Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Dagon Taryar, 1919-2013

Following the passing of journalist Maung Wuntha (1945- 11 August 2013) and satirist Min Lu (1954- August 11 2013), the great poet, novelist, peace activist and pianist Dagon Taryar died in Shan State in what may be called the Perseids of Burma’s literary sky.

Dagon Taryar had been Burma’s unofficial national poet laureate for decades. He had outlived almost all of his contemporaries in a country where life expectancy for men is 62. More importantly, he stood out from many of his peers with his prolific output and his political and literary integrity.

Since the 1970s, Taryar had shunned the hurly-burly of the Rangoon literary scene, but writers, journalists and poets would flock to his house in Aung Ban, Shan State, on his birthdays. He had lost his eyesight in his twilight years, but his writings continued to grace Burmese magazines. His death therefore has justifiably been mourned as a national loss and his funeral on Wednesday saw some of Burma’s most prominent artists and activists in attendance.

Dagon Taryar’s affectionate nicknaming of men who were near and dear to him in what he calls “snapshot portraits” is well-known. He probably would have been the only Burmese writer who could get away with calling Aung San (1915-1947) “the barbarian” when Aung San was still alive and being worshipped as an independence hero in 1947. Like Aung San, Taryar had emerged from anti-colonial student movements in the 1930s. Both Aung San and Taryar had been editors of Oway magazine, a publication of the Rangoon University Student Union (RUSU).

Unlike Aung San, Taryar became disillusioned with power politics and political squabbles as early as 1940. He was one of the “principled Marxists” who had initially objected to the idea of getting assistance from the fascist Japanese for the formation of an anti-colonial Burmese armed force. Like his colleague Ba Hein, whom he called “the civilized chap” he had preferred to work with the Chinese communists.

Taryar’s first novel May, adapted from Self by the British author Beverly Nichols, was published as a special edition by revolutionary book club Nagani [Red Dragon] in 1941. Even before the book was out, May was almost turned into a film to raise funds for the RUSU. Taya’s poetic prose in May was very experimental in its days. Ba Hein called Taryar “a word sculptor, whose style is characterised by new and unusual expressions.” May, printed five times since 1941, would have enduring appeal for younger Marxist writers, from Mya Than Tint to Bamaw Tin Aung, who had died before Taryar. Dagon Taryar’s literary influence was such that Aung San asked him to pen ‘what might have been the very first declaration of Burma Independence Army (BIA) to be dropped from the airplanes’ soon after the BIA occupied Rangoon in 1942.

As far as Taryar was concerned, modern Burmese literature did not begin with the romanticist Khitsan movement in the 1930s. He set it off with the launch of Taryar magazine in December 1946, and the centrefold manifesto of the New Literature Movement. In the name of new literature, Taryar had advanced the Burmese language by bending it, coining new words and phrases or translating English terms into his poetic Burmese. Taryar had been the most global and local poet of his time.

Taryar’s heavenly language had dismayed many of his down-to-earth critics who made no distinction between social realism and socialist realism. Critic Thein Pe Myint charged, “He [Dagon Taryar] propagates social[ist] realism, but his lines are intelligible only to himself. He talks about national culture, but his writings are too American.”

In his introduction to Twenty Years, a memoir by Major Chit Kaung, Taryar writes ‘I love the communists […] They are a erudite lot who have sacrificed a lot for the country […], especially the communists who are not in power.’ Taryar had had to pay dearly for his communist sympathy. After the 1962 coup, General Ne Win threw him into a cell in Insein jail and kept him there for four years. When the Ne Win government bestowed upon him a prestigious national honour for his role in the independence movement, he declined it and went into ‘exile’ in Shan State.

When Taryar was not busy being a prolific writer and poet, he was an accomplished pianist, specialising in Burmese classics, and a dedicated peace activist (since the days of Cuban missile crisis). Arguably he was the most controversial and divisive literary figure Burma had ever produced. Yet he was convinced that he had no enemy. To him, politics are simple; they should be about turning foes into friends and the ultimate goal of democracy is peace. In the 1970s, he even attempted to quell the fight between the Burmese poets with his dictum, ‘You may do away with rhyme. You may never do away with abhidhamma.’

Taryar’s abhidhamma is usually understood as “ideology.” His axiom did not go down well in the circle of a handful of contemporary poets who have advocated the de-ideologisation of contemporary Burmese poetry under the military rule. As the Pali phrase abhidhamma is also taken to mean “profound dhamma”, Taryar might have been telling poets to dive to conceptual and linguistic depths.

Ko Ko Thett is a poet who helped co-author the collection of poems, ‘Bones will Crow’ (2012), with the English novelist, James Byrne.