The Tazaungdaing festival of November is famous for hot air balloons in the Shan State capital Taunggyi and an all-night robe-weaving event at Shwedagon Pagoda, which sees hundreds of people camping out on the pagoda floor.
Less well known about Tazaungdaing is that it is a chance to celebrate the nation’s cartoonists: those men and women whose satirical drawings have helped the public keep a light heart during some of their darkest times.
Yangon’s 13th Street, in Lanmadaw township, will host this year’s incarnation of the long-running annual public exhibition of pen-and-ink creations from November 16 to 18.
The location is fitting: The street is also known as U Ba Gyan Street, in honour of U Ba Gyan (1902-1953), widely considered the country’s first and most famous cartoonist.
A man of many accomplishments – including the first Myanmar cartoon movie in 1935 – U Ba Gyan is perhaps best known for holding private cartoon shows in his home each year starting in 1938. During the annual Tazaungdaing festival, cartoons were displayed on paper lanterns around his property, featuring work that had been censored under British rule and could not be published or shown otherwise.
After his death he was awarded the Alinkar Kyawswa award in 1955, the highest national honour of recognition of an individual for their artistic skills – given out, fittingly, by the now ndependent government.
The tradition remained strong, with cartoonist U Pe Thein adding a new element to the show in 1961, a contest which sparked a new generation of modern Burmese cartoonists.
But after General Than Shwe’s military government pressured the artists into ending the exhibitions altogether in 1997, the show closed until 2011, when the relaxing of censorship laws at last allowed it to resume.
Fortunately, the appeal of the cartoon festival has not faded in the interim. In fact, its modern incarnation has inspired other annual exhibitions in the city, such as the Yae Kyaw cartoon exhibition in Pazundaung township, held during the October full moon festival of Thadingyut.
“Nowadays we draw the cartoons on drawing paper and show them at night,” said U Mg Mg Aung, a cartoonist and one of the participants in this year’s show.
Septuagenarian U Shwe Min Tar has been organising the event for the past 20 years and has been featured in the exhibition himself. His first entry was made in 1958. He said this year’s event will feature satire and cartoons related to next month’s SEA Games competition.
Another cartoonist, U Win Aung, said that the exhibitions inspire others to pursue the profession, as well as raising awareness about different issues.
“When [U Ba Gyan] was alive he used to cover a wide variety of topics and events and was occasionally ridiculed,” U Win Aung said. “His cartoons show human frailties. But his cartoons are the best known among Myanmar people because they depict the problems we face.”