April falls again in this 2014! Cuckoos singings remind us of water festival, Thingyan. The nearer Thingyan (New Year festival), the quicker our heartbeats are. Thingyan, a New Year festival when we throw water to each other in order to wash away dirtiness of the previous year, is always new and exciting for all Myanmar people. People go around the city on foot or by car and get watered, wearing their best modern clothes. Some go to temples to do good deeds. It could be endless to talk about the feature of the water festival.
But we miss one thing from Thingyan, which are Than Gyat and the great pandals where contests were held. Also beautifully decorated cars used to go around the city with orchestra and dancers on them. It’s been over 20 years that it somehow disappeared from our Thingyan culture. Amusing music and satirical lyrics appeared as what we call “Than Gyat”. It mixes up humour and politics, wit and melody, and joke and social change.
It had been an inseparable partner of the water festival and one of the oldest examples of Burmese folk art, sung to the beat of a traditional drum. It is a sad thing that we lost it for years. In the past, young people publicly recited and chanted humorous Than Gyat lyrics that were freely composed, they talked about everything, from politics to social things. It was really amusing and touching.
Sadly, the public performances of people freely reciting poems in any critical way were banned in 1989, a year after the events of 1988.
Years back, contests used to be held and successfully supported by authorized organization. Spectators filled the roads and went wild happily under the hot April sun. It was even better when it rained slightly. Thingyan yellow flower, Padauk, supported the beauty of nature and the festival, blooming at the right time. Decorated cars appeared gracefully among crowds, bringing enthusiastic competitors on them.
A month before the festival’s time, youths who were going to take part in contest got organized for Than Gyat. First, the leaders had to register their team. Then the lyrics (Than Gyat) was presented to the authorized organizer of the water festival. Well, they could start practicing after the permit was given. During the 4-days-festival, youths on cars recited their Than Gyat lyrics in order to tease or mock at some young modern ladies. It was funny as well as lovely. Some groups recite lyrics of the beauty of Thingyan, which reveals its history and culture, too.
In 1984-1985, the economy showed signs of recession. Plus, the economic inflation was rising. Then most teams composed about it and rhymes to recite were usually satirical.
Those times, people used to like wandering and watching Than Gyat recitations songs. Team members were mostly university students who are bright and brave. With effective lyrics, some teams of competitors satirized the money inflation in Myanmar. Behind the curtain, famous playwrights and filmmakers satirized ridiculous social events by composing clever lyrics, and leader of team recited them on decorated cars. Some teams did not care about prizes as what they wanted was to pour out their feelings and attitudes towards the government. Mostly their Than Gyat addressed the country’s education, economy and poor healthcare.
Time passed and it was another year of Thingyan after the 1988 March Uprising by university students. Public were looking forward to see how would students satirize these events. A team led by a poet composed a good Than Gyat satire based on military wrongdoings. It did not intend to get prize but to reveal public needs. It was a success and public did enjoy it. The recitation also showed the truth, what university students wanted, and pressure over the students and public by the government. Spectators cheered up. But police officers went chasing team members and they all got arrested on New Year’s Day. Besides, they could not even accept the prizes they won.
Then since 1989, the government has killed the custom of Than Gyat. Ministers lost their sense of humor. Although Than Gyat was allowed back in 2010, great pandals where competitions are hosted are no longer permitted.
One good point of Than Gyat was also producing good comedians. Today’s famous comedians are those who used to be Than Gyat performers years ago. We are a bit happy that Than Gyat is back in alive. However, it’s only partly alive, under a strict control. We all still feel something is missing in the festival although pavilions are set up around big cities like Yangon and Mandalay, where popular bands and musicians will host concerts meanwhile.
Performers today are looking for ways to explore real Than Gyat, and it has been a long wait that we are all longing for. Anyway, Thingyan and its other features are still kept alive by Burmese communities. But I hope we could get Than Gyat performance back to its fullest before we get very old.