Preserving a Musical Water Festival Tradition

By The Irrawaddy 14 April 2018

Kyaw Kha: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week we’ll discuss Thingyan Than Gyat (antiphonal chants). Ko Min Thway Thit, of the Oway Than Gyat group, and Ko Myittar, of the  Thardu-par-byar Than Gyat group, will join me to discuss this. I’m The Irrawaddy’s chief reporter, Kyaw Kha.

You have been conducting rehearsals for Thingyan Than Gyat. I hope those Than Gyat will represent the people. What will your Than Gyat be about?

Min Thway Thit: The slogan of our group is Oway, representing the people’s voices. As in previous years, our Than Gyat will reflect social problems facing the people and shortcomings of the executive branch, as per our slogan. We speak up for the people on their behalf and reflect social, political and economic issues.

KK: What will the Than Gyat of Thardu-par-byar be about?

Myittar: “Thardu” is the word used by Myanmar people at donation ceremonies. In Burmese it means “good.” Our Than Gyat are amusing and satirical and urge people to do good deeds, not to have evil minds, and to have good hearts.

KK: What will your group mainly point out?

Myittar: We’ll highlight the law. It is important. I was banned from engaging in art for ten years for no apparent reason. And it was not a written ban, but an oral ban. But our Than Gyat for this coming Thingyan will not be about my experience, but about things which have been reported in dailies and weeklies, for example drug seizures. You have seen the reports about the seizures of containers of drugs in the newspapers. The chant will use two homonyms (in Burmese) — “the outer wheel is for driving, the inner dope is for selling.” Again, the owners were never arrested, but the containers loaded with drugs were seized. So we’re asking if the steering wheel or the car keys drove the drugs.

KK: Than Gyat groups are required (by the government) to submit their Than Gyat scripts to the censorship committee. Have you submitted yours?

MTT: I didn’t.

Myittar: We are not competing in the antiphonal chant contest (organized by the government). Our group only does it for entertainment. We will perform at the wards, pavilions and places that invite us. We don’t mind if the place is far or near; we will perform anywhere if invited. But I have asked that they cover our fuel costs, because cars can’t be driven on water.

KK: I think the censorship committee has concerns, for example, about racial and religious chants.

Myittar: Of course.

KK: Why do you think they review the Than Gyat? Do you think they should do so or not?

MTT: The announcement of the committee said it wants to make sure Than Gyat have no words that might incite racial and religious feelings or contain personal attacks. But then, most of those who write Than Gyat are artists. Most ordinary people do not know how to write Than Gyat properly.  Artists who write Than Gyat represent and serve the interests of the people, so we don’t believe they would write chants about things that might harm the interests of the people. Everyone accepts that art is the birth right of people. And most artists cherish peace and understand its importance. So I believe they won’t make personal attacks or provoke conflicts between races and religions. Genuine artists won’t do that. This is from an artistic point of view. Again, from a political point of view, freedom of speech is the basic feature of a democracy. We can say that it is not a democracy without it. If we are a democracy, why restrict the expression of people or artists or politicians? If we want to show the international community that we are building a democracy, there is no reason for such restrictions. From a political point of view, such regulations should not be imposed. It is unnecessary when there are other regulations the government should enforce, for example to reduce road accidents and so on during the Thingyan festival. The government has not issued necessary regulations but issued regulations that are unnecessary. From a political point of view, it is unnecessary to scrutinize Than Gyat. Than Gyat were allowed without restrictions since the time of the monarchy. They are not loaded political speeches.  By nature they are satirical and constructive criticism and reflect public opinion. They are not a problem. Requiring to submit Than Gyat is destroying their nature. Because of this we didn’t submit our Than Gyat scripts to the censorship committee. We don’t want to submit them and we think that regulation is unnecessary.

KK: So Than Gyat are a form of art, and represent public voices. U Myittar, you have written Than Gyat since the time of the Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP) government and you continue to compose them. How would you define Than Gyat?

Myittar: Some people think that Thingyan Than Gyat are all about politics. It is not true. It is making fun, in a constructive way, of rumors or of what is happening in the town. For example, avian flu breaks out in foreign countries, but we say Myanmar does not need to worry and we should only be worried about boiled garden pea flu and water convolvulus flu (which are the main food for many people in Myanmar because they cannot afford chicken).

KK: We can say that Than Gyat were repressed under the military regimes. They came back to life around 2012, and younger people like you, Ko Min Thway Thit, have composed Than Gyat. Why did you join the circle of Than Gyat groups?

MTT: We grew up in a period when there were no Thingyan Than Gyat. We developed an interest in them only after former Than Gyat composers tried to revive them after 2010. Previously we only knew about Than Gyat from parents, and our knowledge about them was largely limited. Later, Than Gyat groups emerged and we found that they represent the voices of the people and that what they point out in an amusing way is true. From them we can hear the truth that people from all walks of life accept. So we thought it was a lovely tradition of the country, and we felt that we should maintain it. And we also want the people of our generation to appreciate it. So from the old antiphonal chant composers we learned their experiences, their knowledge and how they created Than Gyat in their time. And from books we learned the history of Than Gyat, their rules of composition and their forms, from the Yadanabon period (of King Mindon) to the modern Than Gyat created by (director) Maung Myo Min. As we learned about Than Gyat we fell in love with them. And we want to spread them among the youth. Again, rap, which is popular among youth today, is also a form of expression. It may be recited fast or slow with different melodies. The basic concepts of the two are the same. We believe a young person will definitely like Than Gyat if he understands and appreciates their nature. So we have created Than Gyat believing that this lovely tradition should be maintained and hoping to spread it among the youth.

KK: U Myittar, you have composed Than Gyat since the time of the BSPP government. Have you seen any tangible changes resulted from Than Gyat during that time?

Myittar: In 2012 a foreign language school provided funding to revive the tradition. Thingyan antiphonal chant composers came together. I invited Maung Maung Myint from the Four Signs group established by U Kyemon, and other friends. Director Maung Thi also joined us to write Than Gyat. But when we submitted the Than Gyat scripts (to the government censorship board), we were not allowed to sing. Those Than Gyat were not critical of the government. We only spoke about the price differences between now and the past. In the past, a longyi was 30 kyats, but now it is 6,000 kyats. Our Thardu-par-byar group — including Kutho, Bay Lu Wa and me — sang Than Gyat during Thingyans in 2012 and 2013.  In 2014 we saw other antiphonal chant groups. This is a change. Previously the door was shut, and we three gradually opened it. And later all those who loved Thingyan pushed the door together, and the door finally opened. It is a change and an achievement, I believe.

KK: Are there people who are afraid of Thingyan Than Gyat?

Myittar: Those who are immoral and who do not have sympathy will fear them. We are a Buddhist-majority country, and we must have sympathy and integrity. It is taught by Buddhist monks and at schools also. It is also included in civic education. How precious sympathy and integrity are to a person in life! We sing Than Gyat to urge people to have sympathy and integrity.

KK: Ko Min Thway Thit, what measures do you think are required to restore the vitality of antiphonal chant composers?

MTT: There is a need to provide a great deal of support. Antiphonal chant groups go around in cars and sing out of their own pockets because of their interest in Than Gyat. There is a lot of room for improvement in terms of composing techniques. There is a generation gap and we can only learn what is in our reach. There have been no public workshops on Than Gyat or paper-reading sessions that people could participate in. While there is a need for technical support, there is also a need to provide Than Gyat groups with financial support so that they can perform in every Thingyan. Creating Than Gyat needs more than paper and a pen. We need to gather people and arrange cars. If Than Gyat composers can dedicate more time to writing Than Gyat, we will see better Than Gyat.

KK: What are the differences between the BSPP government and now regarding Than Gyat?

Myittar: Costs are different. When I was a student, I got a shield made of wood (as a prize in a Than Gyat contest). It was quite memorable and I miss that moment even though it was not a cash prize. And I was happy when revelers called the shield a condensed milk tin. It is the taste of Thingyan. Nobody shouts “condensed milk tin” today. Revelers don’t care who wins the prize. But they do watch the decorated Thingyan cars in the evenings. As in the past, revelers now follow and watch the decorated car they like…. We sing Than Gyat because it is our hobby. As you have said, Thingyan is just for fun for many people. But Than Gyat singers spend out of their own pockets and urge people to have sympathy and integrity. In fact, they are philanthropists working for the country and the people and for peace. I have written in my Than Gyat that singing peace songs will not bring peace, but dialogue around the table will. As I said during the performance at the dinner reception for the new president: “I am not teaching grandma how to suck eggs. It is better to spell Nyein Chan Yay (the Burmese word for peace) as Nya than Nga.” But I was not able to explain it during the performance. I said it because Nya means peacefulness of night and Nga can mean ego (in Burmese).

KK: Thank you for your contributions!

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko.