On Monday 19 August 2013, tailgating the passing of journalist Maung Wuntha (11 August 2013, b. 1945) and satirist Min Lu (14 August 2013, b. 1954), the great poet, novelist, peace activist and pianist Dagon Taya died in Shan State in what may be called the Perseids of Burma’s literary sky.
Dagon Taya had been Burma's unofficial 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 had outstood many of his peers in his prolific output, and in his political and literary integrity.
Since the 1970s, Taya 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 bemoaned as a national loss, and his funeral on Wednesday saw some of Burma's most prominent artists and activists.
Dagon Taya'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 worshipped as independence hero in 1947. Like Aung San, Taya had emerged during the anti-colonial student movements in the 1930s. Both Aung San and Taya had been editors of Oway Magazine, a publication of the Rangoon University Student Union (RUSU).
Unlike Aung San, Taya was disillusioned with power politics and political squabbles as early as in 1940. He was one of the 'principled Marxists' who had initially objected to the idea of 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.
Taya'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 for its day. Ba Hein calls Taya "a word sculptor, whose style is characterized by new and unusual expressions." May, printed five times since 1941, would have enduring appeal to younger Marxist writers, from Mya Than Tint to Bamaw Tin Aung, who had died before Taya. Dagon Taya's literary influence was such that Aung San asked him to pen "what might have been the very first declaration of the Burma Independence Army (BIA) to be dropped from the airplanes" soon after the BIA occupied Rangoon in 1942.
As far as Taya was concerned, modern Burmese literature did not begin with the romanticist Khitsan movement in the 1930s. He set it off with the launch of Taya Magazine in December 1946, and the centrefold manifesto of the New Literature Movement. In the name of new literature, Taya had advanced the Burmese language by bending it, coining new words and phrases or translating English terms into his poetic Burmese. Taya had been the most global and local poet of his time.
Taya'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 charges, "[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 memories by Major Chit Kaung, Taya writes "I love the communists [. . .] they are an erudite lot who have sacrificed a lot for the country [. . .], especially the communists who are not in power." Taya 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 later 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 Taya was not busy as a prolific writer and poet, he was an accomplished pianist, specializing in Burmese classics, and was also a dedicated peace activist from the days of the Cuban missile crisis. Arguably he had been the most controversial and divisive literary figure Burma had ever produced. Yet he was convinced that he had no enemy. To him politics were 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." Taya's abhidamma 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-ideologization of contemporary Burmese poetry under the military rule. As the Pali phrase abhidhamma is also taken to mean 'profound dhamma', Dagon Taya was likely also telling poets to dive to new conceptual and linguistic depths.
Ahlinka [Prosody, Selected Poems by Dagon Taya] (1962)
Myuyitwaithaw Nway-Oo-Nya-Myar [Misty Spring Nights] (1953)
Sabe-oo [Budding Jasmine] (1961)
La-young-shoon-mya-thaw-Nya-ta-par [Moonlit Night] (1964)
Doh-Khit-Ko Yauk-ya-myi-hma Ma-lwe-bar [Our Times will Certainly Come] (1973)
Sandayar Saya [The Pianist] (1950)
Ghadalariz [China] (1951)
Yokeponhlwar [Snapshot Portraits of My Contemporaries] (1955)