Essays

A Short Story of Bagyi Aung Soe in Five Images

In 1951, Bagyi Aung Soe (1923/24–1990) who would come to be recognised as the pioneer of modern art in Burma was awarded the Indian Government Scholarship to study art at the Vi?va-Bharati University founded by Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941) in Śāntiniketan. This undated sketch of a female figure in Santhali red-bordered white sari probably goes back to his brief but momentous sojourn there, where there is a sizable Santhal community. The painterly approach of European academic painting in his earliest illustrations between 1948 and 1950 is here superseded by a linear treatment of form. In spite of the still hesitant line work and the lingering tendency to suggest spatial depth and three-dimensional volume, a paradigmatic shift in seeing and representing the visible world is clearly in place.

Prior to his immersion in Śāntiniketan, Aung Soe worshipped Western art as the sole model for artistic creation, and expressed negligible interest in traditional Burmese art. To be sure, the relativisation of Western art here witnessed and the ensuing volte-face cannot be understood independently of his initiation to Śāntiniketan’s concept of art and the artist. Fostered through a pedagogical programme devised by Tagore’s right-hand man and Aung Soe’s revered guru, Nandalal Bose (1882–1966), it was the sum of ancient Indian theories of aesthetics, Tagore’s humanist and universalist ideals transcending demarcations of national borders, and the debates on nationalist and Pan-Asianist ideologies initiated by many a luminary in the orbit of the ashram: Okakura Kakuz? (1862–1913), Sister Nivedita (1867–1911), and Ananda Coomaraswamy (1877–1947), for example.

Indeed, the impact of Tagore’s university ‘where the world roosts in one nest’ (Sanskrit: ‘Yatra Vi?vam Bhavatyekanidai’[1]) was enduring. More than thirty years after leaving Śāntiniketan, Aung Soe continued to draw guidance and inspiration from his experiences there, as can be seen in a painting from the 1980s which features the exact same silhouette of the slightly bent Santhal female figure at work in the fields. It even bears the inscription ‘Santineketan [sic]’ in homage to his alma mater. Conforming to his guru’s instructions on ‘life rhythm,’ whereby ‘[a]n accomplished artist is absorbed with the expression of the inner character and movement of objects, not their anatomical (or structural) variety,’ [2] details of the body structure are foregone.

ŚāŚāntiniketan taught Aung Soe to see and to think of art in terms of its linguistic rationale and communicative function. Style was not an end in itself. Following his return to Yangon in 1952 and over the next three decades, through illustration, which, in place of the virtually inexistent gallery and museum, served as the site of avant-garde artistic experimentations, he examined the linguistic rationale of a plethora of pictorial idioms, ranging from the ukiyo-e to cubism.[3] In innovating new idioms, his non-figurative illustrations published in Shumawa Magazine in January and February 1953 provoked a furore which saw traditionalists branding his art as ‘seik-ta-za-pangyi,’ meaning psychotic or mad painting – an epithet that would become synonymous with Aung Soe’s works as well as modern art in general in Burma.

The reaction to these illustrations must be understood against the context of Aung Soe’s scholarship to study in Śāntiniketan. His candidacy was supported by Burma’s literary giants like Zawgyi (1907–1990) and Min Thu Wun (1909–2004) who aspired for the modernisation of traditional Burmese art, and it was a mandate that he took on when he left for India. But Aung Soe’s contemporaries were ignorant of the intricacies of Tagore’s and Bose’s vision of art and hence failed to appreciate his reorientation. Even Min Thu Wun was disappointed that the wunderkind’s works had strayed from Burmese art – a criticism that did not take into account the full scope of Aung Soe’s experimentations embracing traditional Burmese painting and modern European art alike.[4] Indeed, Aung Soe’s quest to create a modern Burmese painting according to Tagore’s definition of true modernism as ‘freedom of mind, not slavery of taste’ and ‘independence of thought and action, not tutelage under European schoolmasters’ based on the world’s wealth of pictorial traditions was a solitary odyssey with neither ally nor aid.

After returning to Yangon from Śāntiniketan, Aung Soe avidly studied traditional Burmese art. He lived and worked amongst craftsmen, and travelled to archaeological sites like Bagan to examine both folk and classical art. While he experimented freely in folk art, the isms of Western art, and other pictorial styles since the beginning of the 1950s, it was only in the 1970s that he published innovative adaptations of classical Burmese painting – one of the most consummate examples of which is this collage. On this cover of Moway Magazine, Aung Soe revisits for the umpteenth time the theatrical representation of the Hindu epic of the R?m?yana. Against a brightly coloured expressionistic background are cut-outs of drawings of actors in the costumes of Rama (Burmese: Yama), Sita (Thira), Ravenna (Datthagiri) and his sister S?rpanakh? (Trigatha) in the form of the golden deer executed in the classical style, as well as a love sign in scarlet.

The underlying aesthetic rationale of this blend of artistic references and techniques is a unified vision of the traditional and the avant-garde, the East and the West. For Aung Soe, as it was for Bose, while ‘the artist cannot discard his cultural heritage’ because ‘the stronger the national identity, the greater its place in the world,’[5] it was his or her duty to bridge the old and the new: ‘to search for the soul in the old and foster the progress of the new’ and ‘to forge new paths out of the old.’[6] Traditional art was not perceived as a hindrance to the spirit of invention – on the contrary. Based on Bose’s vision of the dynamic symbiosis between the old and the new, whereby tradition is conceived as ‘the outer shell of the seed that holds the embryo of new growth,’[7] Aung Soe created modern Burmese art based on ‘new tradition’: ‘the tradition of the world’s traditions.’


In Śāntiniketan, alongside Bose’s concept of ‘life rhythm,’ Aung Soe was initiated to the classical Indian pictorial strategy of visual correspondences (Sanskrit: s?d?i?yabodha).[8] These approaches prioritised the subject matter’s energy and spirit over its literal form. By 1978, he had resolved to paint the formless mind animating matter: ‘to paint truth, not pictures’ according to the teachings of the historical Buddha.[9] It was not just any episode from the Buddha’s previous and last lives that he sought to picture, but the truths he taught, such as the Three Marks of Existence of impermanence (P?li: anicca), suffering (dukkha) and non-self (anatt?). The question would be how he made manifest – not just described, narrated or symbolised – that which has no form through art. It was towards the middle of the 1980s that he made the quantum leap, of which this felt-tip pen drawing of a topsy-turvy Buddha with the gesture of ‘calling the earth to witness’ (Sanskrit: bhumispar?amudra) is an example.

The vocabulary of this novel pictorial language comprises of esoteric devices valued for their ‘psycho-cosmic mechanism’[10]: mantra, yantra and numerals and letters of the ‘great language,’ such as the ‘powerful’ Burmese consonants ‘sa-da-ba-wa’ and ‘ka-ga-na-la.’ The yantra comprise of Burmese esoteric diagrams (Burmese: sama) and cabalistic runes (in), while the mantra include auspicious incantations widespread in Burma, as well as Mahayanist ones like the Heart S?tra and Avalokite?vara mantra rendered in Tibetan script, which are almost unheard of in the country. ‘O?’ whose Burmese equivalent is ‘aung’ is here written in Bengali. To be sure, none of these apparatuses are endorsed by Burmese Therav?da Buddhism. Aung Soe drew on the spiritual strategies and instruments of Zen, Tantra, and Burmese esoteric paths alike, and did not confine himself to any single doctrine. Even scientific formulae and mathematical equations were employed to articulate the ultimate realities expounded in Buddhist teachings. It is clear that manaw maheikdi dat painting cannot be pigeonholed into any single category of the modern, the traditional, the Burmese, the Indian, or the Southeast Asian.

To picture the ultimate reality beyond appearances, the lesson on pattern and rhythm distilled from classical Burmese painting also allowed Aung Soe to simulate the behaviour of the most fundamental element of all mental and material phenomena, such as the vibration of waves and particles within an atom. In this work, tightly packed, short parallel lines embody the rise and fall of the breath as experienced by the mediator-artist without the intermediary of a foreign medium like an electrocardiogram. Meditation is subsumed into artistic creation, and it is not fortuitous that Aung Soe christened this art ‘manaw maheikdi dat painting,’ meaning the painting of the ultimate constituents of all phenomena through mental power achieved in concentration meditation (P?li: samatha). His affirmation of ‘I draw solar energy’ refers precisely to the picturing with and of this mental power likened to the sun’s rays. He specified: ‘If you want to know what I draw or paint, try meditation and you will see it.’ Keenly aware of the abstruse nature of his version of Buddhist art, he acquiesced: ‘Those who know can appreciate and benefit from it; those who don’t pass by without seeing anything.’


The female figure traverses Aung Soe’s entire career. Beginning with studies of the female body and psychology, he later moved on to explore the female principle: the ?akti or Great Goddess and the yoni. The most important goddess in the country today is certainly Thuyathadi , guardian of the Buddhist scriptures and Burmanised version of Saraswat?, the Hindu goddess of knowledge, whose role in Burmese esotericism is moreover paramount. In Aung Soe’s first attempts at picturing the goddess in the 1970s, conforming to iconographic conventions, she is invariably represented with a book and her sacred goose (Burmese: hintha). In stark contrast are evocations of the same goddess in the 1980s, as is this profile representation of a stout female figure wrapped in a common sarong, whose ample buttocks are conflated with the hintha. The background is a mosaic of his characteristic ‘rainbow’ or ‘psychedelic’ colours, with each case bearing numerals and letters of the Burmese alphabet.

It is no longer the resplendent goddess transmitted through tradition that we see, but Aung Soe’s return to the quotidian: his full assimilation of the principles of emptiness (P?li: sunnat?) and thusness (tathat?) which transcend all dichotomies between the sublime and the plain, the earthly and the divine, the traditional and the modern, and even form and non-form. Again, Aung Soe’s attainment mirrors Bose’s: ‘I used to formerly see the divine in the images of divinities alone; now I see it in the images of men, trees, and mountains.’[11] Ultimately, it is the activity of the goddess of knowledge that Aung Soe sought to render manifest, not her appearance which is fictitious in the first place. Oftentimes, there is not even a female figure featured; only the mantra associated with Thuyathadi – written over the torso in this instance – allows the identification of a drawing or painting as such. He explained: ‘The goddess Thuyathadi does not have a body and exists only in spirit which can only be met in the supernatural spiritual world.’ Given that her nature is ‘similar to the intangible (Zen) painting which cannot be touched but only felt,’ ‘one can assume that her statues and images in paintings arise from the imagination of painters.’ In other words, all representations of the goddess are necessarily mind-born, and likewise those of the Buddha. Above all, each manaw maheikdi dat painting is a support for meditation and the site of mental and spiritual transformation. Even the sensuous female body serves the same end: the transformation of desire through meditation on desire, thereby achieving release from attachment to it.

[1]Nicolas Nercam, Peindre au Bengale (1939–1977): Contribution à une lecture plurielle de la modernité, Paris: L’Harmattan, 2005, pp. 70-72.
[2] Bose, 1999, p. 28

[3] In addition to Aung Soe’s aversion to the kismet of art as merchandise and that of the modern artist as the professional, he was eager to take art beyond the gallery and to reach out to all levels of the Burmese society. Until he passed away in 1990, illustration provided him with just the means to do so as well as a modest income.
[4] Min Thu Wun, ‘The Beginnings of the Story of Bagyi Aung Soe’ [Burmese manuscript], c. 2001
[5] Bagyi Aung Soe, From Tradition to Modernity [Burmese], Yangon: Khin May Si Sapay, 1978, pp. 217-222.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Tradition is the outer shell of the seed that holds the embryo of new growth; this shell protects the embryo from being destroyed by heat or rain or violence. When it is intact it will come out, break open even this hard shell. Similarly in art, this inner embryo should have the power enough to break tradition open. Then only will new art emerge.’ K G Subramanyan, ‘Nandalal Bose,’ Nandan: Nandalal, Kolkata: Viśva-Bharati, 1982, pp. 1-22, p. 20.
[8] Abanindranath Tagore, Some Notes on Indian Artistic Anatomy, Kolkata: Indian Society of Oriental Art, 1914;Nandalal Bose, Vision and Creation, Kolkata: Viśva-Bharati, 1999.
[9] See Aung Soe, 1978, pp. 217-222.
[10] Philip Rawson, Tantra: The Indian Cult of Ecstasy, London: Thames and Hudson, 1978, p. 64.
[11] Nandalal Bose, Vision and Creation, Kolkata: Viśva-Bharati, 1999, p. 18.

Yin Ker works on stories of art beyond the Euramerican narrative, with particular interest in interpretations of Buddhist images and objects.

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Yin Ker

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Essays
Date
Sun, 1 Dec 2013
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Yin Ker, A Short Story of Bagyi Aung Soe in Five Images, Sun, 1 Dec 2013