The Living History: Dagon Taya & Modern Burmese Literature
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Saturday, January 25, 2020
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The Living History: Dagon Taya & Modern Burmese Literature


By Min Zin JULY, 2000 - VOLUME 8 NO.7


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Dagon Taya, Burma’s greatest living literary figure, continues to draw strength from his convictions despite attacks from critics and political opponents. At the turn of the 20th century, Burmese literature made a remarkable departure from its traditional classicism. In 1904, James Hla Kyaw adapted part of the story The Count of Monte Cristo, by the French writer Alexandre Dumas, into Burmese under the title Maung Yin Maung Ma Me Ma, the first modern Burmese novel. It was an epoch-making work in the history of Burmese literature. This innovation led others to realize that exposure to world literatures, particularly those of the West, would greatly assist efforts to modernize Burmese literary writing. In 1920, the University of Rangoon was founded and some persons connected with it— most notably J S Furnivall, founder of the Burma Education Extension Association— were determined to make foreign literature available to Burmese. Many new adaptations of foreign works into Burmese followed. The writers of the new movement, who were called the "University Wits," also did original works, including short stories and poems. There were three luminaries in this movement, which we now call Khitsan ("New Writing"). Theitpan Maung Wa was famous for his lucid prose style, while Zawgyi and Min Thu Wun were highly respected for their keen powers of observation, revealed in poems about the everyday life of people and the minute details of nature. The styles and outlooks of William Wordsworth, P B Shelley, John Keats and Rabindranath Tagore of India—broadly speaking, the major exponents of Romanticism—were the major influences on the Khitsan writers. Later on many critics pointed out that while the Khitsan movement had made great strides in the development of artistic technique, they had failed to meet the contemporary political needs of the whole nation—particularly, the growing demand for independence from British colonial rule. The most influential literary figure throughout the colonial period was Thakin Kodaw Hmaing, a highly respected journalist, playwright, poet and historian. His literary works succeeded in arousing patriotism, love and compassion, mainly dealing with the past history of Burma as well as the contemporary political movement for independence. Commentators agree that Kodaw Hmaing, alone amongst his contemporaries, was completely successful in meeting the esthetic and political requirements of his age, even though he continued to write in a traditional style of poetic composition. Many of the young writers who emerged in the years following the Second World War were deeply affected by their experiences during the struggles against imperialism and fascism, as well as by their exposure to the prevailing left-wing political ideologies of the post-war period. Dagon Taya, a tremendously creative writer who continues to compose beautiful poems, short stories, novels and commentaries even now, became the recognized leader of the post-war progressive writers with his magazine Taya, which strove to promote literary realism and "art for people’s sake" under the banner of Sar Pe Thit ("New Literature"). He was, in fact, the direct heir of Kodaw Hmaing’s politically oriented brand of literature, bringing to it a more sophisticated outlook and manner of presentation. Some observers have described the work of Dagon Taya as the product of a fusion of Kodaw Hmaing’s style with that of the earlier, pre-independence Khitsan writers. Min Thu Wun, the hero of Khitsan, dubbed Dagon Taya’s New Literature Movement "the Khitsan of the Khitsan." In fact, Dagon Taya and his fellow writers made a breakaway from Khitsan not only in terms of theme but also in sensibility and style, though many of them continued to use the rhyme schemes of their Khitsan predecessors when composing poems. The influence of Dagon Taya’s literary movement has, amazingly, continued to the present day. But he has not been without his critics, particularly amongst rival literary schools (including other advocates of "People’s literature"), which have accused him of writing in an overly stylized and unrealistic, even abstract, manner. Not just a leading literary figure but also a famous peace activist who has made a significant contribution to both internal and international peace efforts, Dagon Taya has also been subjected to political persecution. After the military staged a coup in 1962, he was arrested and imprisoned for four years on suspicion of being a communist. Personally, Dagon Taya is known to be calm, reserved and flexible, but also firm in his convictions. He was a close friend of Burma’s independence hero, Aung San, who in 1943 offered him a high-ranking position in the Japanese occupation government—an offer that Dagon Taya refused. Before Aung San's assassination in 1947, Dagon Taya wrote a very beautiful but highly critical essay about Aung San’s personality, titled "Aung San the Untamed".


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