic. The cartoonist was, she said, better at ridiculing those opposed to his vision of peace and unity than he was at doing anything to achieve these goals.

Such criticism did nothing, however, to blunt the Burmese public's love for Ba Gyan's creations. One of his characters, Hpyauk Seik, earned a special place in people's hearts. After Ba Gyan's wife died, Hpyauk Seik became hermit dressed in the garb of a holy mendicant, reflecting his sorrow.

After independence, Ba Gyan was given Burma's highest honor for a national artist, the Ahlinga Kyawswa. But an even more fitting testimony to his greatness may be that nearly 60 years after his death, his spirit lives on through generations of fellow cartoonists who remain as inspired as ever by his vision and his wit.

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